Chaos Theory

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Kurt Ballou in his studio.

Consistency is contrary to nature, contrary to life. The only completely consistent people are the dead.

ALDOUS HUXLEY, Do What You Will

When Kurt Ballou was in his early teens, his parents brought him across America in a camper van for the summer holidays. With no siblings to keep him company, music became his friend. He sat in the back of the van with his headphones on, listening to his favourite bands over and over, picking apart the sounds and how they worked – as music, and on him as a listener.  He played saxophone in the school band but soon moved on to other instruments, and travelled down this path until he and his friends formed a band named Converge in the 1990s. Their early albums showed promise, but it was with 2001’s Jane Doe that they really hit their stride – one that has shown no signs of slowing, 15 years and five albums later. They have been consistently excellent for the past decade and a half, with each album hitting a remarkably high standard, despite the fact that the music they make sounds like someone driving a schoolbus off a cliff. Converge play a blitzkrieg fusion of punk, grindcore, metal and D-beat, and the cacophony of their output should theoretically be a wall of white noise permeated by occasional screams. Thankfully, that summer of forensically dissecting music has worked wonders for Ballou, as he has produced their best albums (a fact he disputes, claiming he is an engineer, not the more showbiz role of producer).

There are numerous YouTube videos of Ballou talking about how he controls the hydra-headed beast that is Converge’s sound, breaking the components down, refining, stripping, and reconnecting them as one perfectly clean aural assault. But while Converge have maintained their incredible consistency, but have never let it stop them from evolving.

Their ability to change comes from an absence of record label pressure. Big businesses don’t like change, because consumers don’t like change. As a species we tend to romanticise the knowns of the past, and fear the unknown future. We prefer the reassurances of the familiar, the road more travelled, as we march along it under the banner of ‘consistency’. It is pandering to this mindset that has lead to an artificial colourant known as E150a being added to most whiskeys in the world. Apparently the public wants all of their bottles to look the same colour, in the same way we don’t want bendy carrots or any other evidence of the wonderful chaotic individuality of nature. Look at non-chill filtering – effectively a dystopian purging of natural oils to spare the blushes of drinkers in cold climates who might not like a slight clouding of their whiskey in temperatures.  That, combined with the addition of caramel, is effectively whiskey fascism – a demand that everything look the same. But, as Jeff Goldblum’s character points out in Jurassic Park, you cannot impose order on nature; chaos theory tells us that while the present dictates the future, there is still absolutely no way of predicting it. Whiskeys change – talk to anyone who drank a certain dram 20 years ago and they will tell you exactly what has happened in the intervening decades.

Change is inevitable in life, just as it is in the whiskey industry – consider all the variables; soil, climate, grain, yeast, spirit, cask, and all of the potentially ever-changing cast of human beings involved in the whole process – so maybe they should embrace it. This is one of the reasons I love the Aberlour A’Bunadh. Released in batches, it celebrates change. Like Converge, it has a controlled ferocity – there is that white noise, white heat of a cask-strength beast, but those years in the sherry butt has tamed any feral overtones; it is a beautiful, creamy malt, rich and sweet but with that white pepper kick on the finish. Bottled at around the 60% mark and aged between five and 25 years (more youth than age, though it isn’t too apparent), a drink of an A’Bunadh is like being grasped around the throat by a mechanised fist in a velvet glove. Even the bottle looks like it was designed for war; short and squat like an artillery shell, with a wide, roaring mouth.

There is, of course, a completely ridiculous back story to go with the A’bunadh, one that is told on the distillery tours; it involves time capsules, drunk workmen and a newspaper from 1898. It brings nothing to the drink itself, which has more than enough qualities to stand apart from any marketing narrative. However, if you do happen to visit Aberlour Distillery, in one of the main halls of the visitors centre is a large camera obscura photo of two hands holding a bottle of A’bunadh – the photo having been taken by Ted Dwane of Mumford and Sons.

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Neil Ridley in Aberlour Distillery VC during Spirit Of Speyside 2015.

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It was in this room that I first tasted this whisky, at an event hosted by Neil Ridley and Joel Harrison. They were pairing whisky with the music of Bowie and Cash, drawing parallels between the two, beneath this ethereal photo of a whisky, taken by a musician. 

