Storming the castle

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Last year was my first time at Whiskey Live Dublin. I got in via a press pass, only to discover that a large part of the ticket price goes to Down Syndrome Ireland, thus prompting me to shamefacedly spend about 30 euro on raffle tickets for the charity. I didn’t win anything, but I had an amazing day. I wasn’t sure what the event was going to be like – I was going on my own, thought I might end up bored, and just felt the whole exercise might be an in-and-out-in-30-mins situation. But while I was one of the first in the door of the venue – then the round room in the Mansion House – I was also one of the last out, some four hours and 30 minutes later. I hadn’t even managed to make all of the stands, as I was having too much fun chatting to just about anyone who came into my line of vision.

The whiskey scene is quite small – domestically and globally – so when you are surrounded by like-minded souls it’s hard not to feel an instant sense of kinship. These are fellow geeks, facedown in a Glencairn, talking about phenolic content, grain vs malt, pot still vs everything else, and us vs the rest of the drinks world. How could I not go back? This year I dragged along my brother in law, and after a giant feed of buttermilk chicken in Crackbird, we sauntered into this year’s venue, the Printworks in Dublin Castle. The place was filling up already, so we got our glasses and hit the floor.

First up was Kilbeggan, where we had the eight year old single grain formerly known as Greenore – light, interesting, mellow – followed by the soon to be extinct 22 year old Connemara peated malt – rich, nutty, and an undervalued whiskey. We were talked through them by a man who knows them best – Master Distiller Noel Sweeney. We sipped our drinks, lamented the passing of Slieve Foy, and that was it – faces flushed, we were in the flow, moving from table to table, having the bants with the reps and sipping some pretty exceptional whiskeys. We also tried the wonderful Longueville House apple brandy, a first for me which is fairly shameful since they are only up the road from me (near Mallow, to be precise). According to the rep, they have been making it for 25 years now, and the original idea came from the fact they had acres of orchards, thus posing the problem of what to do with the apples. Like all inventive Irish people, they decided to make booze – very, very nice booze.

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Right opposite their stand was another novel sensory experience – one from the island of Islay, where Irish monks first showed the Scots how to make whisky. Ardbeg is one of those classic Islay malts, heavy in peat smoke and a drink that I refused to believe was whisky when I first tasted it. I hated it then, I love it now: Briny, tarry, sweet, biscuity, spicy, utterly fucking crazy – Ardbeg is an otherworldly drink from an otherworldly land. To celebrate this, they had what looked like a device from Frankenstein’s lab – a contraption belching out plumes of eldritch fog, which was actually vaporized Ardbeg. It’s called the Haar after the soupy sea fog that occasionally envelopes the island.

So we took a drop of Ardbeg, filled the glass with fog, and then made up our own minds what to do next. I, unlike Bill Clinton, inhaled deeply, then took a sip. I can’t say it instantly changed the profile of the whisky, but it really made for an interesting experience – lungs full of gaseous booze, mouth sizzling with phenols, blood rushing to my face as the liquor hit. It was mental. And slightly menthol.

We also visited The Glenlivet stand, conveniently placed next to Pernod Ricard stablemates Irish Distillers. The Glenlivet is currently the number one Scotch in the world, which means they are under severe pressure to fulfill demand. Thus, like many of their counterparts, they are replacing their entry level 12-year-old single malt with a non-age statement (NAS) Founder’s Reserve. The NAS debate reared its head many times during the day. Is it a necessary move – or are drinks firms just diluting their classics and charging the same price? Is age just a number – or is it reflected in the quality of the whiskey? If stocks are under pressure, surely they should just up the price as supply diminishes, and let the consumer make the call on how much they love the product? Or just lower the price on the Founder’s Reserve. It is a polarizing issue in the whiskey scene – the age statement is an important signifier for the consumer, and to lose that is like having half the ingredients of your favorite dish suddenly obscured. My own feelings are this: As an ordinary Joe, I like the reassuring presence of an age statement, but it can also be misleading.

