Twilight of the gods

First, a death. Aleck Crichton, above, passed away recently at the age of 98, an impressive age for anyone, but especially for someone who led a tank battalion through Normandy in the aftermath of the D-Day landings. Somewhat ominously named after an uncle who died in the Great War, Crichton was badly injured in 1944. Returning home to Ireland, he took up a role in the family business – Jameson. He was part of the team who engineered the merger between the last big distilleries in Ireland, an act which most likely saved our industry from extinction. Part of that difficult transition meant that, in 1984, the decision was made to concentrate on Jameson – a decision that has paid off some three decades later. Richard Burrows, speaking to Ivor Kenny in 2001, noted how this singular focus was difficult because the family members of the original distillers were still on the board: “They paid lip service to marketing – they may sound harsh, but I believe it’s true. Their interest was whether their Jameson, or their Powers, or their Paddy was getting the promotional money.”

Crichton was also chair of the Yeats Society, fitting given that his parents were friends of Yeats’s, a regular visitor to their home on Fitzwilliam Square. Crichton’s memories of Ireland’s Most Emo Nerd were thus: “I would play tag with his children on the square and we were always getting into trouble,” he recalled.

“I don’t remember him ever actually talking to us but he didn’t ignore us either.”

“He always dressed impeccably, always wore a bow tie and silver buckles on his shoes. My father and mother were huge friends and he was often in our home for tea.”

Good old poets – loads of money for shoe buckles, none for buying their own tea.

The foundations laid by Crichton and the rest of the board of IDL are being reaped in the Irish whiskey boom of today – just look at Mark Reynier’s Waterford Distillery, who recently got a rather large chunk of investment cash. Sez the press release:

Phase 1 of our project was the purchase of the Guinness Brewery from Diageo in December 2014 for €7.5m. We then spent €2m during 2015 converting it to a modern distillery; developed a unique barley supply chain; distilled 1m litres of new spirit traceable to 46 farm terroirs by January 2017; and established a bespoke warehouse complex at Ballygarran.

Phase 1 is now complete, on budget and on schedule. The quality of the spirit is first rate supported by both taste and analysis.

We now move to phase II, as outlined in our plan, the total focus of building up stock volumes to 5m litres.

Distilling is an expensive business. And with no revenue stream (deliberately) at this early stage, all the more so.

It is a testament to the strength of the company – the Facilitator, people, shareholders and spirit – that it has secured €20m new funding for Phase II with the investment of €5.8m from BGF (Business Growth Fund) and a €14.4m debt facility with Ulster Bank.

At the same time as the Ulster facility, BGF was invited to make their first investment in an Irish business. We’re delighted to have them aboard.

This €20m funding of whisky stock leads, inevitably, to Phase III, the exciting bit, bringing the whisky to market. Roll out those barrels.

Another snippet of news also came from Waterford Distillery around the same time – the departure of one of the key members of the team. Lisa Ryan had worked on site when it was Diageo’s Guinness brewery,  and was head brewer after Reynier took over (her father also supplied some of the barley for their whiskey). So this came as something of a surprise:

Ten years ago you either worked for Cooley, Bushmills or IDL or you didn’t work in distilling. Now we have a growing industry, and a desperate search for staff with experience. Staff being able to move from distillery will be good for the industry and for the category. People will do good things with a brand and get headhunted, and a knowledge economy will be created. So the future is bright – even Diageo are back in the game. They jettisoned Bushmills not long ago and now are building a distillery in their Dublin campus. You can peruse their plans for the St James’s Gate Power House on the DCC site, but here are a few snippets:

There is a really insightful analysis of the move by Louise McGuane here, which explains the smart business of getting rid of one distillery only to build another. Diageo have resurrected the George Roe brand for a sourced blend, presumably from Bushmills, although who knows – with Irish whiskey it’s never exactly crystal clear. The issue of transparency is one that rapidly becoming an unhealthy obsession for me. It’s like Tesco’s fake farms that they use in branding their meat – they say consumers don’t care, and perhaps they are right. But I think that if you stood at the checkout and explained to people that they have no idea where their food came from, and that the shop selling it to them had to invent a place to make that fact seem less unsettling, then they might be less inclined to buy that giant chicken for three euro.

The same goes for whiskey brands – here’s an example of food marketing: This is the pre-release image of The Whistler, a sourced whiskey from Boann Distillery –

And this is what the label actually says:

We can argue semantics all day, but changing from bottled to crafted suggests the hand of marketing. It’s disappointing, not least because I had a few of the Boann whiskeys at Whiskey Live Dublin and thought they had a very strong product. Boann are legitimate distillers who are building a brand while stocks mature – so why bother with the use of the term crafted? It is a weasel word, and the category would be better off without it.

However, it isn’t entirely fair to single Boann out – after all there are other independent bottlers who are using far more misleading tactics – but the entire category is going to have a credibility issue until this sort of behaviour is abandoned. Yes, we only had three distilleries for the last few decades, and yes we have hundreds of brands from those same three sources, all trying to create their own identity – but our image abroad will not improve unless we call a halt to the theatrical flourishes of food marketing firms.  There are few sights more depressing than Americans tweeting at independent bottlers to ask them about opening times of their non-existent distilleries – and it is happening. Consumers will end up disillusioned when they discover that the brand they love has endeavored to convince them that their whiskey comes from a distillery that does not exist, and our grand plans for whiskey tourism will be for naught.

And it isn’t just small bottlers sending out confusing signals, the biggest of them all is guilty too, as every bottle of Jameson carries the address of ‘Bow Street, Dublin’ proudly on the label, as though the liquid contained within is actually made there. The liquid is made in Cork, the IDL HQ is in Ballsbridge, and while Bow Street is the tourism HQ, when it comes to the whiskey itself, that address is a phantom limb.