While I loved the Aberlour whiskies, the music was not to my taste, because I like life a little bit louder. I always thought I would grow out of metal, a genre that is generally perceived to be pretty immature. However, I also never thought I’d grow into whiskey. For me they are two sides of the same coin – a desire to crank the senses up to 11. Most people recoil when they hear Converge, just as they recoil when taking that first sip of whiskey – the intensity of both is something to be reckoned with. But Kurt Ballou and Aberlour Distillery have the ability to take disparate, intense elements – high strength/loud noise, big flavours/massive riffs – and blend them to create a constantly evolving product without sacrificing standards. Because the only consistency we should seek is that of quality.

 

A bottle of Batch 55 A’bunadh is an exceptionally good value €55 on MasterOfMalt – and you can watch Ballou talking about the creation of Jane Doe here. And, if you want to challenge your hearing (and definition of what constitutes music), this is what Converge sound like:

You probably need a drink now.

The final frontier

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In June 1940, a man walked from the surf onto a beach on the Dingle peninsula. He stopped to bury a radio transmitter in the sand, walked inland until he stumbled across an old railway line and then headed towards the town of Dingle. With an hour to kill until the bus to Tralee, he accepted an invitation into a local pub – even though it was 7am. There, he had three whiskeys and, in the grand Irish tradition of drinking on public transport, he bought a bottle of whiskey for the journey. In Tralee he got on the Dublin train, and spent much of the journey talking about how ‘that great man Hitler would set Ireland free’. Unsurprisingly, he was arrested in Dublin, and identified as Walter Simon – a German spy. In fact, he was one of two spies who tried to enter England via the wild western frontiers of the Kerry coast, although he was the only one undone by a lethal combination of Kerry hospitality and Irish whiskey.

If you saw the Dingle peninsula, you could see its appeal to a U-boat captain looking to land a covert operative – miles and miles of jagged coastline and sparse population give parts of it the feel of an abandoned outpost on some deserted, beautiful planet. When you go to Dingle from almost anywhere outside Kerry, it feels like you have crossed a timezone or two. You can’t just got to Dingle for the night – you have to commit to a trip down there, clear your schedule for a few days.

The last time I spoke to Oliver Hughes, he asked me to come down for a festive celebration in Dingle Distillery to mark the release of their first whiskey. I could have made it, albeit for just a few hours, but then I wouldn’t be able to relax, as I had work the next morning. So with a heavy heart I declined. I felt terrible about it – when I was took part in the Dingle Whiskey School I had been talking to Oliver and the rest of the staff about how hard it was to get journalists to cover events outside The Pale, especially at the far end of the country. He made the point that he could have built the distillery somewhere in the hinterland of Dublin, but he loved Dingle, and knew it was a special place, so for him there was nowhere else.

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One evening during the whiskey school he drove myself and fellow journalist Eleanor Cosgrove along Slea Head, pointing out various landmarks such as the Sleeping Giant, the site of the village in Ryan’s Daughter (sadly levelled after filming finished because the council couldn’t sort out the insurance) and the iconic Dunquin Pier. At the top of the long zig-zag down to the pier is a shed, held to the ground with ropes and rocks, because when a storm hits here, everything is fair game – the terrifying storm scenes of Ryan’s Daughter weren’t shot on a soundstage; in fact, due to the temperamental Irish weather, some of the beach scenes where sun was required were shot in South Africa. The trip around the peninsula was a memorable one, as Oliver told us some great stories about his time in Kerry, as well as a few insane tales from his days as a barrister.

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That night Oliver brought us and some of the Founding Fathers (the title for investors in the distillery) out for dinner to Ashe’s. It was there we got to see the actual bar tab run up by Bob Mitchum during the filming of David Lean’s beautiful epic. Much like Walter Simon, Mitchum indulged in a dram or two when in the area.

