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.

 

Local man starts working for Irish Examiner, takes back everything he said about them

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Is there any news softer than rich, creamy advertorial? There is not, and I can write the softest, most meaningless advertorial of all. I got the chance to do some on a few businesses in Midleton, so here they are.

All hail Midleton

Midleton is a prosperous town. You can feel it when you walk down the street – there is a buzz there that many other town of similar size have lost over the past decade. Even in the teeth of the recession, Midleton was doing well. Set in a valley between the low rolling hills of east Cork, the town is surrounded by lush farmland, and has been the marketplace for their produce for centuries – a tradition carried on since the establishment of the local farmers market, the first of its kind in Ireland. Allowing farmers and smaller food producers to sell direct to the public,  a visit to the market is a Saturday morning tradition for many locals, picking up delicacies from Belvelly Smokehouse, Ballyhoura Mushroom or Woodside Farm. The market reestablishes a connection between consumer and product – the producers happily chatting with the customers about the food they are offering.

Next door to the market is the town’s multi award winning SuperValu, owned by the Hurley family.

Another key to the thriving main street is the local shopping centre. Rather than locating it out of the town, as has happened in many places around Ireland, Market Green SC is a short five minute walk from the main street, meaning shoppers can easily access both for their weekly shop. This has avoided what is known as the ‘doughnut effect’ – whereby the main street becomes hollowed out as the footfall is drawn to an out of town shopping centre. Market Green sits on the site of the old town mart, and anchor tenant Tesco draws the crowds that keep other outlets on the premises alive – opticians, pharmacies, health shops, barbers, hairdressers and a large branch of Heatons.

East Cork has built a brand around excellence in food and drink – a fact reinforced by the annual food festival, which sees tens of thousands of visitors descend on the town for a day of the best Cork has to offer. One of the main sponsors of the event is also one of the town’s main employers. For the last 200 years there has been a distillery in the town, one that is currently the home of Irish whiskey, producing the vast bulk of what is now the world’s fastest growing drinks category. Jameson, although associated with Dublin, has been flowing from Midleton for 40 years, and the presence of the distillery has contributed much to the success of the region, being an excellent employer. When other towns in the region lost big companies overseas, Irish Distillers committed to Midleton, giving the town confidence in its economic muscle. It’s not hard to see the firm’s influence on the town, from the whiskey displays in the recently opened JJ Coppingers, to the counter made from whiskey barrels in the award winning Sage restaurant.

One example of the distillery’s importance in the community came at a recent auction of farmland close to their current facility. Initially offered in several lots, IDL bought the entire package and then entered talks with the other bidders and a local sports club about disposing of some of the lands to them, showing that the distillery works with and for the local community.

Close to the old distillery, now the busy Jameson heritage centre, lies the recently developed Distillery Lanes shopping complex and multi storey car park. The 30m development is home to a number of retail outlets, as well as Asian street food vendor Ramen, but the largest and best known tenant is party food specialists Iceland – an essential supplier to the Christmas season. East Cork is spoiled for food and drink – from excellent restaurants like Sage, Raymonds and The Granary, to Ballymaloe House and Garryvoe Hotel; there is something to suit all tastes. The town is also home to artisan bakers Cuthberts, and O’Farrells Butchers, a mainstay in the town for more than half a century.

As an indicator of the economic strength of a town like Midleton, their property market survived the recession better than most, with well-known local auctioneers Colbert & Co, Hegarty Properties and Cronin Wall all thriving during some lean years. A sure sign of green shoots is in the opening of Factory Carpets on the main street, while other home improvement outlets such as Lakewood Furniture and Midleton Gates are helping homeowners apply a little TLC to their abodes.

In the 1880s, a British journalist named Alfred Barnard toured the distilleries of Ireland for Harpers magazine. He was very impressed with Midleton, speaking glowingly of the vale as a healthy and fertile country, and the town’s two rivers full of salmon. Two centuries last little has changed – the whiskey still flows, the land is still fertile and the people still as welcoming and prosperous as those who greeted Barnard. The town has a perfect blend of rich countryside, excellent facilities and a population who appreciate the finer things in life: It’s a success story worth toasting – slainte!