As the interest in Irish whiskey grows worldwide, I am seeing more and more chatter online about the issue of transparency – I don’t want us to be seen as some sort of snake oil tricksters, slinging whiskey distilled in Fidder’s Green by the magical folk, when it all comes from one branch of the holy trinity of Cooley/Midleton/Bushmills. Supply deals may include a privacy clause, but brands can still be more honest – do it in small print on the back label, the geeks will appreciate it and everyone else won’t care enough to read it. The IWA aren’t going to enforce this – one member told me as much when I asked them about false provenance. They told me copyright was basically all they were concerned with right now. It is understandable: The IWA is just an industry body – the consumers’ best interests are not their top priority.

However, I was pleased to see the Irish Whiskey Society are holding a night on this topic soon. Here are the details:

On May 25th, the Irish Whiskey Society will be inviting 8 of the industry’s most vocal movers and shakers for a panel discussion on the liquid identity of our national drink: its making, its labelling, its sales, and its spirit. From startup indies to growing global brands, the panel will include brand builders, critics, distillers, and publicans – for a look at the liquid as its trickling off today.

If there is change, it will be the geeks and the indies who lead it – they understand that if you make transparency and honesty the core of your sales pitch, you can’t go wrong.

There was more good news recently for the orphan of Irish whiskey – Bushmills. I find it frustrating to see this brand languishing as it has, and while I was optimistic that the new owners would bring some fresh thinking, I haven’t seen much evidence yet, from the poorly-received Steamship series to the woefully titled Red Bush. They must have some incredible stock there just waiting for the right treatment – gives us some single barrel, some quality age statements – after all, the place is actually doing quite well:

Northern Ireland’s best-known whiskey maker enjoyed a bumper year in 2015, according to its most-recently filed accounts.

Part of the 18 months in the accounting period covers a period under the ownership of Mexican drinks giant Jose Cuervos, after the sale of Bushmills by Diageo.

The brand’s new owners filed a planning application for a major expansion of the Bushmills facility in a bid to double production capacity. It plans to build a £30m expansion to its current distillery and has now been given permission for the facility which, it says, will “effectively double production capacity”.

It’s also planning to build almost 30 huge warehouses to mature its world-famous Irish whiskey. A strategic report filed with the accounts says its new owners are planning to develop the company through expanding into new markets and increasing sales.

Increase the sales by all means but please increase the quality of the releases while you’re at it. That place deserves to shine.

As titans like Bushmills meander, there are of course numerous challengers approaching. There’s Cape Clear Distillery and the man behind it, Adrian Fitzgibbbon, a financier who was one of the leading lights in the Irish wing of Sachsen LLB.  Mr Fitzgibbon initially aimed to set up a distillery and visitors centre on his own property, Horse Island, a small chunk of land about 800 metres off the coast of Skibbereen. Designer Terry Greene, who is behind the neo-celt aesthetic of Barr An Uisce, did some sterling work on the brand:

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When that was refused, Mr Fitzgibbon moved his attention to the nearby island of Cape Clear, where the plan has been accepted and is now the funding stage. Here are the plans:

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Again, Terry Greene is working on the design:

Cape Clear is beautiful, and one would hope that with Fitzgibbon’s background in finance, they will have no trouble whipping up the cash to make it the dream a reality.

Another Cork resident with a background in finance is Michael Scully, a farmer turned property developer, the latter part of which you can read more about here. He is behind the Clonakilty Atlantic Distillery, which is dues to be built within a unit set up for Ulster Bank before the economy tanked. It later became a gaelscoil. Here are some visuals:

There’s also Gortinore, who have plans for the old mill in Kilmacthomas, Tipperary Boutique, who are forging ahead with plans for a grain-to-glass operation near Cahir, Sliabh Liag up in Donegal – there are many planned distilleries and it is going to be interesting to see who makes it to market in five to ten years and who falls by the wayside. It is going to be an interesting decade for Irish whiskey, but my own two cents are thus – all the mentoring in the world isn’t going to ensure integrity. The financial collapse in 2008 showed that there is no ‘invisible hand of the market’ which guides best practise, and that humans will generally do whatever suits them best – even if it means lying to the public. The whiskey business has had a tolerance of subterfuge that needs to be ditched so that we – consumers and producers – hold our heads high and make Irish whiskey great again.

 

 

Battle royale

So the Indo asked me to write a bit on the royal visit to Kilkenny. Naturally I completely misinterpreted the brief on the piece and had to rewrite it; the final printed version is here, while this is the original:

We have come a long way as a country. The announcement that HRH Prince Charles was going to be visiting Kilkenny was greeted with a national shrugging of shoulders, a sign that we have moved on from the angry young nation we once were to a more mature approach. We now see a royal visit as being like Christmas drinks in your house with neighbours you don’t especially like, but need to keep onside in case you need to borrow a generator at some point.

In fact, it might even be acceptable to say that it would be nice to have our own aristocracy. Sure, we have our own version of royalty, like Queen Miriam O’Callaghan, ruler of the airwaves, pirate king Johnny Ronan, snatching up gluten-free princesses and whisking them away to his north African hideout, or the Dauphin Nicky Byrne, whose increasingly complex riddles saw his Million Euro Challenge show marched to the guillotine. If only he had listened to his father in law, Emperor Bertie, he would have known that the plain people of Ireland care not for complex mathematics, nor even rudimentary bookkeeping.

So we have our own yellow-pack royalty – but it’s not really the same. There is something entertaining about watching genuine aristocrats go about their business, like a cross between Teletubbies and Game Of Thrones. All that pomp and circumstance, the pageantry of it all, the zany names and goofy accents. The only real royalty we have is Puck Fair’s King Puck, a terrified goat in a cage, dangling 50 feet off the ground like a hairy David Blaine.

