Seasonal affective disorder

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The Dungourney river on its slow approach to Midleton.

As part of the Midleton food festival each September, there is a tasting in the Jameson Heritage Centre in the town. It’s usually a ridiculously cheap five or ten euro for four premium whiskeys – but the event used to be completely free. However, one year at the end of the tasting, a little old lady went around and poured all the leftover drams into a little plastic bottle. When confronted and asked why, she said ‘it’s for the Christmas cake’. After that, they started to charge. But it’s hard to argue with the lady’s common sense approach to all that leftover whiskey. To many, it is the Christmas drink – we use it to flavour the cake, torch the pudding, liven up our coffee or just warm the blood during the darkest season in Northern Europe. But what do whiskey drinkers in warmer climes drink? Well, one option is to have something from the ready-to-drink (or RTD) category; Jameson comes in a variety of pre-mixed variations in Australia, including Cloudy Apple, Raw Cola and this:

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Because when you’re drinking in a desert, you need a little more than 35cl of hard liquor to quench your thirst. Which makes it all the more puzzling that Jameson would launch a whiskey in South Africa before anywhere else; but that’s exactly what they did with what we call Black Barrel, then known as Jameson Select Reserve.

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Still known by that name in one of the big emerging markets for whiskey, Kenya, the spirit itself is a bit of an oddity, being a blend of pot still and mixed-mash barley spirit from a column still. You can read the full breakdown here on Liquid Irish. The Black Barrel tag came from the fact the barrels are double charred. The result is a sweet vanilla dram reminiscent, to my mind, of the more American styles. When I try to badger my wife into drinking whiskey, it is this I opt for – ‘it’s kinda like Jack Daniels’ I pitch. ‘Except it isn’t and it’s is a lot nicer’, I think to myself.

While the African market is a growing one for IDL, so too are almost all others – the distillery in Midleton may be capable of creating a vast array and amount of whiskey, but they need more space to grow. To this end, they recently bought a farm that lay adjacent to the site. It went to public auction, the previous owner having passed away. There is a full write-up on the Independent, which makes for interesting reading. Initially being sold in lots, IDL and one other bidder wanted the lot – and IDL, being a very large firm )with a substantial parent firm in the form of Pernod Ricard) won the day.

Some of the land purchased by IDL.

Some of the land purchased by IDL.

What is interesting is how community focused IDL they are; beyond being the best employer in the area in terms of salaries, conditions and general vibe, they also have engaged with some of the bidders to make deals on the smaller lots they don’t need – one of those being the GAA club, which is currently located at the other end of the town. Access there is a nightmare, whereas the land IDL have just bought has planning for a new access road – which would also take their deliveries out of the town itself.

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When I heard the distillery bought a farm, I immediately assumed they were going to use it for grain for the microdistillery, or just as a lovely prop for the whiskey academy, but it seems more likely they will use it to expand their operations – and possibly also to create flood defences, as earlier this year there was extensive flooding upriver from their site. I’ve written about this before, and made the point that some people locally laid the blame on the distillery, despite it being there for four decades with no flooding. You can see from this video that some of the warehouses were affected, but also that the floods spread miles back along the river.

In fact, the area that flooded is the part of the site that is zoned for industry, so I’d imagine IDL have plans for serious flood defences before they start any new building work.

All of this tells you two things – first, IDL are important to the community here. For a small town like Midleton, this kind of employment forms its economic backbone. Without the distillery, we could have gone the way of Youghal – stripped of large businesses over the past 30 years, currently Youghal’s largest employer is the State-run St Raphael’s care home. 

IDL also support various community projects here, including the recently developed youth centre, something worth considering next time you hear someone droning on about the demon drink and how it is ruining society. 

