On September 20, 2020, the drinks writer Becky Paskin started a lengthy thread drawing attention to some of the language used by fellow drinks writer Jim Murray in his annual Whisky Bible. Reaction was swift – condemnation of Murray’s words, multiple attacks on Paskin’s credibility, and a rolling conversation about sexism in what is largely male dominated industry and community. Up until Paskin’s thread, few whisky writers had the level of power Murray did – the unveiling of his annual top three whiskies in the Whisky Bible was a significant event in the annual drinks calendar. Firms would send out press releases about their placing in the top three as soon as the list was announced, as though they had been anointed from on high. But in the aftermath, a nod from Murray was seen as a mild embarrassment, at best. Paskin closed out her thread by stating: “Any brand celebrating their placement in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible should be ashamed.”
None of this comes cheap – high-end creative agencies, social media teams, VO talent, celebrity appearances, all cost a lot of money. It would appear it was money well spent. Shanken ran a piece in July of this year which highlighted the fact that Redbreast sales rose 13% to 63,000 cases in the US last year. Speaking about the surge, Simon Fay, business acceleration director at Irish Distillers Ltd, said the volume growth of 26% in the first six months of the financial year for Midleton’s prestige whiskeys was driven by the Redbreast family, which was up 20%. The little bird had come a long way from ‘find out what all the hush is about’.
Along with the marketing drive came several new releases – aside from the core 12-year-old, its cask-strength sibling, the 15, and the 21, there was the new 27 year old addition, as well as the Lustau, the first of what was loftily titled the Iberian series, and the Kentucky Oak edition. There were the annual Dream Cask releases, snapped up via ballot. There is a full list of releases on the (Murray-free) Redbreast Wikipedia page, although they sadly seem to have forgotten the Redbreast blend Irish Distillers created in the 1990s, which was bottled by Edward Dillon. Peter Mulryan, writing in the early edition of his Whiskeys of Ireland book, had this to say about that particular ugly cousin:
“Just how this mess is meant to be ‘an introduction to the more full-flavoured single pot still expression’ is beyond me. This whiskey has as much in common with its namesake as whiskey writer Michael Jackson has with his. Whoever had the bright idea of extending the Redbreast family should be locked in a padded cell before they can do any more damage. I mean, can you imagine Ferrari putting their name to a Tribant? Even blind this whiskey is pretty awful, but as it bears the Redbreast name, it is an utter disgrace.”
The Redbreast family continues to expand, and the prices being asked continue to rise. Back when they released the NAS Redbreast Mano A Lámh bottling, its RRP was €65. That seems like a distant memory as more recent releases of a similar stature are around the €100 mark. A limited edition, cask strength 10 year old released in 2021 went for €100, while the new ‘distillery edition’ of same at a lower strength costs €120, or €125 if you want your name inscribed on it. This particular bottle is being sold in both Midleton – where all the IDL whiskey is made – and their historic home in Bow Street, where no whiskey is made. Curious about why the decision was made to release the same bottle in both places (given one has not been a distillery for decades), I asked, and this is what a spokesperson for IDL said:
“The Jameson Distillery on Bow Street in Dublin was a distillery for almost 200 years. While it is no longer operational, like the newly refurbished Midleton Distillery Experience, visitors from around the world visit the old distillery to understand the craft of producing Irish whiskey. Through these two world-class experiences, located on the grounds of Irish whiskey distilling history, we proudly share our history and craft with hundreds of thousands of people visiting Cork and Dublin each year.
“The new Redbreast 10 Year Old Distillery Edition was launched to celebrate the reopening of the Midleton Distillery Experience at the end of September, and is an exciting extension of our visitor offering at both visitor attractions and retail spaces, in what were once operational but are now decommissioned distilleries.”
As an aside: Midleton Distillery deserves more than this. It’s where the stuff is made, and has been made for decades now. It is the beating heart of Irish whiskey and without it, without Jameson, there would be no renaissance. The least they could do to honour that is release a distillery edition at cask strength in Cork and a heritage edition at lower ABV in Dublin, but I’m sure the folks at IDL HQ in the leafy suburbs of Dublin know better than I, a simple Corkman.
The considerable might of IDL’s marketing has been thrown behind the new Tawny Port Redbreast as well, with a select audience of writers, influencers, and thought leaders being flown out to Portugal for the main launch, and then a selection of platelickers being invited to the afters of the wedding back home in dear old Dublin. I know some of us bristle when we see who gets invited to these things, thinking to ourselves, they aren’t real whiskey lovers. Of course they aren’t, that’s why they have massive followings, because they are slick content creators who don’t spend all day arguing about historic mashbills. Influencers have reach – they are human billboards.
One of the influencers flown out to Portugal has a whopping 1.2 million followers on TikTok and, uncannily, the exact same number of followers on Instagram. What is even more remarkable is that he says his Insta following went from 40k to more than a million in less than 90 days. I would never have heard of him were it not for the fact he was at the Redbreast launch, nor would I have taken an interest in his stats, but this is the price of profile – it brings scrutiny.
It may have taken a couple of decades, but scrutiny was Jim Murray’s undoing (along with writing whisky reviews that sounded like the monologues of Swiss Toni from The Fast Show). The saddest part of the unravelling of his Whisky Bible, aside from how lonely all the innuendo and smut made the author sound, was that nobody had apparently sat down and read the thing in some time. He credited himself with getting single pot still restarted as a category, and championed it many times in his reviews. But like a digital Ozymandias, all that remains of that legacy is the sterilised landscapes of the Redbreast and Green Spot Wikipedia pages, stretching like the lone and level sands far away.