Kilkenny was the perfect choice of venue for a royal visit, for it was King James I who granted it royal charter as a city in 1609, which led to centuries of confusion as visitors pointed out that it really is just a large town. Anyone suggesting this heresy might want to do so in private, as Kilkenny was also home to one of the first witch trials – and subsequent burnings at the stake – in Europe. Held in 1324, the trial involved Dame Alice de Kyteler and her servant Petronella de Meath. Part of the charges claimed that Alice had a demon as incubus ‘by whom she permitted herself to be known carnally’ and that he appeared as a cat – something that should sound familiar to any poor hurler who had the arse ridden off them by the Cats in Croke Park over the last two decades.

The two were found guilty of the crimes, and while Petronella was flogged and burnt at the stake, Dame Alice fled to the UK. Aristocrats – a great bunch of lads.

It is Kilkenny’s rich medieval history that has drawn Charles to the city, according to Chris Hennessy, the head barman at The Dylan Whisky Bar.  Chris said that the rumours of the royal visit started some months ago, but were confirmed in the last three weeks. Asked how the news was greeted by locals, he says “People were just glad that something was happening outside Dublin”.

While there are two definite stops for the couple – Rothe House, a 17th century merchant’s townhouse, and the stunning Kilkenny Castle – The Dylan might appear on the itinerary. As the number one whiskey bar in Leinster, it is entirely possible that a whisky enthusiast like Charles might pop in for a quick dram. The Prince is a keen supporter of whisky producers, having given a royal charter to Scotland’s Laphroaig, a distillery whose fire-and-brimstone whisky would go down a treat with the Kilkenny puritans who flambéd Petronella de Meath. So if HRH should pop in for a liquid lunch, what would Chris serve him?

“To start I’d go with an original aqua vitae. This was the drink that later became what we know as whiskey, and the first recipe for it comes from the Red Book of Ossory, penned in 1324 by Bishop de Ledrede at St Canice’s right here in Kilkenny. We have recreated it from that original recipe, so he could start by tasting whiskey’s ancient past. Then I would serve Redbreast 12, to show the traditional Irish style of whiskey, and finish with the new Teeling Brabazon, to give a glimpse of the future.”

Chris points out that the visit really does seem less about publicity – of which there has been little – and more out of the royal couple’s genuine curiosity about the Marble City. Asked if the bar had considered any ways to cash in, he says “We did think about getting in cardboard cut-outs of them, but we were worried we might get a visit from the secret service agents.”

While the royal visit – and subsequent boost in profile – should be of great benefit for the city, it really is a shame that some of the younger royals don’t make a trip across the water before Brexit makes it a bit of a nightmare to get through immigration.

Charles and Camilla’s visit may be the biggest thing to hit the town since the Black Death touched down in 1348, but who among us wouldn’t like to see Will and Kate bringing the kids over for a weekend? Who wouldn’t want to bump into them stocking up on shorts and T-shirts in Market Cross Penneys, as their kids rip the place to bits? Or witness Harry and Meghan loudly arguing outside Joe’s Takeaway at 3am whilst spilling garlic chips down their tops? Imagine the boost in Kilkenny’s tourism profile if little George was seen in a miniature Kilkenny kit, swinging a hurlóg at passers-by, while his dad struggled to get a slab of Smithwicks into the back of a horse-drawn carriage.

In the absence of a monarchy of our own, maybe it’s time we simply accepted the royals back into our bosom – after all, they are practically related to us, for both Kate’s family and that of Charles and his sons, can be traced back to the High King Of Ireland, Brian Boru. Boru’s lineage can also be traced to JFK, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama, and even our own Baronet, Ryan Tubridy. In fact, Boru’s sprawling family tree shows that when it comes to producing devil-may-care aristocrats with complex marital relations, we really are up there with the best of them.

 

The glorious now

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Craft used to mean strength. The original word in German and Scandinavian languages meant power, or might, but it was in Old English that the meaning was expanded to include dexterity or a skill in art or science. Modern use – and abuse – of the term by food marketing firms has led to it becoming almost completely without meaning, but it still resonates. It suggests a more human product, as though somehow machines make soulless goods, and only the touch of a human hand can somehow magically imbue a product with a greater flavour, personality or depth of character.

All over the world, whiskey producers are angling to leverage the word craft to their advantage. Somehow the romance of small firms, individual brands, and the idea of the distilling auteur have embedded in the minds of consumers. But what does craft actually mean? That was the question posed by Alexandre Ricard in late 2014. The CEO of Pernod Ricard said he was struggling with the term, and questioning what defined a craft spirit – was it a question of scale, or of skill? The firm’s more recent explorations of the term included buying Smooth Ambler, thereby buying into two categories they were underexposed in – ‘craft’ spirits and bourbon. But even as he asked the question, Ricard already had plans to explore craft on his firm’s own terms, and on its own ground.

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The micro distillery in Midleton opened with much fanfare in late 2015 just as the sales of Jameson really hit their stride, charging past the five million case mark. The micro distillery was a departure for Midleton, bringing operations back to the site of the old distillery for the first time in four decades. It also eschewed automation and digital displays in favour of levers and dials. Since opening, it has served a dual purpose; as a showpiece for the tours of the distillery, and also as an incubation space for experimentation.

The sheer scale of the main plant is breathtaking, but not especially romantic. Its vast size also means that experimentation is a challenge, as any new methods or ingredients would see the company forced to commit to working with large quantities. Great if you have a success, not so much if you create a dud. So the microdistillery has become a breeding ground for experimentation, a fact celebrated recently under the umbrella of the Methods & Madness range. As part of that range’s launch, a select group of whiskey bloggers, journalists, influencers and one clueless local (me) were invited to the Irish Whiskey Academy for a tasting of some of their experiments with Master Distiller Brian Nation.