Let there be lights 

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Christmas seems to start earlier and earlier each year – but in Midleton two years ago, there were concerns that it might not come at all. Or rather, the town’s festive lights might not. The local traders group had ordered new street illuminations from a firm in Spain, securing a 50% reduction on a market price of €120,000. However, due to a delay in the order, it was into December before they were up and running. So were they worth waiting for? According to Joe McCarthy, the municipal district officer for the region, they most definitely were. Mr McCarthy is quick to point out that the firm they used for the lights is one of the best in Europe, and many of large European cities use them for their festive illuminations.

But Midleton deserves the best: “Midleton has always been a very strong trading town – the offer in the town is very diverse,” Mr McCarthy says.

To illustrate the town’s draw, he points out that when the town was bypassed, rather than taking business away from the main street, it actually made it a more pleasant experience for shoppers, alleviating traffic woes. Mr McCarthy also says that businesses are helped by the town being in the rare position of having more than enough parking spaces in the vicinity of the street, including two large car parks and a multi storey.

The old lights were a decade old, and had endured the extremes of winter storms as well as the big freeze in 2009 and 2010, so they had served the region well. The new town lights had a similarly rough introduction to Irish weather, having endured the violent storms last January, which saw part of the town flood. Mr McCarthy says they are currently being repaired by technicians from the parent company in Spain, and are due to be in place and ready for the switching on on November 26th, with the lights outside the courthouse and along the Babys Walk already in situ. Mr McCarthy is quick to pay tribute to the town’s traders who helped make the Christmas lights a success, including Fergus McCarthy of McCarthy’s Newsagents and Rachel McCarthy of Ina McCarthy Flowers, who were both drivers of the project.

Mr McCarthy says that a key to Midleton’s success is its sizeable catchment area – stretching from Ballycotton to Dungourney, Leamlara to Garryvoe, people in the region see the town as being theirs – it’s where they go to shop, to dine, to socialise, to spend. Midleton’s economic might is such that Mr McCarthy wants to share their success – as part of the Ancient East tourism initiative, new signage at the entrance of the Jameson Heritage Centre in the town will encourage the tens of thousands of visitors there to explore the region further. Mr McCarthy is also pushing ahead with plans to reopen the Youghal-Midleton rail line as a greenway, as has been done to many rail tracks around the country with great success.

The message is clear – Midleton is a commercial powerhouse in east Cork, and as Ireland emerges from the worst recession for decades, it looks like this could be the best Christmas yet for traders in east Cork; a real light at the end of the tunnel. 

Pubs

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East Cork owes a lot to the monks. The largest town in the region, Midleton was founded by Cistercian monks, a fact reflected by the Irish name which means ‘monastery by the weir’. Then there was the monks’ love of ale and spirits – they kept the tradition of brewing alive in the dark ages and brought the Moorish practice of distilling back to Ireland, which in turn lead to whiskey production – another factor in the success of Midleton.  

Somehow it seems fitting that the place where the monastery by the weir once stood is now a bar named the Mad Monk. And if that didn’t seem serendipitous enough, it also happens to be a bar that specializes in craft beer and whiskey – two of the biggest success stories in food and drink in Ireland in the past decade.

Manager Joe Philpott is quick to point out that they can’t simply rest on their laurels – they host guest beers from around the country and around the world, and also are one of the few pubs in the town serving food in the evenings. After 35 years working in the trade, Joe has seen the changes the last 20 years have brought and know that there has to be something more than just a pint – even if people are slow to change their perceptions of what a pub should be. During the summer months they hosted live music four nights a week, and they also cater to a large Czech population living locally, importing the best beers from their home country and posting updates on social media when a new beer has arrived from Eastern Europe. They also stock many Alltech beers, and even received a visit from Alltech’s founder, agritech billionaire Pearse Lyons, at the start of the summer.

There is also a craft beer link to the town’s newest pub, located at the other end of the main street. Owned by the family behind the famous craft beer pub The Cotton Ball, JJ Coppingers is named after a local man who fought in the American Civil War, whose family owned a brewery next door to where the pub now sits. The building itself has quite a history, having been designed by Gothic Revivalist architect AW Pugin, who designed much of the interiors of the British Houses Of Parliament.