There are two things worth knowing about Aidan Forde. First, he is a geologist. He understands the uniqueness of place at a deeper level than most – how the ground beneath our feet has formed over aeons, and how, as a result, here is not there. Second, he is a Judo instructor. When I suggest that his training in the sport might be part of the reason he stands his ground where others would concede, he says that Judo means the peaceful or gentle way – the Japanese martial art is based upon the concept of using an opponent’s strength against them; you give way, you do not meet force head on. But you react, and protect, accordingly.
My first interaction with him was in 2017 when we got chatting via email about provenance in Irish whiskey – he believed so strongly that legislation needed to be brought in here that he downloaded and rewrote the Scottish whisky labelling laws in an Irish context, then sent on the PDF to me to illustrate how things should be. I thought nothing more of it and continued to grumble about the topic. However, he actually did something about it.
Since our email exchanges he set up an organisation designed specifically to bring about change in the legislation around use of placenames in whiskey branding. The Irish Distillers Association (not to be confused with either Irish Distillers Limited or the Irish Whiskey Association) lobbies politicians, and uses social media to highlight what he sees as a major credibility issue for the category. It hasn’t won him many friends in the industry. He is viewed as a crank, an outsider. But to ignore him is to overlook one of the most ambitious whisky projects on the island of Ireland.
Forde’s fight for absolute provenance in Irish whiskey is only one small part of his bigger plan – he is in the process of developing multiple distilleries across the Iveragh Peninsula in Kerry, all using different styles of stills and making different styles of spirit using different grains, with all components – grain, yeast, peat, equipment – coming from the region surrounding each unique distillery. Maturation in a disused slate quarry, stills made out of milk churns, 100% green energy distilling, in-house floor malting, restoration of historic buildings; the scale of his vision is striking – he seeks to build a unique whisky region, one based not simply on vague geographical boundaries but on locality, community, and place.
A native of Fossa, a village just outside the tourism hotspot of Killarney, Forde did his bachelor’s degree in geology in Trinity College Dublin before moving to Australia to achieve his phd in structural geology with the James Cook University, focussing on structural controls on gold mineralisation in the historic Victorian goldfields. The 59-year-old says that some of his work, alongside another researcher named Tim Bell, was seen as being somewhat out-there.
After a stint lecturing in geology in Trinity, he started working in green energy, specifically wind farms. His company Saorgus operates in a field known as de-risking – they assemble a project, securing lands and planning permission, and then larger firms take it on and Saorgus exits. Saorgus commissioned its first wind farm at Tursillagh, Tralee, 23 years ago. Since then they have commissioned two further wind farms – Tursillagh II in 2005 and Muingnaminnane in 2008. At present Saorgus and associated companies produce enough green electricity per annum to supply 30,000 energy-efficient homes, with the aim being to develop enough wind energy capacity to supply 800,000 homes with electricity on a completely sustainable basis. They are currently in the advanced stages of development of several more wind farms, with a total potential capacity of more than 900 MW; the biggest being the Dublin Array, a planned windfarm off the coast of Leinster on which they partnered with RWE, one of the world’s largest developers of renewable energy. Many of the projects he has worked on in the sector have been two decades in development. Patience is a virtue he has in abundance.
He also purchased the disused Valentia Slate Quarry and its associated sawmill and stone mill. Commercially quarried since the early 1800s, Valentia slate formed in such a way that it allowed for the removal of very large, very strong slabs of stone which made it good for both domestic and construction purposes, as well as for roof slates. It is both utilitarian and aesthetically pleasing, and was used in the UK’s Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral and many of the UK’s underground railway stations, as well as Paris Opera House. It can also be found in buildings as far away as the West Indies and most recently it was installed on the roof of The Rubrics building in Trinity College Dublin.
The slate will play a large role in the new distillery that he has planned just outside Fossa. Located just off the Dingle road, he has a long-term lease on a dilapidated coachhouse to the rear of Aghadoe House, a historic building which has been used as a hostel by An Óige for several decades, and a place he knows well having hung around there in his youth. The coachhouse lacks a roof, but the walls are intact.
“It’s a utilitarian building, and that’s what I like about putting a distillery here,” he says. “The stages of this are that we have completed conservation work here; so this building was falling down in places, so we’ve conserved the stone work and left it at that level. So the next level now is the full project. Because we have Grafton Architects, they are very high end – so there is a high architectural concept to this one, as well as a high distilling concept.”
The coachhouse itself will house the admin and tourism aspect of the distillery, while to the rear land has been cleared for a distillery that will sit within the woods – heavy stone, wood, and glass will work together to give a woodland stillness, dappled light and dark. Fermenters will be outside the building under an alcove. Trees felled to make way for the distillery and the maturation warehouse will be repurposed into both furniture and interior elements of the development, but also to create a new type of cask made from local oak. All of this work will be carried out at Forde’s sawmill, while his quarry in Valentia will be providing low carbon waste slate and low carbon cement for the self supporting masonry for the building.