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Like everything in life worth doing, creating new distillates in the microdistillery wasn’t the easiest task, given that the wash is still being made in the main plant, a fact they hope to rectify by building a brewhouse within the microdistillery building: “We’re hopeful – we’re applying in the next year for some form of brewing and it’s a little bit up in the air at the moment whether we try to put a brewing facility up above and send the wash down into the microdistillery, or whether we install a full brewhouse down into the micro,” Nation explains.

“Preferentially we would like to see the brewhouse down there but what it does mean is that you have to bring a lot of grain handling down to the building and that brings its own issues around ATEX and dust zones. We have a building alongside the micro that we need to see if we can house all of that, but that would be the ideal for us.

“Because then you have the whole place compact in one area, you can play around with your cereals – we spoke a little while ago about playing around with different yeast types and you really have the opportunity to explore what is possible from the micro.”

But main plant’s brewhouse is not micro – it is macro.

“That is part of the problem. So you are taking a brew through a mash filter and putting just one or two into a fermenter, but then you have to make sure that you get the wort up above the cooling coils of the fermenter, because if you don’t then you actually kill it all off, so it is actually quite difficult at the moment.

“What we’re doing is to try and use as much of the time available to us without having the brewing capabilities, so hopefully by the end of next year we should have something.

“When we had opportunities in the main plant we tried different cereals, and they are the next whiskeys that we are going to taste. The first thing we’re going to taste is what we were making when we were in the microdistillery this morning, which is a barley and malt mash – about 60% barley and 40% malt.

“If you were to compare it to the pot still distillate that we produce up in the main plant, it has a lot of those characteristics, but for us it tends to have a little bit more character in it, it has a bit more spice and more fruitiness and for me I tend to get a little bit of clove and liquorice coming through it as well.  This is at 40%; obviously we run the pot stills down there at 84.4% but we watered it down as we didn’t want to overwhelm you.

“For a new make spirit – and this is coming back to the triple distillation process but also coming back to the use of unmalted barley – you have creaminess on the mouthfeel as well, and I feel it’s good to showcase to people that you get that creaminess in the new spirit as well, it’s not a really harsh whiskey to take, even thought it’s a new distillate.”

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Next up was the rye. Typically associated with the northeastern United States, rye whiskey is undergoing a global resurgence after almost completely disappearing during and after Prohibition. A typical rye whiskey will be at least 51% rye, with malted barley and corn. Midleton’s take is slightly different: “So this is a mash bill of rye and malted barley so we effectively replaced the barley with rye and we put it through our batch brewing process above, fermented it and brought it down here where it was distilled.

“It’s typically about 60/40 (rye/malt). What we found  from the distillate is that on the nose it seems a harder note coming through it, a little less creamy. You know sometimes the way sometimes when you taste something it brings back a memory rather than a scientific taste? For me this reminds me of some boiled sweets that you used to get – the rhubarb and custard ones. But you can see – this has gone through the same process and it actually is quite different (from the pot still spirit) in taste and flavour, there’s still the spiciness there as well, and for me you tend to get that malty characteristic coming through as well.”

Midleton are obviously keen on this spicy new distillate, as they have committed to another aspect of the craft movement – the idea of grain to glass traceability.

“We’re quite excited about the rye. We have sown a hundred and 60 acres of rye in Enniscorthy – two different types of rye, and that should be harvested in September of this year, and the plan is to use that for distillation. We’re quite excited about that – because we saw how good this rye turned out. And were actually looking at doing this on our grain side, our column side.”

As for what a rye spirit from a column still would go into: “It’s going to be something new – we have a few ideas but we’re not going to divulge that at the moment; but effectively what we’re going to do, or at least what we are aiming for, is that instead of going for the 60/40 split it would be 100% rye.”

While they haven’t used a malted rye yet, they may in the future depending on the yields from the harvest in the autumn. Part of the narrative of the foundation of the microdistillery was the discovery of a lost recipe book belonging to John Jameson II.  So did Jameson The Second have any rye recipes from 100 years ago?

“There  are some John Jameson recipes that show an inclusion of rye in it so that’s one of the reasons that we actually started looking at rye, but now we are looking at different ways of doing a full rye just to see what it’s like.”

As for the taste of the rye distillate, it differs slightly from its pot still mixed mash cousin: “What I like about what we are producing here is that even on the taste – because of the triple distillation and the smoothness of the triple distillation they are quite palatable even as a distillate on their own. What we have here is straight off the stills, but what we have done with some of it is put it straight into casks – we kept very little of the distillate, the last of the distillate is effectively gone today what we have tried to do as well is to see how well they are going to mature – we are laying out stocks in normal barrels but we are also trying to put them into smaller barrels because you tend to get a faster maturation time there and it gives you a better feel for how maturation is going to progress on a bigger scale as well so we are quite happy with that at the moment.

“The other side of it as well is that when we – and again this is a learning process for us – when you decide to take something like rye into your plant and you try to mill it using equipment for barley, if you have a hammer mill, it’s amazing the impact it has on your capacity and the speed at which you can mill material through and that was a big learning curve for us because you assume a hammer mill will do what it needs to for any grain but depending on the type of grain, depending on the density of the grain, depending on the size of the grain, it’s going to have an impact, so we are seeing that as we go along as well.”

But if the rye was a challenge to distill, the next sample was the fruits of some very intensive labours. Oats may make an incredibly healthy breakfast cereal, having been recently proved to aid gut and heart health, but they did little good to Brian Nation’s health as he struggled to distill them.

Historically oats would have been used in brewing in the Middle Ages, but very few distillers use them to make whiskey, save Silver Western Oat whiskey from High West – another craft distillery that was on Pernod’s shopping list in the run up to the Smooth Ambler acquisition, before High West ultimately succumbed to Constellation Brands.

