Twilight of the gods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this is what the label actually says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Again, Terry Greene is working on the design:

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

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

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

 

 

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.

 

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. 

Goodbye, hello

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“There are two kinds of Christmas people – those who like their Christmas lights to stay on solid and those who like them to blink. As a kid, I always had a thing for sitting in the dark and watching the lights blink on and off at random. In the end, what we have are these little, great moments. They come and they go. That’s as good as it gets. But, still, isn’t that great?”

Mark Everett of The Eels.

This time three years ago I was doing work I loved in a job I hated, with no end in sight and no way out. This time two years ago I was cashing my redundancy cheque and wondering what I was doing with my life, as my wife gave birth to our fourth child a few days later. This time last year I was in the toughest and best job I have ever had (in an emergency department), still wondering what I was doing with my life and, on a secondary note, how much longer my dad was going to be around. Obviously the last 12 months changed a lot of those things. Dad got sick, I left work to care for him, he passed away, I went back to work in a different department, and – one week before Christmas – we moved into the house I grew up in. It’s strange being here with them gone; there were four of us here once. But my own family is big enough now that it doesn’t feel empty, and for once my wife and I are in the unique position of living in a house large enough to be able to ask ‘where are the kids?’, as in our previous home – a three-bed semi – there was never a time when there wasn’t a child in the room with you, sort of like The Grudge, or the end of The Blair Witch Project.

I’m still trying to dig through my dad’s stuff, of which there is tonnes. A lot of it goes back to my great grandfather’s time – books from his time with the RIC in Bantry at the turn of the last century – and some from my dad’s family home in Clonakilty, like these two old pictures.

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Of course, it was when I pulled them apart that the real gold was found.

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Since then I’ve ripped up every old frame to see if I can find the rest of the George Roe Distillery poster, or more pub posters. Or at least I assume they came from a pub, given the way Ireland was about whiskey they might have been deemed perfectly appropriate for the home. They are certainly going to be for mine, as I’m reframing and hanging them. But the problem I now face is what to keep and what to discard – we are in the position of simply having too much beautiful, historic stuff. We thought we could sell some of it at auction, but incredibly, nowhere would take all my parents’ treasured antiques. We just donated most of the furniture to charity, where no doubt they will get picked up by an antique dealer for a few quid and sold on at auction for profit. Such is life. I just want them to be in a home rather than a landfill.

So 2016 is over. People came and went, lights went on and then went off. I had some highs, some lows, but generally it was all normal, natural stuff. My kids are fine, apart from my daughter having lupus and my three year old son being tested for an intellectual disability, but they are generally healthy, and, as far as I can tell, happy. They didn’t have an easy year, with all the things that happened and me disappearing out of their lives for three months to care for dad. My wife didn’t have it easy either, but now here we are, with a view from Cork city to Garryvoe, in a house with high ceilings, preparing for the rest of our lives. So it’s not all bad.

I rang in the new year with a drop of Ledaig 22 year old via Cadenheads. It was great, incredibly smooth, with an amazing, fruity, pear-drop camphor note. It didn’t have the length I expected, but made up for it in depth. I had plenty great drams in 2016, most of them while I lived here with my dad, all those special occasion bottles I ripped into on a nightly basis. I liked the green-apple freshness of the Hakushu NAS, the sweet, opulent Tyrconnell 10 madeira cask finish, the unfuckwithable sherry bomb that is the A’bunadh, and the oily, velvet smoke of the Laphroaig Quarter Cask. None of them costing a king’s ransom, and all the more enjoyable for it. Given that I now own a money pit that will consume all my meagre earnings like a sarlacc devouring an especially small bounty hunter, all drams from now on will be the best value my shekels can barter for. But you cut your cloth to fit your measure, and there is no way I could justify blowing a couple of hundred euro on a bottle. After all, it’s only booze.

So to the year ahead, and some of my great expectations. I’d like to win the Lotto, or just get more money through normal means, such as hard work or insurance fraud. I’d like to see Bushmills get their shit together and fulfill their potential. I’d like to see more distilleries getting set up here, and less shenanigans by bottlers slinging Cooley as though it were the second coming. If the IWA won’t tackle it, consumer pressure might – after all, one of the oddest things to happen to me during the year was being asked to go on Liveline to talk about one bottler’s spectacular displays of false provenance. When you’re being asked to talk to Joe, it might be time to stop claiming you can get ‘the taste of west Cork’ from something distilled and aged for ten years at the opposite end of the Irish Republic.

I’d also like to see the world not get blown up this year. Trump’s election was the first event to make me think ‘I sure am glad dad isn’t here to see this’. It’s hard to believe that less than a century after the Holocaust we are gearing up to goosestep down the same ashen path. I wrote some guff about him for the Indo, which you can read here, which led to me getting a name drop on the ‘what it says in the papers’ bit on Morning Ireland. So the rise of fascism has had some real positives for me. Sock it to us Quimby!

Trump’s id-driven tweeting also made me realise that I hate exclamation marks, and generally look down on people who use them, even though I chuck them into the odd tweet myself, usually to drive home some attempt at humour on someone I don’t know that well. So for 2017 – fuck exclamation marks. And Nazis, obviously.

Personal goals include getting back into the gym, reading more, writing more, and getting a lot better at photography, specifically night photography. Out here in the hills the night skies are the same awesome celestial panoramas as they were when I was a ten year old amateur astronomer, sitting out the front with my mum, staring up and and incorrectly naming the constellations. My adult attempts at capturing them on camera look like reverse Rorschach test cards. So that needs to improve. Or I just need to give up.

I’d also like not to lose any more people. It seems unlikely, given that some of the people I know are old, but as long as no-one who dies is under, say, 75, I think it will be fine. I’ve said enough goodbyes for a while.

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A few photos from the dark waters of Cappoquin, where I got to meet Peter Mulryan; author, raconteur and Heston Blumenthal of Irish distilling. He’s been pushing the boundaries with some of his work in Blackwater Distillery (and the boundaries pushed back on occasion), but his really is an inspirational story of someone switching over from writing to doing – a courageous move for any journalist. You can read the interview in the Canadian magazine Distilled, but there are really interesting things ahead for Peter and his team.

Red dawn

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I’ve long been a fan of Writers Tears – even on a purely aesthetic level, I would sing its praises. Fortunate then that, beneath the surface, it is also a cracking whiskey. Walsh have recently released another expression in the family, and because every Irish family has at least one ginge in it, this one is titled Red Head.

This is billed as ‘a triple distilled single malt’ – so this is the point where I tap my nose, wink at you and mouth the word ‘Bushmills’. You furrow your brow, mis-lipread and think I mouthed ‘punch me’ and we end up in a tremendous donnybrook that makes the Táin Bó Cúailnge look like an especially weak episode of WWE Raw.

The official line is thus:

This exquisite, triple-distilled single malt is matured only in select handpicked Spanish sherry butts which have previously been seasoned with the finest Oloroso sherry. It is the influence of these scarce butts that give this expression of Writers Tears its signature rich, ruby hue and hence the moniker – ‘Red Head’. The expression is distilled without chill filtering as nature intended and at a distinctive 46% ABV.

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So what of my slightly-pissed tasting notes:

A real sweetness on the nose, lots of rich caramel (the foodstuff, not the colouring) in there, a little bit of clove and cinnamon. Palate-wise – more spices than I expected, a lot of really nice heat from that extra bit of ABV, definitely feeling that orange peel note touted in the official tasting notes. The finish is not the 2001: A Space Odyssey-style epic the notes suggest, but it has more of the spice and less of the sweetness from the nose. For less than €50, and a NAS to boot, you cannot expect some multi-layered labyrinth of flavour. I prefer the standard Copper Pot expression, and would still recommend it over this, but this Red Head still has more soul than your average ginger

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.