Over dinner we all chatted and got to know each other, Oliver cracking jokes and keeping the chat and wine flowing. He was a great host, despite the fact that he was a busy man – when I met him for a dram before dinner in Dick Mack’s, he was tucked away in the back talking over some new ideas he had with business associates. He was an ‘idea guy’ – someone who was almost plagued with creative visions. How else could he have had the foresight to start a craft beer business in Ireland? I remember walking into the Porterhouse on Parliament Street in the late Nineties and ordering a pint of Heineken, only to be told they didn’t have it on tap. I thought ‘haha this place is doomed’ and ordered a bottle of the heinous swill instead, refusing to try anything new. Thankfully, there are people out there who weren’t as obnoxiously close-minded as I, and his business thrived. But I don’t believe he was trying to create an empire, or even build a legacy, he just wanted people to try something new. What he did for Ireland was to change the way people thought about beer – no longer was it a few different types of nondescript swill to get shamefacedly blotto on. With the craft beer movement it was now something to be enjoyed, explored, celebrated.

The last time I saw Oliver in person was at Whiskey Live Dublin. I was at the Tamdhu/Glengoyne stand trying a few drams when suddenly he appeared and started talking to the assembled group about his distillery, his whiskey, his vision. I’m not sure the Scottish reps quite knew what to do as he completely took over their pitch by sheer force of will. He had a gloriously punk DIY attitude, despite the pinstripes. He was a pioneer, a man on the wild frontiers of food and drink. Little wonder then that he chose to build his distillery on Ireland’s western front.

In a world of bland corporate personalities, he was a breath of fresh air – electric, acerbic, outspoken – and, at 57, far too young to die.

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Footnote: You can read some of Oliver’s posts on the original Dingle Distillery blog here.

Smithfield of dreams

The Jameson Global Broadcast 2013 which took place at the Jameson Distillery in Smithfield Dublin. Photo Chris Bellew /  Copyright 2013 Fennell Photography.

The Jameson Global Broadcast 2013 which took place at the Jameson Distillery in Smithfield Dublin. Photo Chris Bellew / Copyright 2013 Fennell Photography.

If you redevelop it, they will come. ‘They’ being tourists.

Irish Distillers, Ireland’s leading supplier of spirits and wines and producer of the world’s most well-known and successful Irish whiskeys, has today announced plans for a major redevelopment of the Old Jameson Distillery in Smithfield, representing a total investment of €11 million. This new look Jameson brand home will strengthen Ireland’s growing whiskey tourism industry which currently attracts 600,000 tourists a year.

To facilitate the refurbishment, the Old Jameson Distillery will close on August 31st and will officially reopen in March 2017.

Jean-Christophe Coutures, Chairman and CEO of Irish Distillers said: “This investment marks an important moment in the history of Jameson in Ireland. We’ve grown up on Bow Street, in the heart of Smithfield, and we’ve always felt privileged to share our home with the world. Since we opened the Old Jameson Distillery visitor experience in 1997, we’ve welcomed over 4 million whiskey lovers through our doors.

“Now, as the renaissance of Irish whiskey continues at pace following incredible global growth over 25 years, we want to build on our efforts to share the story of Irish whiskey and Jameson around the world. We’ve enlisted the world’s best ‘experience designers’ and complimented that with a 100 percent Irish contracting team who will work together to deliver on our vision.”

Ray Dempsey, who has been the General Manager at the Old Jameson Distillery since its opening, added: “From John Jameson’s brave first steps into this building in 1780, we’ve been focused on his ambition to create unforgettable experiences. When we next open our doors you’re going to see what makes our whiskey loved the world over, with live immersive experiences delivered with the personal touch, helping to bring this story to life. We look forward to welcoming many more whiskey lovers to our Smithfield home when we reopen in March.”

Construction work will begin in September and will be led by BRC Imagination Arts; Dublin based firm TOTP Architects and Flynn Management & Contractors, with approximately 100 people employed as part of the redevelopment work. BRC Imagination Arts is one of the world’s leading experience design and production agencies specializing in the creation of next generation brand experiences. Founded in 1981, past clients of BRC include the World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta; the Heineken Experience in Amsterdam and the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin.

The last venue mentioned in that list is an important one, given this recent stat:

Guinness Storehouse named Ireland’s number one tourist attraction

The Storehouse draws over a million a year, while the Jameson centre draws about a quarter of that. It’s not hard to see why – Guinness is ubiquitous, Jameson less so. Considering that whiskey is still pretty much a niche drink (in comparison to beer etc), it’s doing well – but they can always do better. RTÉ have the details on the staff:

The distillery currently has 75 employees.

General Manager at the Old Jameson Distillery Ray Dempsey said these staff members will be relocated across a number of areas during the closure, with a core team supporting the redevelopment work.