As Nation discovered, there is a reason few people distill with oats.

“What we found with the oats is that they are a nightmare to process through the plant because it has such an amount of husk on it and it is quite a light grain, it was unbelievable what we went through, when you have gristbins  that are filling up with half – say we took six tonnes into a gristbin of barley, and the gristbin was full, three tonnes of oats would fill the same space, and they were choking the mills. We thought this would be easy – it’s simple, it is such an easy grain to deal with – and then we tried to process and brew and it was quite difficult. Again, another learning curve.

“I would probably say that we are fairly unique in this (the use of oats) at the moment. Normally what you would have found is that oats would have been put into a mash bill at a very small percentage for a lauter tun or a mash tun because what it did was it aided filtration.

“It didn’t really add anything to the flavour at the time but it was more of an aid for ensuring that your filter beds had enough of a grist of oats in it to allow the drainage to come though, whereas we are using it now at a much higher percentage to see what the impact on the flavor is. We were pleasantly surprised with it.

“This is a mash bill of malted barley and oats, again replacing the barley with the oats so again it’s a 60/40. What we felt with the flavour from this is that it tends to come across a little bit lighter but you do tend to have this oatmeal, cereal-bar notes coming through. Still has creaminess – not the same level of fruit as the rye or pot still, but still a quite interesting distillate. A dryer finish, and that cereal note following through but again you can see the difference that the cereal has made on the overall distillate side.”

Of course, the three distillates were just a sample of what has been taking place in the microdistillery: “At this stage I think we have 11 types of distillate that we have produced. Not all of them fantastic, but we are seeing how they mature because sometimes you might produce a distillate that that on its own may be too heavy or whatever, but when you put it into a barrel and mature it a little and see what the impact is there; it might actually combine very well. That’s what we have done with anything we have produced at the moment.”

And while they have used traditional-size casks, Nation explains how they also use micro-barrels for their micro distillate.

“Three to five-litre barrels. We get them specially made. It sounds small, but you have to remember the volume of distillate that we are producing down here compared to up there (in the main plant). The maximum output for this plant is 50,000LA on a five day operation a year, obviously if you went on a 24 hour period you would double that or maybe get it to 120,000LA. For us to be able to put away some of it in normal barrels and then use the three or five litre barrels to see how it gets on.”

Along with planning to create a brewhouse at the site of the microdistilery, they are also considering a maturation space in the same historic buildings, meaning that you have the full cycle of whiskey making in one historic place. As for the main distillery, they just took delivery of another three massive pot stills from Forsyths. Nation talks about the stills and how they were so large they had to be shaped by hand, as the machines could not accommodate their extraordinary size. He talks about being in Rothes and seeing one coppersmith inside the still and another outside, hammering every spot on the surface of the stills. “That is skill; that is craft,” he says.

He is right: Craft isn’t about size, but about skill. The craft of Midleton Distillery goes back to the traditional meaning of the word – strength in art, science and technology. The chronophobia of the whiskey scene – boosted by over-eager marketing departments – has led to a situation where a stunning feat of modern engineering like Midleton is treated like a mild embarrassment. It’s an attitude that brings to mind the quote from Paul Valéry’s Pièces sur L’Art at the start of Walter Benjamin’s Work Of Art In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction:

“Our fine arts were developed, their types and uses were established, in times very different from the present, by men whose power of action upon things was insignificant in comparison with ours. But the amazing growth of our techniques, the adaptability and precision they have attained, the ideas and habits they are creating, make it a certainty that profound changes are impending in the ancient craft of the Beautiful. In all the arts there is a physical component which can no longer be considered or treated as it used to be, which cannot remain unaffected by our modern knowledge and power. For the last twenty years neither matter nor space nor time has been what it was from time immemorial. We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art.”

Valéry wrote those words in 1931, but they might as well have been written today, as they express the same, timeless fear – that scientific advancement means the death of the soul. The team in Midleton have shown that it is their technological might that enables them to experiment and find new ways to practice an age-old skill. As the Jameson juggernaut rolls on, it will be in the trials and errors of the microdistillery that some of the most interesting work takes place. As noted Jameson lover Samuel Beckett wrote: No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.

 

Monarch of the hen

I went on a stag once. It was a bit like Hostel, only less glam. So the Indo asked me to write about it:

 

There are few occasions as redundant in the modern world as the stag do. Ostensibly a way of marking a man’s ‘last night of freedom’ before embarking on married life, they have developed a reputation for a level of debauchery that would make Caligula blush. As a result, they have fallen out of favour – and yet they persist. Men still take part in this arcane practice, engaging in excessive drinking, casual misogyny and ritual humiliation of themselves and the stag – and now it turns out that they don’t really enjoy it all that much. A study carried out by researchers Daniel Briggs from Madrid University and Anthony Ellis of Salford University and published in the fittingly titled journal Deviant Behaviour found that males just go along with all the ‘shenanigans’ of a stag do without actually enjoying them. The report’s authors assert that the  excessive consumption of alcohol and embarrassing behavior are partially rooted in commercial ideology, which has become firmly embedded in the attitudes of young men.

 

So we hate the stag do – but why is it still happening? Surely ever since David Beckham donned a sarong and ushered in the era of the metrosexual, men shouldn’t feel pressure to behave like rabid vikings, pillaging European capitals in pursuit of paid-for nudity and self destruction? Apparently not. Stag weekends still exist because men are scared they might appear less manly if they say they do not wish to pay a thousand euro for a weekend that will leave them with lasting post-traumatic stress disorder and cirrhosis of the liver. Nobody wants to say ‘this is not ok’ and break the spell. Stag dos are like the emperor’s new clothes, except the emperor is chained to a lamp post in Temple Bar with his eyebrows shaved off.