As for the distilling concept, he’s contemplating a heavy peat focus (aside from the sawmill, distillery, and quarry, he also owns a number of bogs). On the day after we meet, he is heading out to inspect a bank of peat for harvesting to use in his current distillery in Scart – he would like to see a heavy spirit, complemented by a heavy peated element to bring on a richness; that bacon fries note that can be found in some Islay whiskies. After all, he first fell in love with whisky when a friend of his brought him a duty-free bottle of Islay whisky; since then he has visited the island and became fully radicalised to peat; one of his aims is to outpeat Octomore. Part of his focus is also about exploring terroir in peat – he is currently harvesting in-land bogs but is looking at a coastal bog in Sneem as a source, with the plan being that two whiskies would be produced, one from each bog; a briney-peat whisky (his whisky will be without the E, naturally) and an in-land peat whisky contrasted alongside each other.
On the danger that he is afflicted with too many ideas, that there is the potential for too many releases over the next decade, he says: “We will never be high volume. We will always be small. In Scart we are only doing a few [casks] a week, that’s all. This is not a huge commercial enterprise; this is just something that we are into.
“I’ve no interest in doing the same thing that somebody else did. I think the peated aspect and the local barley aspect, getting away from distillers grain, getting away from distillers yeast, and driving on flavour…the whole industry has been driven on yield, and nothing else, that’s the origins of distillers yeast and distillers grain as far as I can tell. We’re trying to go the other direction and just look at flavour.”
He also claims that a lot of the new entrants into the Irish whiskey landscape are ‘wannabes’: “They don’t really have a clear vision of what difference they’re bringing to the industry. How is your whiskey different, how are you adding to the diversity? Are you just doing the same thing exactly with a different name on it? Is it a branding exercise, in reality? That’s the problem I have with it. Add on to that my bugbear of using a placename as a vehicle for me-tooism. There isn’t a whole lot of diversity in the distilling techniques or brewing techniques in the Irish whiskey industry.”
When I make the point that there is a lot of work on historic mashbills, and experiments with new yeast strains not traditional to distilling, as well as the reopening of the Irish whiskey technical file – the rulebook by which all Irish whiskey must be made – he says: “That proves my point. There’s a big rí-rá about having a little bit more oats. You’d swear this was going to be groundbreaking stuff, and it isn’t. Who cares about the technical file, just call it Irish whiskey. Who really thinks that pot still, as a descriptive term, is some kind of magic formula for sales? It isn’t. You can put whatever grain you like into the whiskey and just call it Irish whiskey.”
I point out that it’s prestige – that unique and wild mashbills from a century or two ago would be largely meaningless if sold under the general hold-all of ‘Irish whiskey’. Being able to categorise it as single pot still would add cachet and, ergo, value. In other words, you could charge more for it.
“My view is that the people who are going to pay a premium for high-end whiskey don’t need to see pot still on the label, they want to see what the mashbill is, they want to look on the back label and see what it is. They understand what mashbill means – just adding that moniker ‘pot still’ doesn’t add much. I think that issue about the technical file and the restrictions of it is just totally overblown. They are missing the point, to my mind.
“For example, we are looking at a mill in Killorglin, and are contracted to buy it – three storeys on the side of the river. Great spot. What we are looking at doing in there is putting in a three-chamber still like that of Todd Leopold of Denver, which is the only one in the US and there are none here. So it’s a very tall still, effectively three pot stills stacked on top of each other; the pressure in the bottom one is quite high. They are like three thumpers; a thumper-pot still hybrid really. A three-chamber still is a well-known thing – how come no-one here has done that?”
There is, most likely, a simple answer – the reason more distilleries don’t craft wild and wacky stills is not that they lack imagination, but that they don’t want to create something unusual only for the Irish Revenue Service to not sign off on it for use making whiskey and thus lose all the money that was invested. Clearly, Forde has no such fears – after all, his distillery in Scart has some of the most unusual stills on the island of Ireland: Two milk churns, topped with copper, and straight copper necks, fabricated at a relatively low cost of around €5,000 each.
Forde never saw his stills as being risky, stating that a pot still is just a chamber, as is a milk churn, and that once they had copper above fill level, they were legit. If anything, he wanted his distillery to buck the norm, to use stills that were unlike anything else.
“We are seen as either totally irrelevant or cranks. We are cranks, but we are almost revelling in that. What drives us is that there is so much potential for innovation in Irish whiskey and nobody is doing it. That’s what gets me.”
Forde says that there is an orthodoxy in Irish whiskey about ‘how things are done’ – new distilleries are set up using the same few consultants to guide them – consultants who, he says, have been doing things the same way all their lives. So when it came to Killarney Distillery they deliberately didn’t use any of what he calls ‘industry incumbents’.
“Our take on whiskey is that it’s an international drink – there is no difference between Irish whiskey and scotch, no difference in principle in the definitions of the different categories. None. Not distillation, not peating, nothing – there is no difference. And there’s very little difference between bourbon and Irish whiskey – if you take bourbon as being more than 50% maize, and matured in American oak – well, that’s Jameson.”
It’s one of the many apparent contradictions in Forde’s take on the category – that whiskey has no national distinctions and is an international spirit – yet he is focussed on hyper local production methods, terroir, and ultra-provenance.
“That means something,” he counters, “whereas ‘Irish’ means nothing. If Jameson is 80% or 70% French maize and it’s Irish whiskey, whereas Irish cream has to use Irish dairy products in the manufacture of it, well what’s the difference? If you really wanted to make pot still meaningful, you’d insist that pot still whiskey has to use Irish ingredients only. That would be different.