The second piece of information to be gleaned from the farm purchase is that IDL know that they are going to have a lot of competition in the next ten years, so now is the time to flex those sizeable muscles and expand lines as well as the plant itself. I was in Scotland when I first heard about the new Green Spot expression, earwigging on a conversation between Sir Colin Hampden White of the ultra-lux, invite-only Whisky Quarterly magazine and Mark Gillespie of the ever-popular WhiskyCast, who were both off to the launch event the following week. The single pot still whiskey is finished in wine casks from Château Léoville-Barton, a merging of Irish and French cultures that appealed to me, as it was French monks from the Burgundy region who built the monastic settlement that later became the town of Midleton (update – this is massively incorrect; thanks again, Wikipedia. See comment from local historian Tony Harpur below). 

Green Spot Whiskey 2015

Green Spot Whiskey 2015

But there is another Irish connection here: Thomas Barton, of Barton & Guestier, left Ireland to find his fortune in Bordeaux in 1724, starting a shipping company there before becoming a very successful wine merchant. Barton kept his Irish heritage, buying Grove House, a stately home and estate near Fethard. Known as ‘French Tom’ to the locals – despite being from Fermanagh – the family are central to the history of the town:

Thomas Barton was succeeded in Grove by his son William. William Barton also played an integral part in the life of the local community, he was sovereign in the years 1816,18,19,21,23 and 29.He gave the site for the present Parish Church and also had greeted the public pump on the Square. The pump was being used up to the mid thirties. It became part of Fethard folklore when the rallying cry of old time Fethard football supporters was “Come on the two streets and a pump”.

So what of the whiskey itself – on the nose there is a little menthol, cut with green fruits, but with a real deep rich plummy note from the wine finish. On the palette there is a lot more of the traditional Green Spot tongue-smacking astringency and less of those velvety wine elements. The front is where it’s at, with a rich caramel flavour that passes all too quickly. I feel like I do about Green Spot generally – I like it, but I’m not going to sell my soul to get a bottle. At €69, this is a good whiskey – but not one I would be shouting from the rooftops about.

Redbreast Lustau

Redbreast Lustau

One whiskey I do shout from all surfaces about is Redbreast. When people ask me to recommend an Irish whiskey, it is the one I always fall back on – it was my first foray into the upper echelons of whiskey, and is one I will always have a special place in my heart for. So expectations are even higher for their latest release in this line, the Lustau Edition. Here is some press release:

Redbreast has introduced a new, permanent expression to its decorated Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey family; Redbreast Lustau Edition. Finished in hand selected, first-fill sherry butts that are seasoned with Oloroso sherry from the prestigious Bodegas Lustau in Jerez, Spain, this release celebrates the iconic sherry influence found throughout the Redbreast range.

Matured initially in a combination of exceptional ex-Bourbon and ex-Oloroso sherry casks, Redbreast Lustau Edition has been wholly finished for one year in prized sherry butts from Bodegas Lustau in Jerez, the sherry capital of the world.

So what of this one: This has a real, rich fruit element to it that is fantastic – on the nose it has fruit and nut dark chocolate, sherry trifle, a hint of incense. Like they always say, Christmas cake in a glass – on the palette, beyond the stewed fruits, marzipan and lots of salted caramel brittle, but like all the Redbreasts this is just liquid silk. Incredible mouth-coating, oily gush with a snap, crackle and pop as the flavours go to work. I would still favour the 12, but that is simply that I am an ageist. One of the things I love about whiskey is the idea that you are buying time – this drink in your hand lay sleeping in a cask for a decade or more, and when you drink it you are consuming all those years, all that time. As I get older and ever closer to the inevitable maw of the wolf of oblivion, this is important to me; if I drink the waters of life, I want to know how many years I am consuming. Make it NAS and I just spend my time wondering how old it actually is (in this case, 10-13 years). That’s not to take from this whiskey – age statement or not, it is excellent. I’m not saying that the Green Spot is a child of a lesser god – I just prefer the profile of the Redbreast. Green Spot is lighter, to me, it’s a summer whiskey; great with ice or even a mixer. Redbreast is winter, rich food and warm fires, short days and long nights of sitting about like an especially lazy emperor, darkness and comfort. If I had to recommend one over the other, it would obviously be the Redbreast Lustau sherry edition, but bear in mind that this is the recommendation of someone who got drunk for the first time at age 12 on an especially potent sherry trifle, so my opinion may be skewed (and my brain damaged).