 

With stags, it’s hard to know which comes first – the booze or the poor decisions. The drinking starts in the morning, continues all day and isn’t seen to be over until people are losing consciousness or their lunch (unless the ‘eating is cheating’ rule has been adhered to, another signifier of almost terminal masculinity).

 

Usually there will be a daytime preamble – go-karting, paintball, or something else involving machines and fake war. This, surprisingly, is the most normal part of the event – it involves exercise and is essentially harmless fun, a bunch of men running about like kids, pretending to be either Eddie Irvine or Jason Statham, ramming each other at 90kph or shooting each other in the head and groin for 90 minutes. It is when darkness falls that the true horror manifests – the trip to the strip club.  A clouded mind is often best when entering these charnel palaces, so thank the lord for those 12 pints and two dozen paintballs to the head. Strip clubs are masculinity’s lowest ebb, places that defy all reason – why is it arousing to pay someone to take off their clothes in front of you? How is that gratifying? We live in a glorious age of digital delight, where all manner of erotica – as well as willing partners –  are available at the touch of a button; so why is anyone willing to pay 20 euro to sit on their hands while a disinterested young lady adopts a pose known as ‘Crouching Stripper, Winking Butthole’ in front of them? Your guilt may compel you to try and connect with her as a human being, asking her about her ‘real’ life. This is a terrible idea, for as soon as she told you she was a dog groomer and you made a quip about her well-manicured chihuahua, the rest of the dance was conducted in a terrifyingly awkward silence.

 

Strips clubs are monstrous – temples of expoitation that smell funny and make you feel sad.. Even the iron-willed stag party attendee who avoids the horrors of the private dance will have to endure the over priced beer and constant harassment to spend money on the least erotic encounter of his entire existence. But the trip to the strip club is a box that has to be ticked before the stag moves on to the next stage in the ritual  – the casino.

 

After the Twin Peaks-esque interiors of the strip club,  a casino seems positively bright and airy, despite often being located in the basement of a fast food joint. Surrounded by dead-eyed men in shiny suits and soundtracked by the crashing din of slot machines and quiet sobbing, at least gambling is a marginally sounder investment than paying someone to take their clothes off while they aggressively chew gum. Once the stag has wasted some more money and braincells, it’s off to the next celebration of a life he cannot wait to leave behind – the nightclub. This is where things get tricky, as you are back amongst ordinary people, people who may not feel especially safe around 17 drunken men, one of whom is dressed as a Swiss milkmaid. If the group manages to get in – and that is a fairly big if – this is possibly the last memory they will have of what they will spend their lives telling people was a ‘great’ weekend. There was patter, there was banter, they were lads being lads, having one last hurrah. But as anyone who has been on a stag will tell you, the best part is getting home, having a long shower involving a lot of carbolic soap and watching Antiques Roadshow with your significant other, hoping they don’t ask too many questions.

 

The stag do is an anachronism – a grotesque parody of masculinity taken to its terrible extremes. But there are exceptions. A stag party in Michigan recently was crashed by a stray dog and her seven pups, who were malnourished and filthy. The men brought them in, fed them and washed them. They spent their beer money on puppy food and ended up adopting the pups. The group now meet up at weekends so the pups can still see each other – all considerably more positive omens for the stag’s married life than the wretched creature who slumps home with little more to show for his weekend than a skin-based parasite and a heart full of shame.

 

The report into stags has shown that men no longer want this tedious horrorshow – perhaps it is time to finally call it a day on the seedier aspects of it and embrace a new version of masculinity that celebrates the best parts of being a man – unless that most male trait of all, stubbornness, gets in the way.

 

Popular stag destinations:

Prague

A beautiful city with a seedy underbelly, it seems forever on the brink of becoming a scene from Hostel. Apart from the usual pits of depravity, there are also several gun ranges where you can go to drunkenly fire an AK47. Huzzah!

Vegas

The other end of the economic scale from Prague, Vegas (baby!) is imprinted on our minds as a stag destination thanks to The Hangover. It offers more prestige than Prague, but ultimately is a similar experience, albeit with a 12 hour flight home to think about what you’ve done.

Budapest

Even more guns than Vegas and Prague combined, and cheaper than both. Worth going there alone for the hilarious patter you can have by ordering the local liqueur Unicum.

Dublin

Expensive, and often more terrifying than a poorly lit Czech backstreet, your flights to eastern Europe probably cost less than a pint in Temple Bar. Avoid.

 

Alternative ideas:

Foraging classes

When the US sends nukes flying like maybugs and Ireland turns into a scene from The Road, who is going to provide for your loved ones? You, that’s who. Learn how to feed your family through foraging – see www.wicklowwildfoods.com.

The Camino

Technically a pilgrimage, it also allows the atheists among us pause to reflect on the beauty of the Spanish countryside, whilst also stopping at several taverns along the way. Or you could just walk to Knock with a bag of cans.

The Wild Atlantic Way

The key to a good marriage is to never take things for granted. With that in mind, fall back in love with Ireland by driving, cycling, or rambling along the stunning west coast. There are companies offering all manner of activities along the way, but Rachel Nolan of Rachel’s Irish Adventures offers tutored trail running, cycling and – most importantly – whiskey tasting events for the more civilised stag.

Rebel Alliance

The Cork branch of the Irish Whiskey Society went independent, so to help promote them as they were out of the warm bosom of the national body, I wrote some guff for a freesheet here in Cork. They cut it down, but here it is in all its glory.

Cork people have trouble following orders. From siding with Perkin Warbeck in the War of the Roses, to siding with Roy Keane during the Battle Of Saipan, we have a long and illustrious history of rebellious, independent thinking – and a new chapter in that history has just been written. The Cork branch of the Irish Whiskey Society was set up three years ago to satisfy the growing interest in all things whiskey. Initially operating under the auspices of the Dublin branch, the Cork strand has since grown in numbers to the point where they felt it was time to fly the nest and become the fully independent Cork Whiskey Society.