Other employees will be involved in the setting up of a ‘welcome kiosk’ on Bow St, which will act as a starting point for visitors to the Smithfield area and inform them about the Jameson brand and other attractions in the vicinity.

Meanwhile, distillery staff members will also provide Jameson tasting experiences in the Generator Hostel and Jameson food pairings at Christophe’s Restaurant in Smithfield.

Free whiskey in a hostel – what’s the worst that could happen?

Anyhoo, I have no way to finish this hastily scribbled post, so here are some old photos of Ray Dempsey and others at the launch of Midleton VR in 2001.

Midleton Whisley, 2001 Midleton Very Rare Billy Lee Master Copper Corks up a Cask of the new Whisley Picture: Gerard McCarthy  (digi)

Midleton Whisley, 2001 Midleton Very Rare
Billy Lee Master Copper Corks up a Cask of the new Whisley
Picture: Gerard McCarthy (digi)

Midleton Whisley, 2001 Midleton Very Rare Billy Lee Master Copper Uncorks  a Cask of the new Whisley Picture: Gerard McCarthy  (digi)

Midleton Whisley, 2001 Midleton Very Rare
Billy Lee Master Copper Uncorks a Cask of the new Whisley
Picture: Gerard McCarthy (digi)

Midleton Whisley, 2001 Midleton Very Rare Ray Dempsey General Manager Irish Distillers trys out the new Batch with Billy Lee Master Copper Picture: Gerard McCarthy  (digi)

Midleton Whisley, 2001 Midleton Very Rare
Ray Dempsey General Manager Irish Distillers trys out the new Batch with Billy Lee Master Copper
Picture: Gerard McCarthy (digi)

Midleton Whisley, 2001 Midleton Very Rare Ray Dempsey General Manager Irish Distillers trys out the new Batch Picture: Gerard McCarthy  (digi)

Midleton Whisley, 2001 Midleton Very Rare
Ray Dempsey General Manager Irish Distillers trys out the new Batch
Picture: Gerard McCarthy (digi)

Midleton Whisley, 2001 Midleton Very Rare Lisa Walsh and Pauline Supplison of Irish Distillers trys out the new Batch Picture: Gerard McCarthy  (digi)

Midleton Whisley, 2001 Midleton Very Rare
Lisa Walsh and Pauline Supplison of Irish Distillers trys out the new Batch
Picture: Gerard McCarthy (digi)

Please note I did not write those captions. Although I think ‘whisley’ sounds alright.

How to say goodbye in Irish

 

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I occasionally try to get my dad to join a club. It’d be good for you, I say, you should get out more. His reply is always the same: ‘I’m not a joiner’. Like Groucho Marx, he steadfastly refuses to join any club that would have him as a member. I’m a lot like him – I’m slow to get involved, to commit, to enthuse, which makes it all the more surprising that I took to whiskey with such reckless abandon. Someone recently asked me how one goes about getting ‘into’ whiskey, to which I replied ‘open a bottle and take a swig, get back to me if that doesn’t work’. I didn’t say that really, but the question did set me thinking about my tragic obsession with our national drink. Why whiskey? Why did I throw myself headlong into this, of all things? Why not sport, cars, stamp collecting, Pokemon – anything; why? And the answer is a Shauvian ‘why the hell not?’ But the big questions is ‘how’ – because behind every superfan is a newcomer who was scared to ask a question. So here’s how it happened for me.

Perseverance, persistence, severe thirst

I’d love to tell you I had some magical epiphany upon first tasting Ye Olde Pot Stille Whisky at the wake of some fenian son, but I didn’t – I just liked the idea of whiskey: It’s intrinsically Irish, interesting without being elitist, an everyman drink. So I just decided ‘this is something I could do’. So I started working my way through Paddy, Jameson and Powers, first with mixers and ice, then just ice, then straight. Like most humans with a functioning gullet, it burned the first few times I tried it straight  – but in a good way, like with a hot curry, or roaring the lyrics to The Fields Of Athenry. So I kept at it, and soon, the epiphany arrived. In Citizen Kane, there is a scene where the titular anti-hero destroys the room of his lover. Orson Welles strides about the room wreaking havoc on the contents. When the scene was finished, Welles walked off set, hands bleeding from the damage he had inflicted, and said to one of the crew ‘I felt it, I really felt it’. He had disappeared into character, abandoned the self. That was it for me and whiskey – at some point I crossed the line from wanting to like whiskey to genuinely loving it. So while you can’t force yourself to love something, you can certainly give yourself plenty of opportunity for it to happen. I used the same approach to trick my wife into falling for me – she dumped me twice when we were kids, but I knew if I was pig-headed enough she would eventually give in. And she did, with all the grim resignation of a cornered rodent. Hooray for love!