Although owned by the Lynches, Coppingers is run by the same team behind The Castle in Glanmire and The Elm Tree in Glounthaune. A surprisingly cosmopolitan bar, no expense was spared in renovating the premises earlier this year. Set for their first festive season in the town, the venue has a packed schedule of live gigs to keep the punters happy – reflecting the modus operandi of all business owners in the town; you have to diversify. In fact, Coppingers also has an upstairs space that has the potential to offer space for a full kitchen down the road.

Across the street sits Wallis’s Town Hall Bar, the other late bar in Midleton. A staple of nightlife in the town for decades, it boasts a booming daytime and nighttime trade, with the late crowds drawn in by a commitment to live music – from DJs to rock bands to string quartets on Sunday afternoons – owner Seamus Cunningham has diversified to suit a changing market and changing tastes.

Across the road is another business that has changed many times – McCarthy’s Newsagents. Originally a grocers back when it opened in the 1960s, it later became solely a newsagents and book store, but owner Fergus McCarthy knows that you cannot rest on your laurels; they branched out to offer coffees and ice creams in the shop and have seen great success. However, however they have modernised the business, the family still carry on one old tradition – that of living over the shop, making them about the only trader in the town who does so. An enthusiastic ukulele player, Fergus organised the music for the switching on of the Christmas light last year, while his wife Susan is also heavily involved in the community, as she is the local county councillor. They prove that in business as in life, the key to success is having more than one string to your bow – or ukulele.

Midle chords 

The hills of east Cork have long been alive with the sound of music. Back in the heyday of Tony and Charlie Moore’s iconic Meeting Place bar, musical icons like Christy Moore used to come play candlelit gigs to a rapt audience. In more recent times local viral sensations Crystal Swing rocketed to fame and a guest spot on Ellen thanks to their star quality. The town also boasts a very active brass band, officially titled the Midleton Holy Rosary Brass & Reed Band at their outset in 1951, they now operate as Midleton Concert Band, and have a busy festive schedule ahead.

But there is one music group in Midleton that sums up the best in both community and festive spirit – the East Cork Music Project. Started in 2011 by youth worker Claire Seymour, the courses they run have helped more than a hundred kids in the area express their creativity through art and music whilst also building important life skills.

Ms Seymour’s background was with another socially aware music project, the Cork Academy Of Music, where she saw how young people who might not necessarily be the sporty type, or the academic type, or might struggle to fit in, were able to find their voice through music. Inspired by this, she decided to bring a project to Midleton that would offer formal and informal training to young people, to keep them off the streets and out of harm’s way. So she applied for funding – and things happened faster than she thought.

“Our funding comes from Cork Education Training Board and our sponsors are Cork Diocesan Youth Services. Before I had a premises or anything I applied for funding, so I was in for a shock when a call came through telling me I had two weeks to get a space for classes – and pupils.”

Ms Seymour started with the basics – just asking young people if they would be interested in learning a musical instrument. Soon she had her first class, and after a move or two they found a home in Midleton Community Centre. There she and other tutors teach 25 kids in two music centred programmes – a FETAC Level 4 and a Level 5 that also teach employment skills and personal development. The skills learned in these courses have helped graduates go on to study music further in Cork’s School Of Rock, Coláiste Stiofáin Naofa, and to gain employment in Midleton. The project gives them a chance they might never have had otherwise – as exemplified by a recent trip to Sweden, when Ms Seymour took 25 of her students on a cultural exchange programme to a similar group of students. The two groups came together and created music and art over five days under the auspices of Léargas – a trip of a lifetime for many of the participants.

The students also share their creativity with the local community in east Cork – they recently engaged in an art project with residents of the community hospital to create a large scale mural in the grounds of the community garden. The project’s contribution to the town has not gone unnoticed, with people in the locality donating musical instruments to the students, whilst a former janitor of Midleton Community Centre donated a car to the project. There has also been fund-raising for them – An Teach Beag pub, known locally as Banners, held an all day music marathon for the East Cork Music Project, raising €2,500, while a local choir has donated €1,000 raised through concerts they held.

But for all the musical creativity the project has inspired in the participants and the wider community, Ms Seymour says that the real rewards are seeing the kids communicating: “What we do here is create a space for the students to communicate and participate in something creative. It helps teach them to find their voice – to express how they are feeling. The greatest reward at the end of each term is seeing a student who has found some self belief, who has found some confidence in themselves and their own abilities and creativity.”