The rebels leading this charge – Liam Murray, Eric Ryan, Ray Foley, Conor Ryan, Arney Gadegast and JP O’Riordan – hosted their inaugural event just before Christmas, and followed this up with their second tasting last Monday night in the Porterhouse – a bar that has strong links to whiskey, having been owned by the late Oliver Hughes of Dingle Distillery, and housed in the old warehouses of whiskey bonders Woodford Bourne, now part of the Mardyke entertainment complex. The host for the night was Tullamore DEW brand ambassador John Quinn, who was full of praise for the Cork society and the professionalism of their operation.

John talked the 40+ society members and guests through some of the whiskeys on the menu for the night, going into the history of each of them and throwing in a few anecdotes and legends while he was at it.

The Cork Whiskey Society spend a lot of time and effort (and obviously, money) sourcing rare whiskeys, and Monday night’s collection was no different – there was a 1950s Tullamore Dew blend, a 1960s Tullamore Dew blend, a selection of cask strength Tullamores (comprising of grain, pot, malt), the new 14 and 18 year old Tullamore expressions and a special treat from a private distillery cask.

The piece de resistance was the presence of the illusive Knappogue Castle 1951, which costs between 700 and 1,000 a bottle. The other whiskeys, while released under the Tullamore DEW brand, came from Bushmills in the North and Midleton in the deep south, but Knappogue Castle 1951 is a 36-year-old pot still from the original Tullamore distillery owned by the Daly family – a whiskey not many people will ever get to try. The Knappogue Castle 1951 that the Cork Whiskey Society tasted on the night was a family cask – in other words, one of the best single casks chosen by the Andrews family, founders of the Knappogue Castle brand. This makes it even rarer – with a value of more than a thousand euro.  
The night also featured other good fortunes, as there was a raffle of rare and collectible whiskeys, proving that as with all things Cork, independence is the way forward.

Method Man

Midleton Distillery Master Of Science Dave Quinn in the lab. 

Science is something of a dirty word in the whiskey business. Consider the life and work of Aeneas Coffey. After risking life and limb as a gauger, he applied all he knew about distilling (and a lot of what Scots inventor Robert Stein knew) to a new type of still. It was cleaner and more efficient, and was rejected wholesale by the distillers here. The Scots, however, were more receptive to his more efficient and cost-effective invention, and the rest is history.

In Ireland, Coffey’s still was seen as an affront to whiskey, making silent spirit that had no tongue to speak from whence it came – or, to put it another way, it was so pure that you supposedly had no idea what was in it.

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An ad for a Cork distillery rejecting column stills and all their works.

To this day, the spirit produced by the Coffey still is seen by whiskey drinkers as the child of a lesser god, rather than the result of a brilliant invention. Of course, its purity does give it a lighter flavour profile in comparison to single malt or the spicy mixed mash of pot still whiskey, but it’s still an example of how the scientific advancement of distilling is not always welcome.

Modern ‘advancements’ haven’t helped the average whiskey drinker change their quasi-Luddite minds – accelerated aging techniques, which range from spirit mixed with wood pellets, to ultrasound used on barrels, to the oldschool sherry hack of paxarette, are really just ways of cheating time. And time, as any human being will tell you, cannot be cheated.

But what is it that makes a whiskey great, beyond any subjective preferences, beyond any labels or marketing? What is the secret to a great whiskey? 

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Dave Quinn in the Irish Whiskey Academy during the Method & Madness press trip to Midleton.

If you wanted to ask someone, Dave Quinn is a good person to start with. He was part of that first generation of distillers who focussed on the idea of whiskey as a molecular event that needed to be explored – people who saw distilling as a science as much as an art.

From Longford, he went to college in Galway where he studied biochemistry and then biotechnology. Moving to Cork he started working with Irish Distillers in the 1980s, before transferring to Bushmills – then owned by IDL – in 1996, before transferring back to Midleton in 2002, where he is now their Master Of Science. But what exactly is the science of whiskey?

“Science is just a way of saying we are trying to find a better way of understanding what’s happening right down at the molecular level – understanding the link between what we describe as flavour and taste, and what are the congeners, what are the flavour compounds that actually contribute to that, to what you perceive as taste, flavour, aroma, and we have a certain level of understanding of that but not a complete one by any manner or means,” he says.

Of course, making whiskey isn’t a one step affair – and parts of the process are easier to understand than others, particularly those at the front end.

“It’s easier to understand the biochemistry of brewing and yeast fermentation, what happens to the yeast, the compounds it produces. Where things start to get a bit more tricky is when we get into wood maturation. We have an understanding of some of the wood compounds that contribute but there is a lot of other wood compounds that we don’t fully understand or know about.”

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Dave Quinn and Dagmara Dabrowska in a promo image for the Method & Madness range. 

But long before the spirit comes into contact with wood, Quinn and his colleague Dr Dagmara Dabrowska have a way of studying distilling. Squirrelled away within the Midleton campus is a pilot plant – effectively a fully functioning scale model of the distillery, in the style of Derek Zoolander’s school for ants. Initially created as part of their proposed energy saving programme, it began life as a 1/2000th version of the grain columns, and it is here that much of their work takes place.

“We have a pilot plant up there, where we have small pot stills and a column still so we can work on them there without even coming down here to the microdistillery. The pilot plant is very much more … automated isn’t the right word, but with more places where we can take samples and monitor a lot of the variables like temperature and pressure. With the energy saving programme we did a lot of that work in the pilot plant.”