“The whiskey industry reminds me of the wind industry 30 years ago – there’s a big incumbent, there’s a lot of people running around trying to do something in the category. Some of the biggest operators in the spirit world don’t have an Irish presence yet, so there’s an opening now to build a distillery and de-risk it and say ‘there you go lads’. There’s nothing wrong with that so long as you aren’t being dishonest.”
Forde’s obsession with honesty in whiskey – ie, absolute clarity on the label about the source of the liquid in the bottle – is a large part of what has alienated him from much of the industry and community. He believes that whiskey should never carry the name of a place where it was not made, and that distilleries should not be allowed to use their name on the label when the liquid within was not made by them.
It is, however, a common practice in Ireland – many distilleries have been selling sourced whiskey under their own brand and label, as though they had distilled it themselves, long before their own distillery was even built. This passing-off is seen as a means to an end – capital intensive enterprises like distilleries need money in those early years so they buy in whiskey from elsewhere and sell it as their own to make money and raise brand awareness. However, lack of funds is not always the driver; Diageo, one of the biggest spirits producers in the world, has a Roe & Co. whiskey on the market that was not distilled at their Roe & Co. distillery in Dublin city. Slane Distillery, owned by drinks giant Brown Forman, also has a sourced Slane whiskey on the market.
Few see any potential for harm in this practise, despite the fallout from Japan’s reckoning with its issues around provenance (some Japanese whiskies were actually distilled in Scotland or Canada). Forde fears that what happened with Japanese whiskey could potentially happen to Ireland – more interest in and buzz about a category brings extra scrutiny, and if consumers feel they are being misled, the loss of credibility could be permanent. However, unlike Japan, all Irish whiskey is distilled and matured on the island of Ireland, so the question is whether anyone would care if they discovered whiskey claiming to be from one Irish distillery actually came from another. A recent study in the US suggests they might.
Stanford Business School researchers found that sourced whiskey being passed off is the key concern of whiskey drinkers who seek authenticity: In a study, Glenn Carroll, a professor of organisational behaviour at Stanford Graduate School of Business, looked at whiskey distilleries to gain a broader sense of how consumers perceive authenticity and found that brands which outsource their distillation appear inauthentic. Another key takeaway was that companies who wish to cultivate an authentic reputation should not outsource production, even if that means forgoing economic efficiencies. As the report’s co-author J. Cameron Verhaal put it: “The communities around these products develop, they gain enthusiasts, review sites appear, and consumers come to know more about your identity as a company. Eventually, you can no longer hide. Consumers will discover that you don’t have a distillery and, more likely than not, that will become a huge problem.”
Forde founded the Irish Distillers Association (IDA) to lobby for change in the legislation here – for Ireland to be more like Scotland, and to push for full transparency in Irish whiskey. The organisation’s website makes no bones of their purpose, stating that its sole remit is as a representative and activist organisation. It also features ten tenets that it expects members to adhere to, among them – no column stills, no sourcing, Irish grain only, and thou shalt not ‘market or sell any product that uses a place of provenance in labelling and marketing information unless that product is entirely manufactured within 20km (straight line) of the place of provenance used’. It finishes on this: Members commit to engaging in relevant debate internally and with non-members in a way that is factual, objective and respectful.
Part of the organisation’s activity is publishing a list on social media where it highlights what it sees as misleading claims on labels – these range from distilleries selling sourced liquid under their own label, to supermarket brands. Nobody is spared – from indie darlings Killowen to giants like Bushmills (the grain in their blend is from Midleton), anyone who has sourced whiskey or is using a location as part of their branding is included. The Grace O’Malley whiskeys, which feature the west coast of Ireland as part of their brand narrative, also make it to the list, as do Aldi’s Ardfallen whiskey (Ardfallen is ‘a fictitious place’), and Conor McGregor’s Proper No. 12 which makes the list as its name is an oblique reference to the area of Dublin where the MMA star hails from.
The minister was also questioned about whiskey labels in the Dáil by Deputy Catherine Martin, who noted that “an association (details supplied) has taken a complaint to the EU against his Department alleging non-enforcement of regulation (EU) 2019/787 with regard to a lack of enforcement of spirits provenance regulations resulting in multiple incidences of false provenance information being provided on products”. The minister gave a lengthy response about whiskey labels, closing with the line “The department does not permit references to distilleries that do not exist.”
Dissatisfied with the reaction to their concerns in the Irish parliament, the IDA took their case to Europe.
Aidan Forde is also involved in a legal dispute with another Kerry distiller. His Killarney Distillery, which started operations in 2020, is based in an industrial estate in a place called Scart.
A group of Irish and American businessmen developed the Killarney Brewing & Distilling Co’s €24 million distillery, which is located just outside Fossa on the Ring Of Kerry road. Killarney Brewing & Distilling Co are the registered owners of a number of trademarks related to the use of the name Killarney. The company filed the case in the high court claiming that there is a likelihood of confusion on the part of the public with Forde’s Killarney Distillery and his planned inaugural Killarney Whisky, due for release later this year. In 2021 Killarney Brewing & Distilling Co released a sourced whiskey under the name Killarney Irish Whiskey.