This was brought home to me at the Glendalough stand, where we sampled the seven year old and the 13 year old single malts. I found the seven to be extraordinary – citrus notes and sugar, astringent and smooth, it was a real eye opener to just how different Cooley stock can be. So older does not mean better. At the Spirit of Speyside I took part in the Whisky Shop Dufftown blind tasting, where I sampled seven whiskies from independent bottlers.  The last one I tried was incredible – a molasses-coloured malt that had a depth and complexity I have almost never encountered. I found out after that it was a 2007 Adelphi bottling of a Glen Rothes – a seven year old malt from a remarkable cask. Youth does not equate to immaturity, and the reverse is also true – I’m forty and I still wear skinny jeans and listen to heavy metal.

When I was in Speyside I also met this chap, who works with bottlers and single malt legends Gordon And McPhail, who own the beautiful Benromach distillery. He gave us a taste of the organic offering from the distillery; the lengths they have to go to to get the organic certification are incredible, it’s not just a case of using organic barley and leaving it at that. The whole process has to be organic, which means nothing can be burnt, so the malt is steam dried, leaving the drink phenol free. Remarkable stuff – but I still prefer the standard 10.

Then we idled over to my east Cork neighbors, Irish Distillers, where Cork’s Irish Whiskey Society stalwart – and Midleton distillery worker – Eric Ryan was representing, along with Fox And Geese employee Dánú MacMahon, who guided us through a flock of Redbreasts – the cask-strength 12, the 15, and whiskey of the year, the 21. I love the cask-strength – it just takes you right back to that first time drinking whiskey, the fire and heat, gasping for air, eye-watering ‘oh Jesus’ effect, then giving way to that big mouthful of flavor that just rolls and rolls. I offered my condolences to Dánú – her fellow Jameson Graduate Programme participant Karen Cotter got to go to Cannes for a few days, whilst Dánú got to go to Whiskey Live and be bored to tears by me. Mind you, Karen also got to be bored to tears by me already, so maybe they should just make this part of the graduate programme – Module 1: Get Talked At By Boring Old Man In Skinny Jeans.

After that we sauntered over to Teeling, one of the buzz firms of the last few years. They come weighted with great expectations – their dad changed distilling in Ireland, and they are bringing an awareness of branding and marketing to an industry that has sometimes let those aspects slide. They also entered the market with what, to my mind, is one of the best blends in the world. We tried the single grain and the malt, both great but with the malt the definite winner. The Teeling rep was also one of the best we encountered – despite being with the firm only a short while, she was overflowing with enthusiasm and energy, something that can be hard to sustain over the long hours of a whiskey expo.

Another standout were the guys from Tamdhu – they were a joy, despite the fact that I opened by telling them they were representing the ugliest distillery in Scotland. Although I did qualify this by pointing out that it makes one of my favorite single malts. The reps rocketed us through three Tamdhus, four Glengoynes (the 15 is an absolute cracker) and refused to take no for an answer when I tried to decline an Edinburgh Gin. I’m happy they did – it was what I would call a great breakfast drink, infused with pink grapefruit, giving it a tart sweetness that served as a welcome palate cleanser after so many great whiskeys.

The whole event is organized by Ally Alpine of the Celtic Whiskey Shop, who has been celebrating all whiskeys of the world for more than a decade. The shop itself had a big presence on the day, with Mark McLoughlin being the one to talk us through the legendary Taiwanese whisky, Kavalan. Mark informed us that in Taiwan whisky only has to age for two years to earn the classification – but that two years in Taiwan is akin to many more in Ireland. The wet heat in Taiwan means the spirit ages at incredible speed without compromising on flavour. We tried the multi-award-winning Soloist – a super premium malt with a treacle-black color and supernova of flavours. Kavalan has been growing in stature for some years now, so hopefully the often conservative whiskey scene will embrace it as they should. Fun fact: It used to be stocked in Tesco in the UK, but has since almost completely disappeared from everywhere except specialist spirits shops like the Celtic Whiskey Shop.