‘Internet friends’

Once I had gotten ‘into’ whiskey – ie, I could drink it without reacting like Edward Scissorhands – I was ready to share my new passion with the world. The Irish Whiskey Society is a great way to start exploring and expanding your palate. Their monthly meetings will provide you with some rare and pricey samples to tick off your list, without having to break the bank by sourcing them yourself. But since I have four kids (and, as previously stated, I am not a joiner), I don’t get to go to many of their events, as I rarely have the time, the money or the ability to stay awake past 8pm. And so to the internet, where fandoms go to thrive. The internet is a great resource for the budding enthusiast – there are any number of whisky blogs and sites that can teach you a lot. There are also some great YouTube channels – Ralfy Mitchell’s being one of the best, walking a fine line between whisky review, history lesson and witty polemic. An undertaker by trade, Ralfy’s talent lies not in his knowledge or his ability to communicate with confidence, but rather that he has that rare quality of being very likeable on camera. Fun fact: I once tried to make a whiskey review vlog, and upon completion it had all the fun atmosphere of an Isis beheading video.

Manic tweed preachers

So by now you’ve tried a few drams, you’ve got the knowledge and the experience and you want to share your passion with friends and family, so what do you do? You keep it to your damn self, that’s what you do, because much like religion and politics, people don’t generally want a 25-minute lecture on why their beliefs are wrong. This is partly because not many people give that much of a shit about what they eat and drink. Most of us take a fairly utilitarian approach to what we consume – does it taste ok, is it cheap, will it soothe my fretful mind? – these are the basics for us. Who cares that a chicken for the Sunday roast costs about the same as a Sunday paper – sher that’s just great value, nothing terrifying about it at all. So just like you don’t tell sleepy shoppers at the express checkout that their dinner is a Frankenfood nightmare, you likewise don’t tell the person next to you at the bar that vodka is a drink for people who don’t know what to drink. I can see it in people’s eyes when I start to drone on about whiskey – they rapidly lose the will to live, because not everyone gets it, or even wants to – and that’s ok, because I get it, you get it, we get it. So I try not to preach, or even correct people when they’re wrong, like the taxi driver last week who told me Paddy no longer exists and is somehow just known as Jameson now. A simple ‘how interesting’ through gritted teeth is all this situation requires, lest it descend into a scene from Collateral.   

Coppa stills, dolla bills

So you like and possibly love whiskey – now to expand your collection. Specialist shops are great, going in having the bants with the staff, browsing the latest expressions – but they are expensive. Go online – it is a lot cheaper, even with P&P. I use Master Of Malt, mainly because I was on a whiskey junket with one of the chaps from the site and he seemed sound. MoM has a great blog, chat option, amazing selection and prices – but overall there is a great tone to the site; witty, fun and irreverent. They also do tasting sets – small samples of up to five different distilleries, often grouped by region; a fantastic way of educating yourself. There are plenty of other sites, but MoM is my favourite, and they also do Christmas crackers with whisky samples in them, which is great since I am the only one who drinks spirits in my house: ‘Hic, shut the hell up grandma, and pull this goddam cracker with me’.

Fill-up Glass, a pun on Philip Glass

So you build up a bit of a collection, maybe five to 15 bottles, and you want to enjoy them the right way, so you will need some glassware. The Glencairn is the industry standard for nosing (don’t call it sniffing, that’s what dogs do) and tasting (don’t call it drinking, that’s what boozehounds do), but Glencairns are five quid a pop. Your collection has already set you back 40-70 euro a bottle, so you are going to be looking for a cheaper option. This is where charity shops come in. I love them – okay, as soon as you walk in the door you find yourself paraphrasing the kid in The Sixth Sense by announcing ‘I smell dead people’ – but you know what dead people liked? Spirits. So there will be plenty of old whiskey tumblers, along with some branded whiskey glasses perfect for nosing, tasting, sipping and generally containing whiskey.