Forde doesn’t believe that anyone should be able to trademark a placename. Given how many distilleries he is planning, it is a bold position to take. Aside from his operational Killarney Distillery in Scart, and the planned Aghadoe Distillery, he is hoping to develop a distillery in the quarry in Valentia, another in Flesk Mills on the other side of Killarney town, another distillery which will operate over three floors of the old Annandale Mill on the banks of the Laune River in Killorglin, and a town-centre micro-distillery project in Kenmare’s 19th Century butter market, which he is currently operating as a community space and art gallery. Aside from the different style stills and signature grains to be used in each one, it is envisioned that they would have different head distillers also. But for now, John Keane is the distiller at Killarney Distillery and head brewer of Torc Brewery, both of which are in the same unit in Scart. Forde says they emphasise the brewing over distilling: “The brewing – this is where the flavours are made – distilling is just separation. Whisky is as much about the fermentation as about the distillation, maybe moreso. Some distillers treat the brewing stage with something near contempt. That is not right in our view.”
What Forde is doing is not necessarily reinventing the wheel – there are many distilleries around Ireland using unusual mashbills, interesting local grains, hitherto uncommon yeasts, and strange stills (though none as strange as his). At the opposite side of Munster, Waterford Distillery have made terroir part of the whisky lexicon, and are sourcing from and celebrating Irish farmers, just as Forde is. So what is different about Killarney Distillery and his Iveragh whisky region project?
It’s the scale of the ambition, and Forde’s unwavering drive. Aside from all the above – the quarry, the distilleries, the brewery, and the windfarms – he is also a volunteer with Kerry Mountain Rescue, and, in case you thought all his endeavours were land based, he is also in the process of building a boat named Cú Lír, a technologically advanced, low carbon, research vessel. He is also a father of three. Forde appears to have no off switch, and despite his philosophy being built around the gentle way of Judo, he is boron-like in his fortitude. He isn’t phased by the fact he is an outsider, but no man is an island, or a peninsula, or a whisky region all by himself. Forde’s activism has not been well received (including by myself, on occasion), in a way reminiscent of the longstanding Irish tradition of casting out those who criticise the way things are, or put forward a vision of the way things should be. Other whiskey businesses, just as strident and outspoken as he, and guided by the same pursuit of a singular vision for Irish whiskey, have been clutched to the bosom of the community. Not Forde. But he seems not to care, as he is not playing to the crowds. There is no PR firm running things, sending out press releases, no outreach to bloggers and podcasters. None of what he is doing with his quest for provenance is performative; it’s not brand building, posturing, or attention seeking. He is doing what he believes is right.
When I asked him if geology was what gave him his obsession with place, he says that what geology gave him was an appreciation of the vastness of time. Studying continents and their slow movement across the planet made him realise that a human life is the briefest glimmer imaginable. Perhaps that is what drives him ever forward, or perhaps his philosophy is less about the gentle way and more about the Kerry way – a willingness to stand apart from the rest, even on a very small island.
Everything is relative. When Jameson Black Barrel first launched as Jameson Select Reserve in the South African market, it featured the words ‘small batch’ on the label. Eyebrows shifted skyward amongst the whiskey commentariat, especially when they learned that it was grain spirit the term referred to, something Midleton produces oceans of. But relative to that exact scale, it was small batch. Their normal quantities are colossal, so anything other than a constant deluge of column spirit would technically be a small batch. We can argue semantics all day about what a consumer would perceive to be meant by the term, but that’s really not the fault of the Lemuel Gulliver of Irish whiskey production.
Just as small is a relative term, so too is rare. Curious to know exactly what it means in the context of Midleton Very Rare, I asked how much MVR was being released in this year’s batch. The figure you will find floating about the internet is that less than 2,500 nine-bottle cases of MVR are released each year – so a figure somewhere south of 22,500 bottles hits the market. You go back a few years (or even decades) and I would suggest that this really stretched the bounds of what anyone would classify as rare. Irish whiskey was still in a state of uneasy hibernation and while the MVR releases were always popular, seen as they were as the poshest and ergo – in the eyes of the perennially insecure Irish bourgeoisie – the best Irish whiskey, I doubt there was much of a dash to get them. Now, Irish whiskey is hot, and getting hotter. Collectors are collecting, flippers are flipping, and everyone wants to get their hands on MVR as soon as it appears. So how many bottles or cases are released? Here is your mercurial answer: Irish Distillers Pernod Ricard say that they ‘cannot share specific numbers’, but they told their PR person to let me know that ‘the volume available is in-keeping with previous releases’.
Now you can interpret that two ways – one, they don’t want to give an exact number because it might seem less than rare. Or, two, they don’t want to give a figure for the above reason, but also because it has been steadily climbing year on year and is now far higher than the alleged 2,500 nine-bottle cases. Think about it – if you had an annual release of 40%ABV NAS blended whiskey that had people falling over each other to get their hands on, of course you would like to shift as many units as possible (whilst still making sure not everyone got one – gotta keep the hunger out there).
That figure also seems low when you consider how wide this release is, covering as it does USA, Canada, Global Travel Retail, Europe, Australia, and Asia. I think they could rattle out five times that number worldwide and it still wouldn’t satisfy the ravenous demand for this iconic Irish whiskey. Although, this year’s makeover might have dampened some of that enthusiasm.