The energy saving was one of the most impressive feats of an already impressive operation in Midleton. The pilot plant was commissioned to conduct R&D into the proposals, which saw them shave 20% off their energy use. Dr Dabrowska is credited with much of the success of that project. As Head of Analytical and Technical Development, she helped find new ways to transfer energy between the columns – a piece of equipment that, Aeneas Coffey would be delighted to know, produces more spirit than any other part of Midleton distillery. Their colossal grain output was finally celebrated with the recent release of both the 31-year-old and 11-year-old single grain bottlings, the distillery’s first under their own name (the Irish Whiskey Society released a Midleton grain bottling two years ago).

Launched under the Method & Madness incubator brand – a space for IDL to experiment with their output – the grain whiskeys were a striking departure from the heritage pot-still brands like Redbreast and Yellow Spot to a more modern aesthetic and an embracing of science. But whiskey is all science, despite what the marketing department might tell you. The modern distillery tries to site itself in a romantic pastoral dreamscape, where the distiller hand operates all aspects and divines the perfect cut using only his senses. The truth is rather different. Modern distilleries have more in common with pharma plants than the sort of thatched-cottage scenes on their labels. Distillers are – and always have been – scientists. But it is in the collision between the quantifiable perfection of science and the beautiful chaos of human nature that some of the most interesting interactions take place, as Quinn points out.

“For example, somebody is doing a sensory evaluation trying to use normal everyday words to describe the flavour that they are seeing or feeling, to try and take that –  say somebody saying I get a nice hint of floral note, a bit of rose petal and a bit of leather, and cigar tobacco in the background – there is no way that you could say well that is due to ABCD or E, as different people will have different terminology and different language to describe what they perceive as flavour.

“So one of the things we do in our sensory science lab is to try and standardise the language a little bit so that if somebody does say leather or cereal notes or whatever, we try and ensure that everyone uses the same language to describe that particular attribute in the whiskey. And then we might try and see if we can determine what is causing or what is contributing to that.”

But while the pilot plant and sensory science lab may be akin to the Large Hadron Collider, there is no one illusive God Particle that can create a particular flavour.

“Invariably it is not just a single congener – it could be the effect of multiple congeners coming together to give you a single sensory effect. You have some compounds that on their own … – you find a single compound and put it into neutral alcohol and increase its concentration so you get to a point where you could actually perceive it as an aroma , and then if you go below that minimum level and you don’t get it then that is deemed the flavour threshold – in other words, you have some compounds that have very high flavour threshold, in other words you need a lot of them for you to perceive it.

“But then some are very low flavour thresholds, levels that you can barely measure, but you can still pick it up on the nose. And it is those compounds that are the key ones in terms of bridging that gap between identifying the sensory act of compounds and identifying them and relating them to a particular character.

“What can happen is that you can get small individual compounds that might be below the flavour threshold; in other words, theoretically you should not be able to pick them up. But there’s a few of them that are sometimes present together that can almost act synergistically so that individually you wouldn’t be able to detect them but when they are combined together they give you a flavour and perception. And then you are getting into an area that can be very difficult to fully explore.”

That ‘area’ is us. Our perceptions are based on a combination of nature – the senses we are born with – and nurture – the tastes we develop as we grow, which are impacted on by the culture and environment around us.

“Different people will have different preferences, different likes, even different sensitivities to flavors so there will  be some elements of flavour that some people will pick up readily and other people cannot perceive them at all.”

Quinn’s work with Irish Distillers is less about stripping the soul from whiskey than it is about understanding how to make the best whiskey possible. It may seem like a eugenics programme, where error and, thus, personality, are eliminated under the jackbooted march of lab technicians in white coats, ruthlessly striving for a dystopian purity. In reality, it is what science always aims to be – about doing better.

“We are trying to understand distilling at a molecular level. The key is – the more you can understand, the more you can make informed decisions about what influences the taste or the character of whiskey. But it is also about what aspects don’t affect it. If you don’t have some level of understanding then you can’t really go and do the same distillation with confidence. You can only do this if you have a good understanding of the technical, science element of what you’re doing, because if you’re just relying on old wives tales and superstitions about not changing anything in the distillery, then you will never be able to develop something unique and interesting.”

Quinn knows a thing or two about doing unique things, given that, along with Peter Morehead, he was one of the chief drivers of the runaway success that is Jameson Caskmates, inspired by a spirit of innovation, experimentation and adventure.

But while the Method & Madness brand has the space for more mad-scientist style experimentation with wood and distillate styles, in both the main distillery and micro distillery, part of Quinn’s work is to ensure that as the Irish whiskey category explodes worldwide, a consistent standard is maintained, not just of quality but also of flavour profile. Distillers used to be full of superstition, where any change to the process – even the cleaning of cobwebs in the stillhouse – was deemed to be bad luck in case it affected the spirit, a culture of what a scientist might refer to as ‘poppycock’.

“You can keep doing the same thing over and over again but if you have a better understanding of what the fundamentals are then you have a much better opportunity of directing your research and your experiments in a path you know will change the spirits, and you can say ‘let’s try it’ and know more or less what the outcome is going to be. You go from a chancing-your-arm, needle-in-a-haystack approach to having a far more focussed approach.”

The distillery in Midleton is one of the most impressive, modern facilities in the world, and it has shown that you can be the biggest and also be the best. While the public facing side may be one of heritage and tradition, scientists like Dave Quinn, Dagmara Dabrowska and the rest of the Masters and their apprentices have shown that they are getting ever closer to unlocking the secrets of a perfect dram and entering a brave new world of truly great whiskeys.

  • Footnote: There is an excellent interview with Master Distiller Brian Nation in the Engineering Journal, which you can read here. It goes into some depth on the energy saving programme. There is also a recent presentation by Dr Dabrowska which you can read here, which goes into her work on the column stills.