I use an old Carolans glass (above left) that cost me 50 cent, and if I’m just having a drink without being pretentious about it, I just use Tesco tumblers (above right) that are a fiver for a pack of four. No need for Waterford crystal – a simple vessel lets a decent whiskey shine, and is lighter in the hand for keyboard warriors like me who have atrophied Gollum arms.

How to be pretentious

So you have the kit, the hooch and the enthusiasm – it’s on to the skills. These aren’t really those elusive skills that require training, like parallel parking or removing a water meter – this is just learning to trust your instincts. When I started getting into whiskey and listening to people at tastings rattling on about what scents they were picking up, I felt like it was those magic eye posters from the 1990s all over again. A guy stands up and says ‘wow I am getting wet cement, a Nairobi sunset and the concept of ennui on the nose here, what are you getting?’ And all I was getting was slightly intoxicated. Tastings are all about confidence – in the beginning you will get whatever notes are suggested to you, because our sense of smell is incredibly easy to manipulate.

For fun, take your glass of whiskey, go into a quiet room and close your eyes. Inhale the scent – what do you get? Beyond the alcohol burn, beyond the vapours – what else is there? Take a sip – is it what the nose suggested, does it smell like it tastes, or vice versa – and what effect does it have in the mouth, apart from making you warm and drunk – is it mouth coating or astringent – or what? Once you swallow, how long does the flavour stay in your mouth? This is called the finish, and the longer it goes on the better; it should be like descending into a fractal, an endless spiral of hidden flavours and notes you hadn’t encountered already, falling through layers of sensation. Or it may taste like total shit, who knows – but at least you gave it your full attention. Mind you, telling your spouse and kids you are going into a quiet room with a glass of whiskey may lead to some sort of intervention, so just tell them it’s research. They won’t ask any more questions beyond that point because they will be terrified.

Perspective

As for the objectivity of taste: The notes you experience, the things you taste – they are you. They are the summary of your life experiences, because you can only reference your own memory bank, your own sense of taste and smell. I can’t use plantain as a reference, as I have never tasted it.  All the things I taste tell the story of my life – creme anglaise, pine smoke, creme brulee, fruit coulis, sauna wood, smoked reindeer – honestly, I have come up with some of the most deliriously middle class notes I have ever seen; high praise, given that this is whiskey we are talking about. So it is completely subjective: I did a blind tasting last year. On one of the whiskies I picked up a note that I hadn’t sensed in a long time. When I was a teenager I went out with this girl whose father had a thing for mothballs. He had them all over the house, to a point that he must have had a genuine concern that the actual Mothman was going to attack the house, rather than a concern his Farrah slacks might get nibbled by some gothic butterflies. As a result, his daughter always smelled like mothballs. So when I nosed this whisky (in The Whisky Shop in Dufftown) all I got was that – memories of her, long black hair and screaming matches, her throwing Manic Street Preachers CDs at me, that strange sense of loss that sometimes sneaks up on you: You know – mothballs. What you sense from that glass is all about your history – so don’t think that anyone is trying to tell you what to get on the nose when they say ‘apples!’ ‘honey heather!’ ‘a burning wheelie bin!’ – share who you are, your own experiences, your senses and your creativity. Or just make crazy shit up, really it doesn’t matter – just don’t feel threatened. Look at the tasting notes on SMWS bottlings; they make little – yet perfect – sense, because they are all about ideas, moments, and feelings as opposed to telling you exactly what something tastes like. 

Burden of spoof

One of the greatest confidence builders you can have as a whiskey newcomer is taking part in a blind tasting. I took part in one in Gordon and Macphail that had at least two world renowned whisky experts in attendance. We were asked to identify region, cask, age, and marks were out of 25 – the experts lost to a random Norwegian who got 14 points. So, despite the many souls claiming in their Twitter bio to be experts, really they are few who have that forensic sense of taste and smell – strip away the labels and not that many people will be able to tell you what they are drinking. On this note, I’m proud to say that I know almost nothing about whiskey, and if you ever see me putting ‘whiskey expert’ in my Twitter bio, you can shoot me in the head.  