MVR is a collector’s whiskey. Released with the year proudly stamped on it, it was created with gifting and collecting in mind. So rebranding it – especially drastically – is something of a gamble. Yes it was overdue a refresh, given that since its launch in 1984 it had more or less looked the same, but the 2017 overhaul was less a refresh and more a complete redesign (or maybe those are the same thing). Irish whiskey was in its cups and maybe it was felt that the tired old MVR bottle and box needed something with a bit more pizazz. If I was a collector, I would have been less than amused – my 30+ bottles of MVR on the shelf would look completely different from their 2017 sibling. And now, six years later, the iconic wooden box that MVR came in since 1990 has been dumped in favour of something a little more in-keeping with the mood of the times. Per the press release: While honouring the traditions of the past, Midleton Very Rare 2023 also pays homage to the future as the brand prioritises sustainability and a commitment to the land from which it is created. For the first time, the new vintage will be presented in luxury recyclable secondary packaging*, replacing the wooden cabinet used since 1990.
Here is the new box:
Why yes, it does look like the 1950s wardrobe your mum brought back from the charity shop as she wanted to upcycle it so she covered it in flock wallpaper and now it looks really shoddy and nobody wants in their bedroom so it’s out in the shed and your dad keeps the paint tins in it.
Maybe the hardcore collectors will embrace it:
I’ve spoken to one or two other collectors who felt the same – that this new, greener packaging just isn’t as nice as the wood. But it’s not about nice, it’s about saving the planet, or at least trying to. In a lengthy piece on IrishWhiskeyMagazine.com Midleton master distiller Kevin O’Gorman explains the reasoning: “GPA Global who have produced this box have done a lifecycle analysis and a comparison between this and the old box. There has been a 50% reduction in weight which drives a lot of the other savings in fossil fuels, carbon and greenhouse gases emissions, and also water reductions.”
You’d also have to wonder if there was a reduction in cost as well, because if there was, it wasn’t reflected in the RRP (€210) this year.
The dilemma here is in what is expected of a super premium brand. Does anyone buying a premium whiskey actually care all that much about the planet? Something so decadent makes an uneasy bedfellow with any kind of ethical push. Wealth, opulence, luxury are all, by their very definitions, wasteful. Premium whiskey, like high fashion, private jets and mansions, isn’t about servicing needs but about wants, or to use a more lux term, desires. If I was paying €200+ for a whiskey then I would expect premium packaging and I wouldn’t care a whole lot about the planet, and the more premium the whiskey, the less of a hoot I would give. Frankly the relatively small numbers of premium whiskeys sold in comparison to blends means there are bigger fish to fry – so it should be noted that there has been a massive drive in whiskey generally, and Midleton in particular, to reduce and eliminate any waste from the production process across all brands.
But the greenification of packaging will have to continue and I wonder how many more vintages of MVR it will take before they get rid of the glass bottle and sell it to us in tetrapak or recyclable pouches. By then we may all have come to the conclusion that if we all truly cared about the health of this planet, or even our own personal health, we would probably stop drinking altogether.
In Cork Airport’s duty free there is a large screen showing adverts for Midleton distillery’s single pot still collection. The smooth-talking gent hosting the videos lavishes the Cork whiskeys with praise, and assures us that Midleton’s single pot still collection is the ultimate expression of the art.
In the decade since those videos were created, their host Peter Mulryan has had something of a change of heart. The author, producer, and presenter may have been the face of Midleton’s single pot still whiskey in 2012, but in the years since he has become one of the most vocal critics of what he sees as Irish Distillers Limited’s reformation of the definition of single pot still. He could have spent his time criticising from the sidelines, using the skills he honed in his decades working in the media to gradually force change. But instead of words, he chose action (and also words, but mainly action).
Mulryan put his money – and the money of his investors – where his mouth was and chased his dream of being a distiller. He chucked in his job with Ireland’s national broadcaster and opened a distillery – first in a lock-up in a rural industrial estate in west Waterford, then expanding to a converted hardware store in the sleepy village of Ballyduff a few miles away. It turned out that Mulryan and his team – several of whom worked on those single pot still videos with him – were quite good at distilling, as the Blackwater Distillery spirits have won multiple awards. The team are also quite good at business, as they landed massive supply contracts with supermarket giant Aldi. But Mulryan never softened his tone about the technical file, the State document which lays down the laws on Irish whiskey, and specifically, how to make single pot still (SPS) Irish whiskey.
Having written five books on Irish whiskey, Mulryan was well placed to point out what he saw as inaccuracies in the technical file, saying that he could find no historic mashbills which complied with the document’s requirement that the mash for SPS must contain a minimum of 30% malted barley and a minimum of 30% unmalted barley, with up to 5% of other cereals such as oats and rye added if required.
Writing on his distillery’s blog, Mulryan seethed about Midleton’s SPS whiskeys: “The official Redbreast website is even more confident: ‘this is the traditional way of making Irish whiskey since the 1800s.’ Except of course it’s all a load of horse manure. These whiskeys are not a reflection of anything, except perhaps corporate sleight of hand and a lack of oversight. If truth be told, the ‘tradition’ being celebrated here goes all the way back not to the nineteenth century but to October 2014.”
