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. 

The Gatekeeper

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The Irish have always been good at booze. Whether making it, selling it, or simply consuming it, we have a national identity that is forever linked to – and somewhat soaked in – alcohol. We may wring our hands over the complexities of our relationship with the demon drink, but we sometimes forget the power of being a nation where craic addiction is seen as a good thing. Brand Ireland is as much about a nice drink, a singsong and good company as it is about poetry, prose, saints and scholars – and our skills with alcohol travel with us. Take Jack ‘Legs’ Diamond.

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Born in Philadelphia to Irish immigrant parents from Kilrush in County Clare, he served in the army before deciding military life was not for him. He moved to New York and built an empire by bootlegging liquor during Prohibition. Known as ‘the clay pigeon of the underworld’, he survived many assassination attempts and became a socialite and media darling, a loveable Irish American rogue.

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Speaking to Louise McGuane, it’s hard not to hear the ghost of Legs Diamond in her voice. Her accent is a bizarre mix of her native Clare and the flat New York Irish of Brooklyn. Like Diamond, she briefly considered a career in the military, even serving a couple of years in the FCA: “My brother was in the Army, he was a cadet and then a captain in the artillery division, so he would have gone off to the Curragh. I loved the whole idea of the Army, the camaraderie and sense of adventure,” she says.

But instead of heading east to fire shots across the Curragh in the rigid world of the armed forces, she opted to head west to America and fire shots across bars in the slightly more fluid world of high-end alcohol sales.

“Well it was the Eighties and Nineties in rural ireland, this was pre-Celtic Tiger – everybody left, it was a cultural thing. I had two aunts that had gone – there was a lot of emigration to the US in my family, I had cousins over there, so when I emigrated there was a cousin waiting to pick me up when I got off the boat, so to speak, and there was a culture of emigration out west anyway. It was just what you did.

“I just sort of fell into the drinks industry. I did philosophy and literature in college – I’m a big believer that whatever your degree is, unless it is something really technical, it is fairly irrelevant to whatever you go on to. And in America they simply don’t care what your degree is in – they just want to know that you can do the job, you’re not really judged on getting a 2.2 or 2.1 or any of that, or at least back then they weren’t. Kids have it tougher now in relation to that in terms of the competition for jobs.”

America, the land of opportunities for thousands of Irish emigrants in the Eighties, was a very different bureaucratic beast to the old country. When she started to work in the drinks industry in the States, McGuane soon realised that the world in which Legs Diamond and others operated – the dry America of the Volstead Act –  still cast its long shadow.

“I was with Moet Hennessy first, doing on the ground sales and marketing work, which is really valuable because the US market is a really tough one to get your head around. Ever since Prohibition all of the individual states set their own liquor laws – so it’s almost like 50 different countries that you have to know individually, and then at county level those laws can change again, as you can have dry counties. You also have state boards that run the liquor so your point of contact for that state in terms of sales would be two guys who work for the state office.”

While the American market is the one she came to know best, she also spent time in Asia, working in the drinks business in Singapore. After spending two decades learning the complexities of the liquor business with luxury brands such as Hennessy and (Tony Soprano’s favourite) Stoli, McGuane had a tough choice to make: Love or career.

“When I was with multinationals I was on the global trek, and you have to move every two or three years, which was great until I got married and then it just wasn’t possible as I didn’t have a trailing spouse, he has a luxury PR business in London so he has to stay there.”

So she quit. But she didn’t stand still for long – and it was a relic from Legs Diamond’s ancestral home that started her on her next adventure.

“It was this one guy, this JJ Corry guy, a Cooraclare native who became a whiskey bonder in Kilrush. I found his label on eBay and I called up the guy with the label and said what do you know about this. I found out all I could about Corry, then I met his great-grand-nephew, and made all these enquiries around his neighbours and the local historical society, and just decided ‘ok, I am going to do this’.

“The initial idea was ‘we’re going to set up a craft distillery, we’re going to set it up on the family farm, it’s going to be great, let’s buy stills’. That was the first idea – but then I thought ‘no we are not doing that’.”