The East Cork Music Project is an example of the best of community spirit – creative, inclusive, educational, enriching. Plato said “I would teach children music, physics, and philosophy; but most importantly music, for the patterns in music and all the arts are the keys to learning.” At a time of year when people celebrate the child, Ms Seymour’s project and its participants are a shining beacon of hope for a better tomorrow – where no child is left behind.

-To donate to the project, or to just see some of their work, you can contact them on eastcorkmusicproject@gmail.com, or at  https://www.facebook.com/Eastcorkmusicproject/.

The Fountainhead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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McGregor’s Legacy

To "The fighting Irish" 🍀😄 #MidletonRare #featherweightchampion

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Conor McGregor toasts his win over Aldo and ‘the Irish running the game’ with a Barry Crockett Legacy.

Conor McGregor, Lorenzo Fertitta toasts whiskey after UFC 194 (Video)

Whiskey and I: A long, boring and massively self-involved post, even by normal blogging standards

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I never cared much for fine dining, and burnt off most of my palette in the Nineties drinking whatever was  within reach – including one late-night encounter with, I shit you not, paint stripper.  But now I am old and just want to enjoy a couple of decent drinks to unclench my mind on a Friday night, without feeling like I’m having an aneurysm when the kids jump on my head at 7am the next morning. So when I heard that the distillery here in Midleton were holding a huge party to celebrate their new extension, I wrangled my way in.

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The day was broken into three segments: Enda Kenny was there in the morning to officially open the new extension, then there was The Housewarming, boasting an artisan food market, live music and special events for a select 1,000 VIPs, and then the Barrelman’s Feast, a massive blow-out for 300 in a warehouse featuring live music from The Chieftains, amazing food and enough whiskey to pickle China.  Being super-important, I was at the middle bit only, along with Jerry Fish, Síle Seoige, yer man from The Chieftains, and possibly Conrad Gallagher.  I missed many of the events, but I’ll waffle a bit about the ones I did manage to stumble along to.

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First up was the demonstration with master cooper Ger Buckley. Ger is a fifth generation cooper, so he knows his stuff. He gave a great talk about the processes of whiskey making, where the various barrels – sherry butts and bourbon casks primarily – come from, how they are made and maintained, how to work with them – basically everything you ever wanted to ask about a butt and wood but were afraid to ask.

During the demo I nailed a couple of amazing Jameson Select Reserve Black Barrel Blended Whiskeys. I ask the guy serving how much they cost. He said he didn’t know. Translation: Fucking expensive.
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Next was the tour of the whiskey academy, where they give more in-depth sessions of tastings, blendings and general classes about the processes and chemistry of whiskey.

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The Jameson Family Tasting took place in a family kitchen style setting, and was one of the highlights of the day. We each had measures of Jameson, Select Reserve, and Gold Reserve. We had an expert  taster guiding us through the flavours and scents, using jars of barley, malt, dried apricot, skewers of fresh mango, bit of burnt barrels, mixed spices, all to help us pick out the flavours and develop a more discerning palette.

On the subject of ice, our expert said one or two cubes to freshen it, but no more – and none with a premium whiskey, as you don’t want to freeze out the flavours. A drop of water, which I always thought was a saddo way of softening the sweet, sweet burn, is actually recommended to help ignite some of the more subtle tones. At this stage I was about five drinks in, and the fact I was at the event on my own stopped mattering.

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This tour was a glimpse of what all the fuss was about – an enormous glass-fronted stillhouse containing three pot stills, each capable of holding some 80,000 litres, but generally only holding a little more than a quarter of that, as to overload it affects the process.

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Next to the facility is this mystery hole in the ground. My old school is just on the other side of the wall, and there is a corresponding hole there where we used to smoke and loiter.

There is an underground stream running along here which passes underneath much of Midleton , which is built on a network of limestone caves. Where SuperValu now stands in the town there used to be a hotel which basically fell apart as the ground beneath it slowly gave way. And more recently the cottages at the back of SuperValu started to subside.

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In between the events I loitered around the artisan food market, listening to the live music, avoiding being hugged by Jerry Fish, trying the Franciscan Well’s limited edition Jameson infused stout, ate food made by a guy I went to school with who didn’t recognize me – always a bonus – and chatted randomly to people like the lush I am.

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All in all, a grand day out.