In numerous posts he used the phrase stolen heritage, gushed about traditional single pot still whiskey and its wild and varied mashbills, and worked with whiskey historians Fionnán O’Connor, Charlie Roche, and Will Murphy in digging up as many as he could. Mulryan then set about proving that SPS – the old, bold SPS as opposed to what he framed as the more modern, corporate IDL version (which he gives fair credit to as an excellent whiskey, it should be noted) – was a viable commercial product rather than a dusty relic reflective of palates now long dead. In a post on New Year’s Day 2020 he explained how between February and September 2019 they distilled more than 100 different SPS mashbills, the majority traced back to a specific distillery, date, or both, from 1824 to 1955. The recipes came from ‘just after the 1823 Excise Act (the foundation of the modern industry)’, right through the Victorian Irish whiskey boom.
“We’ve distilled outliers featuring 40% wheat, and 38% oat, but mostly that range of ‘other grains’ settled comfortably in the 20% – 25% band, with oat being predominant. All mash bills contained barley and malt, and all featured either oats, wheat and rye. Some have all five elements. However, not one of these real single pot still mashbills is compliant with the current Technical File. That’s not how we planned it, it’s just one of those awkward facts,” he wrote.
If this seems like a lot of work, you might well be right, as Mulryan added: “We could have spent 2019 churning out single malt, or compliant SPS, but we chose not to. As a result we only ran at close to 50% capacity. It was an expensive exercise, but we can now safely say there isn’t another distillery in the country/world that has dug into the SPS category as deeply as we have.”
But Blackwater’s main business was always making, not sourcing. During the pandemic they started a taster’s club where they experimented with spirits and flavour, sending out packs to fans with new spirits in each. They continued to win awards, and the technical file – once seen as the stone tablets of Irish whiskey – is about to be reopened for edits and adjustments, a move welcomed by Mulryan.
Much like their county neighbours Waterford Distillery, Blackwater have used a lot of highfalutin words like terroir, provenance, and grand cru (even their slogans are similar – Waterford’s motto is ‘where barley is king’ while Blackwater have ‘let the grain reign’). They both like a bit of sabre-rattling at ‘the big guys’ (neither are exactly little guys), and both have a lot of raw attitude. Mulryan’s jousting in the media even went so far as to claim that, unlike many others, he wasn’t in the whiskey business to make loads of money, something which may come as a shock to his investors.
All of this brings us to Blackwater’s first whisky (sic, natch), which comes to us burdened with great promise and even greater expectations. With typical bombast, the new releases come with a huge amount of detail on the liquid, but also have a hardback pamphlet titled A Manifesto For Irish Pot Still Whisky. Per the press release:
The Manifesto release is limited to just 1,000 numbered boxes, each containing 4 x 200ml single cask Irish whiskies. (Priced €250 & Delivery). Inspired by mash bills (recipes) from 1838, 1893, 1908 and 1915, this is a unique opportunity to taste the whiskies enjoyed by previous generations. Each one is different, representing a distinct time and a place. The whiskies in this Manifesto release cannot be labelled as pot still Irish whisky, nor can there be any allusion to it on the label; even though historically that’s exactly what these four whiskies were.
The four samples – and my notes on them – are:
Dirtgrain Irish Whisky, Mash Bill #38 – 40% Laureate Barley, 40% Costello Wheat, 20% Gangway + Laureate. Aged in Apple Brandy Cask. 47.1% ABV – this one packs a punch. I drank these out of sequence – ie, I went by number rather than the layout here – and this one hit hard, big wallop of flavour, presumably from the cask. Raises the issues about using different casks in these samples – what is creating the different profiles here, the grain or the wood? Maybe the mashbills would shine most at new make stage?
Dirtgrain Irish Whisky, Mash Bill #93 – 46% Laureate Barley, 35% Gangway + Laureate, 15% Husky Oat, 4% Peated Laurate Malt. Aged in Sherry Cask. 43.1% ABV – deepest colour of the four, sherry cask, mashbill from 1893, and a bit o’ peat, always an extra string to the bow of a young whisky. Mulryan makes the case that age does not always equate with quality, but I think a lot of people selling young whisky would make similar claims. I do think there is a cut off point beyond which whisky, like the rest of us, becomes a little less vibrant, but I think the youngest age for decent whiskies that I have had is about six years old.
Dirtgrain Irish Whisky, Mash Bill #08 – 50% Gangway + Laureate Malt, 35% Laureate Barley, 15% Husky Oat. Aged in Bourbon Cask. 45.3% ABV – a light gold colour, the palest of the lot, it slithers out of the test tube like syrup. A startling viscosity. Citrus, candied orange peel, Juicy Fruits. Reminds me of a young Aultmore I have, despite the mashbill. Good youth, no rawness – but not a long finish.
Dirtgrain Irish Whisky, Mash Bill #15 – 40% Laureate Barley, 30% Gangway + Laureate, 15% Husky Oat, 12% Costello Wheat, 3% Performer Rye. Aged in Rye Cask. 44.2% ABV – nose hard to dig out, palate also taking a while to present. Official notes say orange blossom and dark chocolate; for me there is more that malty flavour from dog biscuits – don’t pretend you’ve never eaten one. Rye cask here so a pop of spice. Pleasant if a little nondescript.