So a distillery was not going to happen – but then McGuane had the crazy notion of resurrecting a long-dead trade. A century ago, the Irish whiskey bonder was a common sight. Grocers and publicans would buy their spirit straight from distillers (who at the time were mere wholesalers themselves) and then age it in their own premises to sell on as they saw fit. Over the decades as the industry contracted and consolidated, distilleries started selling direct to the public, and one by one the bonders disappeared. There are still relics of that time, famously the Yellow Spot and Green Spot whiskeys, but they are as close to bonded whiskeys as birds are to dinosaurs.

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So McGuane set to work. After using her extensive knowledge to put together a copper-fastened business plan, she turned to crowd-funding fountainhead Kickstarter to raise equity. She offered a variety of buy-ins, from small gifts aimed squarely at the Irish American market – a packet of shamrock from the Emerald Isle – to week-long stays in her County Clare home (a half-mile from the house Legs Diamond’s ancestors hailed from)  which has a backstory all of its own.

“So my grandmother was born in that property. My great aunt died in estate, so my dad had to borrow money from my aunt in Alabama to buy it back – and he did, back in the Eighties. So it’s all part of the family farm, which is dairy and peat. My uncle used to grow barley, so it is barley country – and growing it in the future is something I’m not ruling out, that whole grain-to-glass.”

Louise McGuane in her renovated farmhouse called The Safe House near the village of Cooraclare in County Clare.

Louise McGuane in her renovated farmhouse called The Safe House near the village of Cooraclare in County Clare.

But the property was completely transformed under McGuane’s guidance, from a traditional farm cottage to an architecturally designed beauty, all glass walls, brushed concrete and stylish Scandinavian aesthetics. It has become part of the brand for Chapel Gate, as her business is now known, being the HQ for investor meetings and venue for business events.

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“With the Kickstarter I sold eighteen stays in my house – I raised 18,000 that way! It’s a beautiful house and it ended up being a really good asset for the business. It’s right next to the rackhouse, on the same plot, and I’ve have a few potential customers come over, a few potential importers too, and it then becomes a really good spot to show people the modern face of the brand and show them how we operate from a design perspective.”

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The only possibly downside is that, should it all go south, all her investors now knows where she lives – although McGuane is quick to point out that hers is a pretty solid investment.

“A distillery was the first idea – but then I thought, no, we are not doing that. Maybe in the future-future-future, but who knows. The bonding piece, that is awesome, that’s far more low risk from a business perspective. The assets that I’m acquiring are appreciable assets – so if everything goes horrifically wrong I sell off all of my assets, and everybody gets their money back. The whole buying-a-still, commissioning-a-still – I don’t have that headache, whatever headaches I’ve had are nothing next to the headaches the guys setting up all over the country have.”

But one of the minor headaches she did have was trying to ensure that her investors were the best kind – connected ones.

“The kind of investors you get in this business – you don’t get institutional investors because your break even is about seven years if you’re lucky, and then your payback is if you suddenly sell out to somebody, because there will be a time where nobody is buying Irish whiskey distilleries anymore and what’s gone is gone. And then you have lifestyle investors – maybe ten guys who like the idea of saying ‘I have a distillery in Ireland’ and they come over and they taste whiskey and they have good connections like hotel chains, so you have to figure out who you want to invest, get the right investors for your business and your model.  Then when you become a going concern, then you’re into institutional investment, but in the early days you gotta pick your investors really carefully.

“All the investors care about is what’s the downside, if this goes under do I get my money back, and with the bonding model you get your money back, but with the distillery model you won’t because there is all this debt owed on the cap-ex basically. You have to prove to people that the downside is all but zero and then you’re alright.”

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Chapel Gate is now officially more than ‘alright’, as McGuane, since mid-December, is Ireland’s first licensed whiskey bonder in half a century. But with resurrecting a lost trade comes the need to resurrect a lost section of State tax law, and with that comes hassle.

When I ask if she has any advice on setting up an Irish whiskey company, she has this tip: “Don’t set up an Irish whiskey company. Definitely don’t do it on your own. It is a terrible idea. Because we are in the resurgence of the industry, there is no living memory, no institutional memory in government bodies.