Round the other side of the stand we tried whisky from Scotland’s ‘land of the lost’ – the region known as Campbeltown. Once the heart of whisky in Scotland, almost nothing remains except Springbank, the newish Glengyle and Glen Scotia. We tried the illusive Springbank and Hazelburn, both smoky and sweet, fruity and dry – a solid bridge between the medicinal malts of Islay and the sweet sherry influences of Speyside.

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After those obscure drams, we decided to opt for one of the global stars – Jack Daniels. Remarkably, this was my first time drinking it. Like Kavalan, the heat in Kentucky contributes much to the flavor, but after all the big flavors, I found Gentleman Jack to be a little flat. Perhaps a rematch can be arranged on a date when I haven’t been pounding my tastebuds into dust.

We also managed to stop off at the Arran table. Arran were one of my big finds last year, and they were ably represented by the be-kilted Campbell, the man who showed Roman Abramovich around the distillery earlier this year. Campbell wasn’t there this year, but we still got to have a few drams and some chat about whether or not Roman was going to buy the distillery, as he is obviously quite the fan. We sampled their new release, The Bothy, and then as the clock was ticking, hit the BenRiach and GlenDronach table.

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GlenDronach is one of my favorite whiskies – a real sherry bomb. It also comes with a great back story. Allardice, the man behind it, brought some of his whisky into Edinburgh to sell it, and failing to shift a single drop, drowned his sorrows with some ladies he met. The next day, said ladies and more of their acquaintances showed up at his lodgings, demanding to get more of his great whisky, and so a legend was born. After a sip of the Allardice release, honoring its founder, we doubled back to the Muldoon stand for a nip of their award winning Thin Gin and then finished up with their honeyed whiskey liqueur – the perfect dessert dram. And with that, we were gone – but not before I managed to get an autograph.

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John Teeling just happened to be passing me, and I just happened to have a copy of Ivor Kenny’s book which he contributed to. In the book John reveals that he was approached to buy Irish Distillers in what was then known as a leveraged buy-out (LBO), and is now known as private equity. There is an excellent book called Barbarians At The Gate about the birth of the LBO which details the takeover of Nabisco – and the beginning of the obscene fees that have since consumed Wall Street and much of the financial world.

But John Teeling didn’t go for the IDL LBO – as he points out in the book (and as he pointed out to me again yesterday), the debt would have been massive, and he also feared the government of the day would come after him, as with any LBO there is massive job cuts. Effectively, borrowed money is used to buy a firm, chop it up, sell it off and repay the debt – with plenty left over for the organisers of the deal. Fun fact: Private equity was actually what Richard Gere’s character in Pretty Woman was engaged in. So not the most moral end of the takeover business. IDL would have lost up to 300 jobs in the LBO. But John Teeling didn’t go down that road – he left IDL alone, and they have gone on to become a world leader. So Irish whiskey owes him a lot, and not just for Cooley. Meeting him and shaking his hand was a pretty great end to a great day.

Apart from all the great whiskey, there were food pairings, masterclasses, the rugby on massive screens, and loads of free goodies from the various brands. The event is incredibly good value, and a great day out for both the hardcore enthusiast or the casual lush like me. There was plenty I didn’t include above, meeting Finn from Dick Mack’s – the Whiskey Pub Of The Year for the past two years – as well as being told that Jameson are definitely releasing the Whiskey Makers trilogy (something I have since heard is definitely not the case), insider gossip, details of sort-of friendly rivalries, new releases and all the other industry stuff that other writers (ie, Dave Havelin of the fantastic LiquidIrish.com) cover much better than I. My only regret is that I didn’t make half the stands – but sher there’s always next year.

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