Unbeweaveable

One last thing – at some point in your journey you are going to start thinking about tweed. You will see people wearing it, and think you might look good in it too. My advice is to enjoy tweed responsibly. Use it in moderation, because nobody wants to be a ‘full-kit wanker’ when it comes to a material with the density of kevlar. There are few sadder sights than somebody succumbing to heatstroke at Feis Ile because they refused to take off their thick hessian bonnet or loosen their 12-tog waistcoat in 28 degree heat whilst drinking nothing but cask-strength smoke oil. 

Sláinte

As I pointed out in a previous post (one that I would casually describe as being part social diary, part suicide note), my dad has a lot to do with me getting into whiskey. He was a fan, so I figured it’d be cool if I was a fan. Over the last six weeks I’ve been living with him, rummaging through his whiskey collection to see if there are any rarities in there – the one in the pic up top being the only one of note. The reason I’m here with him instead of at home with my wife and kids is not that my marriage is dying, but that my father is. He’s 85, so it was only a matter of time before something struck, and so cancer has come calling. He had incredible health almost all his life, and he was starting to feel almost invincible. Up until a few weeks ago was fiercely independent. Now I am making his meals and holding his hand when he walks. He is like Oisín, home from Tír Na n’Óg, crashing to the earth and ageing 300 years at once. He is just finished radiotherapy, and there have been several occasions over the last month when I thought he was going to die in front of me. On Father’s Day he split a vein in his leg and lost about 500ml of blood. As he lay on the ground, blood spraying out of him with metronomic precision, I kept think ‘this is it, this is it he is dying and I can’t do anything to stop it’. And as he lost consciousness he turned to me and whispered ‘make sure you record The Sunday Game’.

The paramedics came, brought us into the emergency department, we got treated and came home for me to clean up what looked like a scene from Dexter. Then I made his lunch.

This is what we do: Kids become parents become kids. This is the cycle of life – human existence is just one long series of arrivals and departures. He keeps telling me he doesn’t know what he would do without me, and I keep thinking, what am I going to do without you?

Yesterday we had an appointment with the oncologist. She told him that this cancer is going to end his life. When she left the room, he said ‘I just wish I had indulged more, and just drank a lot more whiskey’. I told him not to worry, I’ll drink enough for both of us. So at night he has a glass of Guinness (or two) and I have a dram (or three) and we watch Nationwide. So this is where we are right now – somewhere in the middle of a long goodbye, raising a glass together, saying hail and farewell. And FYI – he made me promise to keep the glassware.

My point is this – what makes whiskey interesting to me is the people. Really, any fandom is about people; sure, there is something about your passions that are particular to you, but finding other people with the same passion is what keeps it alive. And it doesn’t matter if it’s on the internet, in the Celtic Whiskey Shop or on a trolley in an emergency department – people make it interesting. For me, whiskey is part of my inheritance. It is how I celebrate my dad and all he did for me. For you it will be something else, you just need to figure out what that is. And that is how you get into whiskey.

The Fountainhead

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Christian Davis, Editor of Drinks International, Billy Leighton, Head Blender for Irish Distillers, Brian Nation, Head Distiller at Irish Distillers and Justin Smith, Publisher of Drinks International.

I’m not sure that many people in Midleton are aware that one of the world’s most significant distilleries lies just outside the town. It sits there on the skyline, silently creating and maintaining the bulk of the world supply of Irish whiskey.

Of course, the local lack of understanding isn’t helped by the fact that it still gives Bow Street as the address on the bottle – I once got into a heated argument with a family member from the big smoke who would not believe that they no longer make Jameson in Dublin. ‘But it says it on the bottle’ he kept telling me. But the distillery is here in east Cork, just over my left shoulder as I write this. It gives me an immense sense of pride to be from Midleton – effectively, the home of Irish whiskey for several decades. And, of course, there is always that local pride to see them celebrated on the world stage, which they have been once again:

Irish Distillers Pernod Ricard has been named Producer of the Year at this year’s prestigious International Spirits Challenge (ISC), topping the ‘World Whiskies’ group that not only encompasses the Irish Whiskey category but also all other world whiskies, showcasing the continued prowess of Ireland’s leading whiskey producer.

Irish Distillers picked up the accolade at an ISC award ceremony, held at the Honourable Artillery Company in Central London on July 6th.

Speaking at the event, Brian Nation, Irish Distillers Head Distiller, commented: “This prestigious award is testament to the dedication and commitment of the passionate craftspeople at the Midleton Distillery; past and present. It is a huge honour to be part of a team that is collectively recognised as producer of the year for all world whiskies, and a fantastic motivation to continue crafting our award-winning products with the utmost care and consistency.”

Now in its 21st year, the ISC is one of the world’s most influential competitions in promoting outstanding quality spirits. The competition is founded on a rigorous and independent judging process, and receives more than 1,300 entries from nearly 70 countries worldwide.

One of the things that industry people will tell you is that it isn’t the scale of the Midleton operation that is most impressive about it, but rather the versatility – as one master distiller in Scotland put it to me ‘it’s not how much they can create, it’s what they can do – that’s what is so remarkable’.

In short, Midleton distillery can make a lot of whiskey, but they can also make a lot of whiskeys – they can remix and rewrite to create a vast array of spirit styles long before they even start thinking about wood. A good example of this diversity is in the list of expressions that won medals at the ISC this year:

  •         Jameson Black Barrel (Gold)
  •         Jameson 18 Year Old (Gold)
  •         Jameson Bold (Gold)
  •         Jameson Round (Gold)
  •         Redbreast 12 Year Old (Gold)
  •         Yellow Spot (Gold)
  •         Powers John’s Lane Release (Gold)
  •         Jameson Original (Silver)
  •         Jameson Signature (Silver)
  •         Jameson Caskmates (Silver)
  •         Jameson Crested (Silver)
  •         Jameson Lively (Silver)
  •         Redbreast 12 Year Old Cask Strength (Silver)
  •         Redbreast 15 Year Old (Silver)
  •         Redbreast 21 Year Old (Silver)
  •         Green Spot (Silver)

IDL recently rebranded a few of the above into a more unified style, something that reflects the changing times here: For years we had a few distilleries trying to look like several – and now there are several distilleries here it is time for the big producers to circle the wagons and place some of their brands under one flag.

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As someone who loves the variety of IDL’s output, I’m not wild about the idea. I can see the logic behind it, but to see a cult classic like Crested 10, with its old fashioned styling and inaccurate name (it’s not ten years old) being rebranded into a sort of rugby jersey-looking yoke is just depressing. But if it was a case of rebrand or retire – which it possibly was, given Crested’s lack of profile – then I guess I can suck it up.  

I had hoped to get this garbage written without mentioning millennials, but since this rebrand is most likely aimed squarely at them, I’m going to. The Makers’ and Deconstructed series are effectively a painting-by-numbers introduction to whiskey, taking drinkers on those first few tentative steps from blends down the rabbit hole to personalised Glencairns, tweed waistcoats and terrible puns on the word ‘dram’. Dramnation awaits you all!

But this re-positioning makes sense – given the huge boom in Irish whiskey, you want to bring as many people into the fold as possible, even if it is with a trio of whiskeys which sound like a tragic personal ad – ‘lively, round and bold’ – or another trio of whiskeys which sound like like something out of Roger Melly’s Profanisaurus (Blender’s Dog being a particular offender in this regard).

As for new expressions, who knows – but this interview with Master Distiller Brian Nation mentions Gan Eagla, which is the Irish language version of the Jameson family slogan, sine metu; without fear. It might as well mean ‘without age statement’ since that seems to be the industry trend – churn out as many NAS titles as your marketing team can dream up and keep charging premium rates for them.

But we live in hope: I’d love to see a Red Spot (they still have the trademark, there’s still a chance!), or more of the creativity that gave us Dair Ghaelach, or anything with a little bit more depth, and a few more years on it. I am very, very far from being any sort of whiskey expert, geek or even a proper blogger (30,000 posts on here, a couple of hundred on whiskey), but I’d like to see less NAS, and more quality, aged whiskeys coming from my hometown. I know they have it – when I look out the window all I can see is acres of warehouses, stacked to the rafters with barrels just waiting to be emptied down my gullet.

But until that glorious day, let’s just all agree that IDL are getting it mostly right as long as they don’t resurrect Kiskadee rum:

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