Thank you to the good people at Burrell PR for the bottle of Black Barrel, and the samples of the Green Spot and the Lustau.

Holy waters

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As monks go, St Columba was pretty rock ‘n’ roll. A great-great-grandson of High King Niall of the Nine Hostages, he once started a war over a copyright issue and ended up narrowly avoiding excommunication by exiling himself to Scotland. He sailed past Islay, where Irish monks introduced distilling to the Scots, and set up a Christian outpost on Iona, from where he set out to spread his faith.

But he is also remembered for being the first person recorded to have an encounter with the Loch Ness monster. He came across some Picts burying a companion who had been killed by a ‘water beast’ in the loch. Columba ordered one of his followers to swim across the loch and bring back a boat on the other side – but the man was only halfway when a fearsome creature appeared.

Invoking the name of God, Columba formed the sign of the cross in the air, and commanded the ferocious monster “Thou shalt go no further, nor touch the man; go back with all speed.”

The monster fled, but despite the fact that 1,500 years have passed since that account, and although Columba has largely been forgotten, Nessie’s legend shows no signs of diminishing. Loch Ness still seems a magical place, where the walls between our world and some fantasy kingdom are crumbling, where anything can happen. No wonder then that a family who have lived on the banks of the loch for 500 years have decided to try and capture some of the magic of its waters.

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Lorien and Kevin Cameron-Ross, above, the founders and directors of Loch Ness Spirits, hand pick their own ‘black gold’ juniper and local botanicals from their land on the shores of Loch Ness.  They then combine it with the water of the glen to create the limited edition ‘Real and Rare’ Loch Ness Gin. Just 500 bottles of the first batch of ‘Real and Rare’ Loch Ness Gin have been distilled.   

Already an award winner, achieving a gold medal in ‘ultra-premium’ category and silver medal in the ‘London dry’ category of The Global Gin Masters Competition in June, ‘Real and Rare’ Loch Ness Gin was described by the judges as “A sparkle of juniper mixed with earthy angelica and aromatic pine blossom.”

Co-creator Lorien: ‘Inspired by a local gin tour and noting how rare and precious juniper was, we got to thinking about the juniper around us when we walked the dog at home.

‘It has been a steep learning curve and we have worked extremely hard to hand pick the juniper and other botanicals, but we have made it, and are desperately proud of the result.

‘The family has been working the rugged shores of this loch for 500 years and this is just the next stage in that tradition of working the land. I probably shouldn’t say this, but it could be the most delicious thing we have produced in half a millennium!’

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So what of the gin – it has a freshness on the nose that I wasn’t expecting, a real light air of lemongrass, with hints of fresh-cut fennel bulb. There is a definite menthol element that really lines it up as a palate cleanser – citrus notes, but with a hint of brine. The mouth is definitely a big departure  – lots of cotton candy, a slight medicinal sweetness, leaving more of that initial citrus in its wake. A refreshing gin, served with too much tonic water and you might drown out some of the more hidden depths. I took this neat, then with ice, then tonic, and favoured a weightier measure of gin and less of everything else; like the beastie in the loch, it is an elusive sip that definitely needs more exploration.

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As for Nessie, her enduring myth was revived recently by Ian Bremner, a distillery worker who took this photo:

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Speaking after, Bremner said: “I suppose it could be seals – but I’m not so sure. The more I think about it, the more I think it could be Nessie” – proving that from St Columba to the Cameron-Rosses, all you need to make the waters of Loch Ness magical is a little faith.