“So normally the guys at Pernod, they had their revenue officer, they had their HSE guy, they had whoever else they had been dealing with for the last 50 years down in Midleton, and nobody in any of those departments had to even consider these issues. And now suddenly I have my revenue guy in Limerick – who, by the way, is brilliant, shoutout, love him – his name is David Browne and honestly he is fantastic. As a public servant the man deserves a bonus – he is brilliant. The process was new for him, it was new for me, I approached revenue in complete fear, panicking as to what was going to happen, and we worked it all out together, and he was incredibly supportive.”

Supportive he may have been, but her struggle to get the business off the ground was not without it’s difficulties, as catalogued on her blog. McGuane’s knowledge of the industry means she has confidence in speaking out against bureaucracy and what she sees as unfair control of the market by big firms – including her former employers, Pernod, owners of Irish Distillers Limited, the custodians of Irish whiskey.

Her trials and tribulations with her own project were all laid out on her blog, moving from frustration, to anger, to joy – the full rollercoaster of emotions that come with bringing a project like this to life. But while it played out like a sweeping epic, her journey from genesis to licensed whiskey bonder has been rather a short one.

“One year from Kickstarter to bonding; it feels like it has been about a decade. But the blog and social media aren’t just about keeping people involved in the project – it’s also an outlet. I use it a lot to vent, because I am usually just sitting in an office on my own all day, it’s me and Ruby the dog, and that is very difficult, because it feels like forever, and there is no one there to bounce ideas off. So social media is a way to share the experience with people, so people have to hear the sort of nonsense you have to go through. I use it sometimes to make a point as I know the Revenue reads it and I know the local planners read it, so every once in a while I will use it to deliver a barbed question at them on whether or not they want to create jobs.”

In a business like hers, however, the number of jobs is fairly low – although she did advertise for a warehouse cat (one that, presumably, must love dogs).

Because she resurrected a dead trade, she also needed to hire someone versed in an almost dead craft; coopering. Currently there are only a handful of qualified coopers working in Ireland, so she set about finding one with a bit of time on his hands.

“Our cooper Eugene Quinlan is from Midleton, and he worked with IDL up until the 1990s when they got rid of them all. He does that trip now from Midleton to west Clare every couple of weeks, and it is a trek. He comes up every couple of weeks, so if we bring in any casks he can check them over, he comes up and repairs leakages, and also just to keep an eye on the wood, check the casks over, make sure everything is as it should be.

“There are four coopers in Ireland. There’s Ger (Buckley, in Midleton) who has an apprentice now, there’s somebody at Bushmills and an apprentice there too, there’s a guy at Nephin, John Neilly, who is actually Scottish originally.”

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The lack of whiskey experience in the job market here – and the abundance of it in Scotland – is another stumbling block to setting up a whiskey business in Ireland.

“Finding staff is a real issue here as almost anyone working within the industry in Ireland right now is working for a massive multinational, so they probably have a pretty sweet package going on and a nice pension – you are not going to poach those older guys away, the really experienced guys, as there is no culture of moving around from distillery to distillery like there is in Scotland. So everybody is looking to America, they are looking to Scotland, they’re looking all over basically. But that is just one of the growing pains of an emerging industry and we are just going to have to go through that for a while.

“You have to go outside the country to look for someone – but I struggle with parts of this. If you’re going to bring in a Scotch whisky expert, their palate is going to be very much in that sphere, technically.

“But there are guns for hire, liquid consultants in Ireland, Scotland and America, and Sweden – mostly women actually – and I work with some of those. Their palates are very wide, so you give them a brief on Irish whiskey and they will get into that headspace. So you have to carefully pick who you work with. I am actually now using a Scottish liquid consultant and he is doing a great job.

“But there is change here; the Carlow Institute of Technology has their recently launched brewing and distilling programme, and IDL have a particularly good internal programme where they are going to start to share their knowledge with newcomers to the industry within the Irish Whiskey Association.”

The Irish Whiskey Association (IWA) is the body which oversees the category in Ireland – but like everything else here, it is a newborn entity that is going to a mix of very large, powerful firms (Pernod, Brown-Forman, Diageo) and almost micro operations like McGuane’s. So in order to balance this out, the smaller firms are banding together.

“I work very hard to make it happen – on Friday we are having a meeting in Limerick of about eight of us. It’s very informal, just a lunch… but the industry is so new, that all of us have just had our heads down just trying to get through licensing and all that…But I have high hopes that the smaller firms will start to come together. We all have common issues, for example the craft drinks bill affects all of us; the wholesale market affects all of us, the excise and duty – we need relief for that for smaller producers, we have to have that.”

The craft drinks bill is an issue for Irish alcohol producers as a whole so the IWA will be pushing have the law changed so that distillers and brewers and bonder  (singular; currently McGuane is the only one) are able to sell direct to the public from their premises without having to fork out 80 grand to buy a pub licence.

“The craft drinks bill is really imperative – I’m just joining the IWA formally, and I went along when they were launching their tourism initiative, which is great. But my concern is this: With programmes like the mentorship, none of those firms are going to be paying 80 grand to get a license to sell direct to customers from their distillery, because the pay-off on an investment like that happens over years and years, depending on where you are and on how you are doing it. Maybe you would get the payback in a year, in areas where there is a lot of tourism, but in rural areas where tourism is seasonal? The crafts drinks bill is, in my opinion, tantamount to the success of those firms and the IWA tourism strategy itself. It wasn’t integrated into the IWA strategy because it came out of nowhere the week leading up to the launch, but Alan Kelly TD (proposer of the bill) was there and he spoke about the bill, and it is really important to the success of us smaller guys.

“And the smaller guys is often where the really interesting stuff happens. It’s nice to visit big massive distilleries, but you’ve been to a million of them, I’ve been to a million of them, it’s the same-old same-old. It’s going to the smaller craft guys that has real value – both for the tourism and for the industry, those rural regions that need it.

“Scotland has the market cornered in whisky destination tourism – but here in Ireland we have the Wild Atlantic Way and a whiskey trail that could piggyback on the success of that, but it will take a lot of close work with Bord Fáilte and with the IWA, to make it happen. It needs definitive timelines and it needs that craft drinks bill to make it happen for the smaller guys.”

Another issue she would like to see the IWA tackle is some of the shenanigans in the independent bottling scene, which is awash with non-existent distilleries, false provenance, and the products of three distilleries being sold by third parties under multiple identities.

“The lack of transparency in the Irish whiskey industry is bullshit, and it needs to be addressed. Even Compass Box had real issues with this in Scotland,” she adds, referring to the brand who fought for the right to tell consumers what was in every bottle on the label. The SWA won that battle, but the new sheriff in town here, the IWA, has a far larger mess to untangle.

“The SWA and the IWA are very different bodies, the SWA is very mature and well-established, while the IWA’s core focus for 2017 is clamping down on labelling, but at the moment they are just on category level – so you can’t call yourself Irish whiskey if you finished your whiskey in Scotland, like (the recently withdrawn) Craoi Na Mona.

“I think there needs to be more transparency – and this is one of the reasons I am so open on social media about what I am doing; there is no bullshit in what I’m doing, I’m really open about where I get my stuff from, what I’m doing with it, although I actually can’t put on my label that it’s from Cooley or GND. I can’t boast about where it’s from as I’m not allowed to, but I will be 100% transparent to anyone at any time if I can.

“I don’t think it’s right that everyone is getting stuff from Cooley and everyone is just banging a label on it and making stuff up and creating false provenance. I appreciate that we are in a weird time, that we are all trying to build brands, but I don’t think anyone is buying it anymore – or at least, anybody in the know isn’t buying it.”

She also practices what she preaches, being incredibly transparent on every aspect of her operation:

Barrels: “I’m not going to tell you exactly where I get my casks from; but I spent about a year looking to get casks as there is a global cask shortage because there is such demand at the moment particularly in the US. But there are key cooperages you go to for ex-bourbon casks, mostly in Louisville Kentucky, there’s a bunch of coopers in Minnesota as well, so the barrels are located in those kind of hubs. I was going to all the big guys and they were all telling me it was an 18-month wait, a two-year wait, just for ex bourbon, so I found  a guy in Louisville in the end who only supplies to small craft guys, who gets casks directly off the lines basically, and he has cousins who work at the various distilleries, he is very small scale, has his own little cooperage and if I say ‘go to Jack Daniels and get me so many ex-single casks’ he can do that on a tiny scale. So he is my go to guy for ex bourbon and the scale is perfect for me.

“Then there’s a number of middle-men who sell on ex-port, and ex-Bordeaux, and ex-sherry casks as well. There’s a big company called Shen, based out of France, who bring in new American oak and things like that. So I get bits and pieces from those guys, but mostly I am starting to go direct to distilleries and direct to other wineries in particular. I do this as I am so small scale that I can, and it’s more economical as barrels are very expensive, particularly if you have a middle man, and the places I am going I can hand pick them, if I like the whiskey I can get one of their used casks.”

Spirit: “At the moment I am working with grain and malt, I’m working with John Teeling’s Great Northern Distillery, and they are moving to pot still now as well. The stills they have are fairly steampunk, they are converted kettles basically, so they were ironing out a few kinks, but they are really there now. Alan Anderson is the master distiller there and he is super flexible. Because it is early days for them they are very willing to work with you – if you want to mess about with mash bills and mess about with distillation times, they will do it. Or you can just push the button for you and spit out the usual stuff. But we are now starting to get into the phase where we are getting batches, so my first batch we fiddled about with the mashbill, and batch two was in January, and we started to make that more bespoke, tweaking it here and there.

“I went for grain and malt 50/50 because I think grain is starting to move up the ranks, the Teelings are doing really interesting things with grain, and finishing grain is something that is being played around with massively. But all of that is something that you just have to wait and see with, as you don’t really know what is going to happen in the cask, I can’t really plan until it is ready. But all those variables are one of the nice things about it – you don’t just turn on a pipe and get whiskey. There are many variables.”

Ageing: “We are racking, not palletising, so our capacity is about 550. A good start, and we have 110 in at the moment, with batch two going in May, and another batch by the end of the year so I reckon we will be at full capacity within two years. At the moment I am 100% focused on what I have just done, get a quality source of whiskey, get the right people around me, I have a great cooper and I have some liquid consultants and a really good source of casks from the US, rackhouse sorted, licensing done, boom boom boom, and the next piece is forward planning. So I’ve put together a wood programme where I am chopping down trees to send wood to Spain or Portugal for drying out so that in two years I can put whiskey in my own casks. So in 2017 I’ve had to start planning for three to five years ahead. The same thing goes with supply so I have X amount and while I have a contract for this year and next years I have to think about a decade from now – how much more whiskey do I need to cask for in ten years time? The same goes for rackhouses – I’ve built one now, so do I build another one, do I build a bigger one, where is the next one going, when is it going, I have to apply for planning and so on. So I need to make a firm plan for the next decade. We are playing the long game here.”

On bringing out a sourced blend: “What we are working on at the moment is this: I have my new-fill in cask, and I just have to wait obviously, and see what happens, and then in the interim I have a source of mature malt and a little bit of mature grain as well, so we are working on a very small launch portfolio. So we are going to come out with two …. I’m not even 100% sure yet, a single malt, but that might change, but we want to done very transparently, I mean we all know where the stock comes from….There is actually a smattering of different stocks that I have purchased, with a bit of Bushmills kinda thrown in randomly, and every cask has a really interesting backstory, some casks I’m really trying to dig into a try to figure out how they’re going to end up there. But we are coming out with a very small portfolio so we want to build a brand, get into the US, be very transparent about it. I don’t have enough stock to keep me going very long. I will barely make it to three years and I don’t know if we will be releasing anything in three years, probably not. Really you want to go to eight years, but will I get to eight years? Not now. Definitely not where I am right now.

“The wholesale market for a producer, for someone like me, supply is a massive issue. There is no supply. There’s not mature whiskey out there. Whatever you can get your hands on, you get your hands on it right away, before the price might do up. For me it just made sense to get my hands on what I could and then be transparent about that, and start to use that to start breaking my way into my core markets. I want to have a product that starts to express the style of whiskey that we want to make moving forward as best we can and then when we are ready with our own 100% bonded whiskey that we have aged ourselves and finished ourselves that we can lay more claim to I will have a market ready for that.”

On releasing a gin or vodka: “No, and here’s why. I was at Fortnum & Mason, so I went to the liquor department simply because I wanted to see what was going on. It’s one of those stores that you want to be in, you want your brand in there, no matter how much you might sell you just want to be on the shelf because it is just a great store to be in. And there was shelves and shelves of stock, Mortlach was there obviously behind bulletproof glass, and then there was a craft whiskey section, and there was a small shelf with irish whiskey on it with about eight brands, and then there was a gin section and it was the length of this hotel foyer, a 25 metre long, five foot high gin extravaganza. I love gin, I know gin, I know the category well, I worked with Tanqueray for a number of years, but I just don’t have the capacity to launch a super premium gin product into a very crowded super premium gin category and work it. It needs more PR and marketing, and more people to do those things. So my shtick is – make one thing and make it really well, so I am focussed on whiskey.”

So she is in for the long haul – but is the boom in the category? Can Irish whiskey sustain this incredible momentum?

“Eventually it will plateau but it will keep flying now for quite a while. Look at Asia. I spent a lot of time there, and if you go anywhere in Asia and ask for an Irish whiskey, you will be pointed to Ballantines or something as there is zero category knowledge or impact. Nobody has won there; Pernod has a tough time in Asia generally, but they haven’t launched the category there successfully, so that market is still completely closed, but it is going to open, they are going to start making inroads there. There is interest there now  – there are Irish Whiskey Societies setting up in Hong Kong and Macau.”

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A key trend she has identified is premiumisation – where a whisky is given a massive price tag due to a combination of age and a marketing department focussed on the super-premium category. It’s also humorously known as ‘Mortlachisation’ after Diageo ramped up the price of the previously accessibly Mortlach.

“I think there is a massive opportunity in ultra premium, which not everybody is going to want to hear, but it is there. The reason you’re going to see it coming out of Ireland is that we have genuine rarity. In terms of older, more mature whiskey in Ireland, you can’t get it. There is no open market, there won’t be an open market for 20-year-old whiskey until 20 years from now, so rarity in Ireland is even more exclusive than rarity in Scotland, where there are warehouses and warehouses of bulk whisky – there are three or four warehouses of that sort of aged stock in Ireland and most of it is accounted for. Ultra premium will definitely happen, based on rarity and based on design.”

Her predictions have already come true, with Irish Distillers recently taking the bold step of releasing a 31-year-old single grain for 1,500 a bottle. However, this doesn’t mean that the average consumer will have to pay more for their standard issue drams.

“It won’t hit consumers as it’s a category in itself. At that level it isn’t even seen as Irish whiskey – it is simply a luxury item. When it’s a 20,000 bottle of whiskey it supersedes the category of whiskey and becomes a luxury item – and that’s all it is at that juncture. But there is a market for that. Scotland, and all the big guys – Diageo in particular – have been playing that game very very well for a long time. You’re starting to see it trickle through here too in duty free, the Teelings have some really interesting releases recently, they started to be a bit more design led, we have something in the pipeline as well coming down the line. It’s an inevitability and I know people don’t like it, but it is more like a luxury product.

“There’s a halo effect – and Scotland does that very well, like Johnny Walker portfolio has whiskies that you can buy for 55,000 pounds, it’s not about how many you sell at that level, and I’m not predicting a 55k Irish whiskey any time soon, but it does become a PR event. But everyone does still want their blended Irish whiskey or their ten-year-old or their 15-year-old – so it doesn’t have to have a knock-on for the average consumer.”

So the boom is getting boomier. And thus it was for Legs Diamond back in the 1920s, and after making his fortune in liquor during Prohibition, he forged out on his own. However, once out of the protection of the syndicates, he was vulnerable, and ultimately someone caught up with the clay pigeon of the underworld, and he paid a supreme penalty. While it seems unlikely that a beret-clad French assassin is coming for McGuane (good luck to them finding Cooraclare), I ask her if it is worth it – forging out on your own, leaving the safety of a giant multinational, to pursue your own dreams, to put it all on the line just to be your own boss.

“By a factor of about 15,000, yeah. Those big multinationals are fantastic in that you learn, you work hard, you are exposed to a multitude of cultures, you get to know markets very intimately, and you get very specific market knowledge. So I could tell you the names of the top five bars in New York or Miami, or Seattle; I know my market down to that level because multinationals expect you to know that from the sales guys on the ground selling a case a week all the way up to category trends and market strategy – all that breadth of knowledge. Some of that information becomes useless when you come out on your own, but it is the confidence it gives you – I can walk into a room full of investors and know my category and my market better than anyone.

“I miss the perks though – the wildly extravagant expense accounts, the business class flying, and all the gold cards I used to have on all the airlines. Now it’s Ryanair, all the time, basically.”

With a growing stockpile of spirit, as well as plans ahead to release a sourced blend, and even a brand celebrating the legend of Legs Diamond, she may be due a seat upgrade to business class sooner than she thinks.

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Footnote: There was a great profile of Louise in the Indo which you can read here, and it contains a lot of material I didn’t touch on. Louise’s blog is located here and is really worth a read for anyone interested in whiskey, start-ups or Kafkaesque labyrinths of bureaucracy.  

There are two categories in Irish whiskey start-ups – the schemers and the dreamers. The schemers are the ones bottling anything they can get their hands on and pretending the are so much more than they are. The dreamers are the ones who actually went and created something more than just a label – people like Mark Reynier, Peter Mulryan and Louise McGuane. I was lucky enough to interview all three, and while they all have different routes to Irish whiskey, all are striving for the betterment of the category as a whole, and they deserve every support. 

The sound of Islay

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My first encounter with Bruichladdich was on a T-shirt. Not one worn by me, but by Joe Clark from The Whiskey Lounge. I spent a while struggling to read what it said, thinking at first it was a Broken Social Scene logo, or possibly some techno label. I was on the Irish Whiskey Academy surrounded by whiskey geeks, and completely out of my element. Then, as now, I know very little about whiskey, so I thought this T-shirt might be a good way to move the conversation towards something I did know about – music – and away from such fascinating topics as the length of Lyne arms and the best wood for a washback. Eventually Dave McCabe – then tutor of the academy and now apprentice master blender – noticed the shirt and chatted to Joe about Bruichladdich.

‘What the fuich is that word?’ was my reaction when I heard the name spoken aloud for the first time. It sounded like sean nós singing, or some Sumerian incantation. ‘I’m never going to get the hang of this whisky lark’, I thought to myself, as they spat out Hebridean placenames. Four years later, I am still fairly clueless about whisky – but at least now I have a better idea how to pronounce Bruichladdich.

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As my interest in whisky grew, I started to realise there was something different about Bruichladdich. First there was that striking brand aesthetic – in a scene dominated by marketing that harks back to an utterly fictitious pastoral dreamscape, Bruichladdich really does look like a minimalist techno label. All Helvetica (Fun fact: It isn’t Helvetica – see comments section below) and bold colour, it is safe to say that it does not look like a whisky. Their whisky, on the other hand, is very much like what whisky should be – open, honest, and unafraid of what you think. What they did with the distillery and its output is akin to what punk bands did to music in the Seventies and Eighties – strip it back to the basics, purge the bullshit, make it wild and loud, played by people with such compositional skills that all they needed were drums, bass, guitar and ideas and they could compose a symphony in three chords. Bands like Suicide, much like atonal composer Schoenberg, made music that was about music itself. Bruichladdich is a distillery that is about distilling, and it makes whisky about whisky itself.

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The Cork Whiskey Society got to sample some of these self-reflexive experiments on a wet Wednesday night recently in The Roundy. Formerly a classic old-school pub with a plywood counter, shady Coal Quay characters and a jukebox that mostly played Yeke Yeke, The Roundy was gentrified in the Nineties and now includes a compact and bijou upstairs space perfect for intimate acoustic gigs…or a meeting of a splinter cell of whiskey enthusiasts:

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Our host for the evening was Abigail Clephane, pictured above, Bruichladdich ambassador and typically unsinkable Scot, who despite nursing a broken bone in her foot (not a drink-related injury, we were assured), still managed to stand and speak for two hours.

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First up was the challenge of actually saying the word Bruichladdich. When I met Mark Reynier in Waterford he said one of the reasons they chose the striking blue for the Classic Laddie was that it was the colour of the ocean around Islay on a sunny day. This was proved by Abigail, who brought an iPad with a suitably blue image of the sea off Islay along:

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The Laddie sea.

The other reason for the striking appearance was that the name was unpronounceable. Much like Paddy whisky was once colloquially known as Map Of Ireland whisky by a largely illiterate Irish public who simply said what they saw, the Laddie was designed to create a visual title for a whisky that defied pronunciation. I’ve been cajoled, corrected and censured for my attempts at Bruichladdich – some say you go full Scot and do it ‘Brewich-laddich’, others say the more user-friendly ‘Brookladdy’ but that really seems like an oversimplification for non-Celtic markets – I’m looking at you America. The truth, according to Abigail, is that it is somewhere in between – something along the lines of Brewch-laddy. That said, she did get one Celtic word wrong on the night:  She pronounced the name of Reynier’s Bruichladdich business partner, Simon Coughlin, as the softened, Anglicised ‘Cofflin’. Coughlin is a Cork name, and any Cork person will tell you that you can pronounce it two ways, neither of which is Cofflin: If you are from the city, it is ‘Cawlan’, if you are from the county it is the more traditional ‘Cocklan’. And there is no amount of soup on god’s green earth that you can take to change that, but it does go to show that pronunciation is a more fluid concept than we like to think. 

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Abigail talked us through the backstory of Reynier’s insane dream of relighting Bruichladdich’s fires, and his refusal to take no for an answer. His persistence paid off eventually, and once he rustled up a few million in equity, he took an ancient distillery and stripped it back to basics. Abigail proudly told us that in an age that has seen many distilleries claiming to be hand operated (when really they just mean a hand pushing a button on a keyboard) theirs was as oldschool as it gets, with a bit of string and an arrow attached to tell liquid levels being about as modern as they endure.

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Once Reynier had taken the distilling technology back as far as it could go, he brought in the cask whisperer Jim McEwan, not just for his production skills but also for his ability to wax lyrical about virtually anything to do with whisky. Mark Gillespie of The WhiskyCast always says that McEwan is a journalist’s dream – ask him what he thinks of barley, or casks, or distilling, and he will proffer a profound meditation on man, nature, time, and life itself. If McEwan was the romantic lyricist of Bruichladdich, Reynier was like Phil Spector – searching for that perfect note, reducing signal to noise and then building massive crescendos of ideas.

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If there is a common theme between Reynier’s Islay project and what he is doing in Waterford – apart from the fetishistic obsession with soil and barley – it is the quiet celebration of heritage. In a scene dominated by an exploitative approach to the past, where history and legacy are seen as worlds to be plundered for marketing, Reynier cherishes, preserves and keeps the past’s essence whilst taking a stridently modern, experimental approach to the present. Everything is about progression.

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Black Art and Octomore, two heavy metal drams.

Take one of the more prestigious samples on the night, Black Art. Effectively a bit of clever marketing improv using old stock, it is a 23-year-old mix of Lucifer-knows-what (although McEwan does actually know) that comes in at a somewhat devilish price of 240 – startling given that you basically have no idea what is in it. But it is the splendour of its imperial finery that I love. Taking all of its cues from the world of heavy metal, its matt-black bottle is adorned with fonts and symbols worthy of oldschool metal bands like Venom and Bathory.

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Some peated malt and a peated dram.

But however smokey Black Art is, it is nothing next to Octomore. Effectively employing the same logic as Nigel Tuffnell’s loudest amp – ‘yes but this one goes up to 11’ – Octomore is the most heavily peated malt in the world. It is a fiery beast, but a lot smoother than I expected, and possibly my favourite of the night. I was expecting that more medicinal note you get from the excellent Laphroaig, but it had a sweetness that softened it. As Eric Ryan of the whiskey society pointed out, there was a smokey bacon element coming through – something that leads me to believe it would make an excellent breakfast dram.  Backing this note up was the jar of peated malt, which we got to sniff and even taste – and it was, unexpectedly, like a crunchy, smokey bacon substitute.

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A giant nodge of turf.

It was an evening of palate-confounding experiences from a place that confounds the tongue. Full credit to the guys of the Cork Whiskey Society for their organisational skills and for allowing me to be there, getting in the way with my camera as they got set up for the evening. Here are some of the tireless committee, trying not to ask me to move: 

Thanks also to Abigail, who was witty, entertaining, full of great facts – many about the local Islay farmer James Brown who calls himself the Godfather Of Soil – and who ignored her smashed foot to bring so many smashable drams to Cork.