So what to make of this – I like the moxy. I like the manifesto and I’ve put it to the testo, and while the whisky is young, all hold promise. But that isn’t the same as saying that you should run out and buy this. But I’m not a whiskey nerd – I like the stuff, and I love tasting these whiskies, but this is not aimed at fairweather friends of Irish whiskey like me. The full Dirtgrain package is €250, featuring four 20cl bottles of the samples above, along with Mulryan’s mashbill Necromicon, and can be purchased now. There will be another batch next year, and the year after, and after that Blackwater will transition to more traditional releases. A taste of the past, that looks to the future.
I like a The. Many of my blog posts are given titles with a ‘the’ randomly thrown in at the start, because I think it adds gravitas. In reality it makes everything I write sound like pompous waffle; The Glorious Now, The Pathfinder, The Slow Cut, The Quiet Corner. Scroll through this blog and you will be greeted with an array of bombastic titles opening on a The. Obviously enough I like a The in whisky too. There is a swagger to a The in a brand name – but it’s really something that needs to be earned. I’m not sure The Bells works. Maybe if they got Quasimodo in as brand ambassador.
The Macallan are the epitome of superlux – the Chanel of whisky, a magic brand that operates in a sphere beyond this mortal realm. While us chuds and morlocks bicker about whether a hundred quid is too much to spend on a whisky, The Macallan is selling random fusions of liquid and crystal art for tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds. Veblen goods or emperor’s new clothes, you decide, but they pull all of it off with confidence and style. Which makes their latest creation a little odd.
Everyone loves Four Weddings And A Funeral. Pre-fall fop king Hugh Grant, Andie McDowell not knowing if it’s still raining despite being absolutely drenched in the stuff, all the other very white and upper middle class characters whose names I cannot recall. A large part of its success is down to the wonderful direction by Mike Newell, who has a relatively low-key career despite bagging a Harry Potter and managing to coerce one of the most subtle on-screen performances from Al Pacino in Donnie Brasco (by subtle I mean not screaming about asses).
But Newell’s latest gig is a curious one indeed, as he has directed a short film/long ad for The Macallan. I wasn’t expecting it to be a bold visionary statement – Newell’s most recent big-screen venture was 2018’s painfully nondescriptThe Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – but I thought that the The Macallan might push the envelope a little. Reader, the envelope remains unpushed.
The mercifully short film is a mishmash of Monarch Of The Glen and a sort of tweed-clad Downton Abbey. Starring Emily Mortimer (who once starred in a little known Irish film called Last Of The High Kings opposite a then relatively unknown Jared Leto) in the lead role, the film tells the tale of how The Macallan became one of the first female-led distilleries in Scotland. Per the press release:
Janet Harbinson, known as ‘Nettie’ is a remarkable figure in The Macallan’s history. In 1918, just months before the end of the First World War, her beloved husband Alexander, who had been running the distillery at the time, sadly passed. Nettie was highly committed to the local community and following his death, she assumed control of the distillery as it was the best way to secure The Macallan for its employees and help the community.
Without setting out to do so, she also crafted The Macallan Fine & Rare 1926, which achieved legendary status after it fetched $1.9M at Sotheby’s in 2019. Several years on, it continues to be the world’s most valuable bottle of wine or spirit ever sold at auction.
Thanks for that Nettie, great job. I would suggest that whoever masterminded The Macallan becoming the key superlux whisky brand in the world probably deserves more credit, but that’s just my own begrudgery (great piece on how they did that here).
The film is striking because of its blandness – it feels painfully beige. Maybe having their wings clipped by the UK’s advertising standards authority over their deliriously pretentious Icarus ad – which looked like a pastiche ripped right from Zoolander – left them shook, but I doubt it. Everything about their operation – from the Tellytubby wonderland of their distillery to their presumably ironic grasping hands reaching around The Reach – says that safe isn’t normally part of their lexicon.
One of the most interesting aspects of the film is that the script was written by award-winning screenwriter Allan Scott, whose Hollywood hits include Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Don’t Look Now, Castaway and the excellent Netflix series, The Queen’s Gambit. The mindlowing part is this: Allan Scott is the pen name of Allan Shiach – a former chairman of The Macallan and great nephew of Nettie Harbinson. So you have someone who has helped craft some genuinely incredible work (Don’t Look Now for the love of Christ!) and is also so well connected to The Macallan that you would have to assume that they would be able to get something really remarkable over the line, and yet we end up with a short film that looks and feels – as one wag put it to me via DM – ‘like a fucking Hovis ad’.
Of course, I am looking at all this through the prism of Irish whiskey – a few years back I asked where is our Macallan. I don’t think we have an answer to that question just yet, although Midleton’s Silent Distillery releases were a good foray into the space of ultralux, super-rare whiskey. Ultimately Midleton’s strength – being the home of multiple styles and multiple brands in one very modern industrial setting – might also be its weakness in this instance; beyond the stocks from old Midleton, why pay €50,000 for a whiskey from the new distillery when you could buy a bottle of Jameson for €30? Maybe you can split the beams and have a superlux offering from the same place that creates so many mid range brands, but I don’t see it. I assume Bushmills is the one to watch – with oodles of heritage (not quite the four centuries they claim, but at least two) and a focus on one product – single malt – they should be ripe for it. The Bushmills, anyone? Perhaps some day we could even see a short film directed by time-obsessed auteur Christopher Nolan about why a distillery built in the late 1700s thinks it was built in 1608, but until then we will have to rely on our Scottish neighbours to lead the way in audiovisual self-indulgence. And in the meantime, here’s this: