Monday, 27 February 2017

Method and Madness

Every year I devote three days to the OFFSET design conference in Dublin. It's not my industry but the relentless high energy visuals and thumping audio are a useful yearly reset of the senses and imagination. My 2017 dose was only a week ago, so the rioting imagery in my brain has yet to fade.

It'll linger a little longer thanks to Midleton Distillery's "Method and Madness" whiskey launch event on Wednesday, an über-cool affair of monochrome geometric projections and psychedelic swirls, soundtracked by a live DJ / string quartet jam. It was an evocation of regularity and order, with a dusting of something a little more chaotic, serendipitous. The new labels pick up the theme:

The design work was done by an Irish / Swedish creative partnership based in Sweden. Which explains the OFFSET flashbacks too, since the same team was responsible for the visual identity of that conference a few years ago. It's not hard to detect some DNA from that project reappearing in the look of these new whiskeys.

"Though this be madness, yet there is method in't."

We've always known Midleton had "method". They know how to make good whiskey, over and over again, by bringing centuries of accumulated experience and modern science to bear on a process prone to natural variation. But what's this hitherto unsuspected vein of insanity they are confessing to?

The "madness" of Midleton has not seen the light of day till now. Instead it has languished in dark warehouses, fettered by hoops of iron, unacknowledged and unclaimed by the Jameson and Powers families. It is a lake of misfit whiskey, the outcome of experiments in distillation and maturation, accumulated over many years. In 2015 Midleton's new micro-distillery started kicking in another 400 casks a year of unusual liquid.

The new catch-all brand, "Method and Madness", is a compassionate release programme for all those oddball spirits that otherwise have no hope of escape.

Method and Madness Single Grain Irish Whiskey
Finished in virgin Spanish oak

Midleton held out on a single grain bottling until a limited edition for the Irish Whiskey Society in 2015. The Method and Madness Single Grains are their first for the open market, as far as I know.

The finishing wood is a departure too. Well, not the Galician oak in itself, which is a staple of Midleton maturation in the form of ex-sherry casks. The twist here is that the Spanish oak has not been seasoned with sherry before being filled with Irish whiskey.

From the press release:
After maturing in ex-Bourbon barrels to achieve a light, perfumed flavour on the exceptional grain distillate, the whiskey has uniquely been finished for 12 months in toasted, virgin Spanish oak from Galicia, North West Spain. The process added complexity, cask character and a spicy note until the perfect balance between the subtlety of the grain spirit and the contribution of the Spanish oak was skilfully mastered.

Method and Madness Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey
Finished in French Chestnut

There is a little extra wiggle room in the definition of Irish whiskey compared to Scotch. Whereas Scotch must have been aged in oak casks, Irish whiskey regulations specify simply that the casks must be wooden.

It has only been of theoretical interest up to now, because in practice oak is exclusively used in Ireland. But they are curious folks at Midleton and because they could, they did. Seven chestnut casks were commissioned from a cooperage in Bordeaux. The wood is sometimes used for wine in Europe.

I learned, by the way, from Master of Maturation Kevin O'Gorman, that the sweet chestnut tree involved here bears no relation to the horse chestnut tree we are more familiar with in Ireland. It is, rather, a first cousin of beech and oak, and grows reasonably straight and knot-free, making it suitable for coopering.

The seven toasted virgin chestnut casks were used to finish a medium style pot still whiskey for 12 months. There are 900 cases in this batch but there are more casks being filled so if it's well received, we'll see it again.

When Midleton Dair Ghaelach was released, the distillery boffins noted the higher contribution of furfural and vanillin from Irish oak, compared with American or Spanish oaks. These are credited with imparting enhanced vanilla, caramel and chocolate flavours. According to Kevin, the levels of these compounds in sweet chestnut are higher still.

The entirely natural mahogany hue in this whiskey is another effect of the unusual wood.

From the press release:
This Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey has been matured in a combination of ex-Oloroso sherry and ex-Bourbon barrels, before being transferred to chestnut casks sourced from the Isère region in France. In a world-first, the French chestnut casks impart a distinctive sweetness that lightens the mouth-feel, increases depth and adds a mahogany glow.

Method and Madness Single Malt Irish Whiskey
Enhanced with French Limousin Oak

Here's another unusual wood for Irish whiskey, this time French oak from Limousin, typically used for cognac maturation.

The bigger shock, though, is that the guardians of the pot still whiskey style have released a single malt (the first for many years). Now Midleton does make malt but this particular spirit was distilled at Bushmills in 2001 or early 2002, when both were owned by Irish Distillers. It was distilled by Dave Quinn, in fact, now Master of Science at Midleton. When Bushmills was sold off, this parcel of malt came to Cork.

From the press release:
The first Single Malt Irish Whiskey released from Midleton in recent memory, the whiskey has been initially matured in ex-Bourbon barrels, imparting flavours of malt and biscuit, and in a first for the category, has been part-finished in French Limousin oak for one year to add a lighter, floral and herbal note.

Method and Madness Single Grain Irish Whiskey 31 Year Old

If any part of the new range demonstrates madness, it is putting a €1,500 single grain in the same package as a €49 single grain. If a point is being made, perhaps it is that nothing about Method and Madness is predictable. Keeps us guessing.

Three refill bourbon casks were emptied and bottled separately. Each yielded about 100 bottles at a surprisingly healthy cask strength of 51.3-52.5%.

From the press release:
A bottling of exceptional single grain distillate matured in an ex-Bourbon cask for 31 years, this rare single cask release has developed a full deep grain character and a taste of honey, juicy mango and ripe melon with an endless dark wood and spicy finish.

The future

There are many more weird and wonderful experiments quietly maturing at Midleton. More exotic wood types, for example. Or the 95% rye / 5% malted barley mash coming off the main stills at the moment to be filled into bourbon casks.

Eleven distillate types have already been distilled in the micro-distillery from old and new recipes. Rye and oats. Malt and pot still. Triple- and double-distilled. Different yeasts are a whole new area yet to be explored. There are no limits to the variations possible.

Tasting Notes

We should not forget, of course, the blender's art in all of this. We are not sampling the raw output of random experiments, but selected notes from those trials chosen to enhance and complement the other components of the blend. If the result tastes good, it is the clearest illustration of the method beneath the madness.

These are the tasting notes from Master Blender, Billy Leighton...

Method and Madness Single Grain Irish Whiskey
46%, non-chill filtered, RRP €49
New pencil shavings, light rose petal and fresh rain on pine 
Warm toasted oak, fresh peeled grapefruit and zesty wood spices 
Sweet cereal, clove spiciness and fresh mint

Method and Madness Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey
46%, non-chill filtered, RRP € 69
Red liquorice laces, fresh rosemary mint and grated root ginger 
Sweet fruit and spice, cinnamon toast and ripe banana 
Aromatic green tea, dissipating fruit and spice and rich wood farewell

Method and Madness Single Malt Irish Whiskey
46%, non-chill filtered, RRP €79
Freshly shelled peanut and cereal malt aroma 
Cracked cinnamon stick and ice cream cone wafer 
Fragrant bon bons and a hint of tasted barley

Method and Madness Single Grain Irish Whiskey 31 Year Old
3 single casks at 51.3%, 51.8& and 52.5%, non-chill filtered, RRP €1,500
Availability from April
Crisp floral, black liquorice and succulent fruit 
Creamy honey, wood spice and honeydew melon 
Endless dark wood, lingering fruit and gentle spices

Monday, 31 October 2016

Redbreast Lustau

One shorthand response I keep handy for the question, "What Irish whiskey do you recommend I buy?", is "Anything with Redbreast on the label". If the inquisitor is looking for something to delight a whiskey fan, or something with a story, or something chewy, or something quintessentially Irish, or something sublime... there is a Redbreast that covers it.

The various limited editions that have appeared under the Redbreast banner since the relaunch of Midleton Pot Still Whiskeys have been similarly interesting and covetable.

The quality of Redbreast is hardly a well-kept secret. Sales of the base expression, Redbreast 12 year old, rose 24% in the Irish market last year. And that followed 28% growth the previous year.

Redbreast 12 year old (recap)

Redbreast 12yo is a combination of pot still spirit aged entirely in first fill, ex-bourbon casks with pot still spirit aged entirely in first fill, ex-sherry, Galician oak casks. The component whiskeys are between 12 and 15 years old.

Those ex-sherry casks have been seasoned with Oloroso sherry from various bodegas in the sherry triangle for 2 to 3 years before they are emptied and shipped to Midleton Distillery for refilling with new make spirit.

Redbreast Lustau

The new Redbreast Lustau takes a similar vatting of pot still whiskeys - though at a slightly younger age of between 9 and 12 years old - and finishes the whole thing in more first fill ex-sherry casks for a further year.

Those finishing casks are seasoned in exactly the same way as all the other sherry casks, but at a single bodega, Lustau in Jerez.

I was puzzled, at first, by the aim of this final step. It's not normal to finish in the same type of cask the whiskey was matured in. What would it achieve that simply upping the proportion of sherry cask-matured whiskey in the original vatting wouldn't?

Ger Garland of Irish Distillers (IDL) explained the reasoning at the most recent Irish Whiskey Society tasting. When spirit is matured in a sherry cask, the initial imprint comes from the sherry soaked into the wood. As the years pass, that fades and the oak begins to dominate.

With Redbreast Lustau, they have both reduced the domination of oak by bottling at a younger age, and overlaid the result with fresh sherry-soaked wood.

This is why Redbreast Lustau has no age statement. It's at least 10 years old, which would be a perfectly acceptable age to print on a label. But the point here is the influence of the sherry, not the wood. That's why it is the name of the sherry front and centre on the label, not the length of time in oak.

This should calm speculation that Redbreast Lustau heralds the retirement of Redbreast 12 year old. It doesn't. It is a new, permanent member of the line up, with its own character, pitched slightly above Redbreast 12yo in price.

The initial batch comprises 50 sherry butts, with a further 700 butts now undergoing seasoning at Bodega Lustau. That is fully 5% of maturation space in Lustau and represents a hefty investment by both the bodega and IDL in guaranteeing the future supply of Redbreast Lustau.

One of the hallmarks of the Redbreast range is that, despite the high sherry oak content, the wine influence is always kept in check. The whiskey always tastes like whiskey, in other words. (Though the first batch of Redbreast 12 year old Cask Strength strayed a little over the sherry line, in my opinion.)

That said, if you put the name of a leading sherry bodega on the bottle it would be disappointing not to get a bang of sherry off the whiskey and indeed, there it is, clear as a bell, just chiming in on the finish. Lovely.

Lustau Don Nuño Oloroso

One rumour that was doing the rounds a few years back was that sherry casks are seasoned with duff wine that is subsequently used to make sherry vinegar. That is definitely not the case here. The sherry that is emptied from the IDL casks after 2 or 3 years goes on to become one of Lustau's core range, the 12 year old Don Nuño Oloroso sherry:

Something to try alongside your Redbreast Lustau, perhaps. (In Ireland, Mitchell & Son are the agents for Lustau.)

Redbreast Lustau is bottled at 46% ABV, without chill-filtering or caramel colouring. Sample recommended retail prices: Canada, $90; France, €65; Ireland, €69; UK, £55; United States, $69. Distribution is not limited to these markets; Germany, Russia and South Africa have also been mentioned.

Official tasting notes
Rich infusion of dark fruits, prunes, dates & figs with liquorice, marzipan, toasted oak and Redbreast spices. 
Creamy pot still with Redbreast spices balanced with richness of sherry finish and contribution of fresh Spanish oak. 
Endless. Sweetness and pot still spices endure while Oloroso sherry and Spanish oak have the last word.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Irish Whiskey Awards 2016

Chez Tullamore

The awards ceremony this year was hosted by Tullamore Dew in their Old Bonded Warehouse in Tullamore town. There was an optional tour of the nearby distillery beforehand, which I couldn't pass up. It still looks as pristine as it did the day it opened two years ago, despite operating around the clock pumping out malt and pot still spirits.

What's new is all the pile-driving work going on, preparing the boggy land for a bottling plant and grain distillery, which should come on line in the second half of 2017.

Tullamore were also generous with the whiskey. We dipped into John Quinn's special cask at the distillery, and later we had our pick of the full Tullamore Dew portfolio at the Old Bonded Warehouse, including the most recent 14yo and 18yo single malts. That was my first encounter with the 18yo, but it didn't unseat the 15yo Trilogy as my favourite Dew.


Ally Alpine, owner of the Celtic Whiskey Shop and organiser of the awards, kicked off proceedings. The awards are a massive logistical undertaking every year and huge thanks are owed to Ally and the staff at the Celtic Whiskey Shop who pull it all together. It's aim is purely to celebrate the best of Irish spirits. Producers are not charged an entrance fee, all spirits are judged blind, and all proceeds from the awards night go to a charity, Mary's Meals.

Now that the Irish Whiskey Awards have become an established annual event on the calendar, Ally hinted strongly that he would be happy if the industry representative body, the Irish Whiskey Association, stepped in to help next year, or even took over the running entirely.


Brian Nation, master distiller at Midleton, summed up the exuberant mood of an industry that has known only double-digit growth for the last 20 years. In 2015, Ireland exported 7.7m cases of whiskey, up 1m cases on the year before.

The key to continued growth, he says, is innovation. By way of example, he mentioned Midleton's Wexford Rye Project. This was inspired by old production notebooks from John Jameson II unearthed by archivist Carol Quinn. Noting mashbill recipes specifying rye, they contracted with farmers in the Enniscorthy area to grow 140 acres of rye, to be harvested in the summer of 2017. Enniscorthy has suitable soil but it also has an historical link with the Jameson family as the site of Andrew Jameson's Fairfield distillery.

I'd like to digress briefly on mashbills, if I may. One of my fellow guests at the awards, Patrick Ridgely, brought along a bottle of The Emerald 1865, an American whiskey based on an Irish mashbill from 1865. American craft distillers are a highly creative lot and not as fettered by rules and taxes as we are. It is a given that innovation in distilling will happen; it's up to us whether it happens in Ireland or not.

The Irish Whiskey Technical File didn't serve us well in this regard, putting the kibosh on experimentation with Pot Still mashbills. No more than 5% of a mashbill can be grain other than barley or malted barley if you want to call the result Irish Single Pot Still Whiskey.

Plain "Irish Whiskey", however, has a much more accommodating legal definition, and doesn't specify grain types at all. So innovation in this regard can still happen. Midleton is obviously going to have fun with its new micro-distillery. But I'm tipping Connacht Distillery as the one to watch, with its experienced American distiller, Robert Cassell, planning regular new mashbills.

But back to Brian's address... He mentioned the Irish Whiskey Association's formal mentoring programme which launched only this week. New entrants to the business will receive guidance on production, licensing requirements, branding, route to market, and so on from the incumbents. It's immensely valuable for the new guys, though there is also value for the likes of Midleton and Bushmills too in ensuring that high standards are maintained across the industry.

Brian acknowledged the many others involved in spreading the good word about Irish whiskey (including whiskey bloggers!). He called out the Galway Whiskey Trail, in particular, which is a template that should be followed by cities around Ireland. (Watch out for the launch of Kilkenny's own trail soon!)

Oliver Hughes

The late Oliver Hughes, founder of Dingle Distillery among many other achievements, was remembered in Ally Alpine's introduction and in Brian Nation's keynote speech. The spirit from Dingle has just turned 3 years old and can therefore now be released as Irish whiskey. The awards ceremony proper was preceded by a toast to Oliver, with a glass of that Dingle Whiskey in every hand. He is remembered as a pioneer and inspiration by everyone who makes or consumes good beer and spirits in Ireland.

The Results

First, the whiskey (and cask-aged beer) results. These were judged by members of the Irish Whiskey Society and Celtic Whiskey Club over two days. I managed just one day myself, 42 samples. Same as the number of kilometres in a marathon and just as much of an endurance test, though I confess to finishing any sample I considered exceptional. Since it was judged blind, I don't know what they were (I think that info will be made available).

Irish Whiskey of the Year 2016

Knappogue Castle 14 Year Old Twin Wood

Irish Single Pot Still

This was Redbreast 21yo's to lose, having won the category and the overall Whiskey of the Year title the last two years running. It ceded the top spot to its younger sibling this year, however. I heard a whisper that the latest batch of Redbreast 12yo Cask Strength will be poured at next week's Irish Whiskey Society tasting, so I'm looking forward to revisiting it then.

Overall winner
Redbreast 12 Year Old Cask Strength

Gold medals
Redbreast 21 Year Old
Midleton Barry Crockett Legacy
Redbreast Lustau Edition

Irish Single Malt (12 years and younger)                          

Overall winner

Dunvilles PX Single Malt

Gold medals

The Famous Galway Bay Irish Whiskey
Teeling Single Malt

Irish Single Malt (13 years and older)

Overall winner

Knappogue Castle 14 Year Old Twin Wood

Gold medals

Knappogue Castle 16 Year Old Single Malt
Glendalough 13 Year old Single malt

Irish Blended Whiskey (RRP of less than €60)

Overall winner

Teeling Small Batch

Gold medals

Jameson Black Barrel
Jameson Crested

Irish Blended Whiskey (RRP of €60 or more)

I think Midleton Very Rare gets overlooked because its price of €150 makes it hard to keep up with the yearly releases. But this is a reminder that it's a whiskey to be drunk, not just collected.

Jameson The Cooper's Croze is notable by its absence. That has seemed like the crowd favourite up to now, but here's The Distiller's Safe and The Blender's Dog edging it out of the medals.

Overall winner
Midleton Very Rare 2016

Gold medals

Jameson The Distiller's Safe
Jameson The Blender's Dog

Irish Single Cask Whiskey

If you really needed one more reason to join the Irish Whiskey Society, how about access to exclusive bottlings like this year's Single Cask winner? The Marrowbone Lane is an 11yo single pot still from Midleton.

Overall winner
Marrowbone Lane Irish Whiskey Society Bottling

Gold medals

Powers Single Pot Still Celtic Whiskey Shop Single Cask
The Irishman 17 Year Old Single Cask

Irish Cask Strength Whiskey

The lesson here is that we have to keep our eyes on the new brands lest we miss out on some good whiskeys. St Patrick's Whiskey has certainly been flying under my radar and I've yet to even see a bottle of Spade and Bushel.

Overall winner

St Patrick's Cask Strength Irish Whiskey

Gold medals

Spade and Bushel 10 Year Old Single Malt
Dingle Distillery Cask Strength Whiskey

Irish Single Grain Whiskey

A pretty clean sweep for the core Teeling range, with the Single Grain, Single Malt and Small Batch Blend all dominating or placing in their categories. Deservedly so, too.

Overall winner

Teeling Single Grain

Gold medals

Kilbeggan 8 Year Old
Hyde 6 Year Old Single Grain Bourbon Cask

Irish Whiskey Barrel Aged Irish Craft Beer

Overall winner

Five Lamps Whiskey Barrel Aged Honor Bright

Gold medals

O'Hara's Barrel Aged Leann Folláin
Five Lamps Whiskey Barrel Aged Dark IPA

The white spirits and liqueurs were judged by a panel of 20 bartenders, who might be expected to have more familiarity with white spirits than whiskey drinkers.

Irish Poitín

There's always an excited murmur at the Irish Whiskey Awards when a previously unheard of product wins an award. "Ooh, what was that again?"

Bán Barrelled and Buried is new from Bán and Echlinville Distillery. It's the regular Bán casked and buried under the warehouse floor for nine and a half weeks, replicating the concealment of illicit spirit back in the day. Why that length of time? Because the Irish Poitín Technical File specifies a maximum of 10 weeks in wood.

The poitín category has the potential to take Irish spirits in new directions. The recipe for Bán includes potato, malted barley and sugar beet, and now they are adding wood to the mix. Definitely one I need to spend more time with.

Overall winner

Bán Barrelled and Buried

Gold medals

Bán Poitín
Glendalough Mountain Strength Poitín

Irish Liqueur

Salted Caramel Irish Cream Liqueur sounds amazing!

Overall winner

Merrys White Chocolate Irish Cream Liqueur

Gold medals

Merrys Salted Caramel Irish Cream Liqueur
Mrs Doyle’s Cream Liqueur

Irish Gin

Boyle's Gin is Blackwater Distillery's latest creation, available from next week. Gin fans at the most recent Dublin Loves Gin tasting had a chance to preview this gorgeous new spirit. (Note: I organise these gin tastings along with Marie Byrne. If you have an interest in gin, sign up for the mailing list, follow us on Twitter (@DublinLovesGin), and come along to one of the monthly meetups.)

Last year's winner, Thin Gin, put in another strong showing this year, taking a gold medal.

Overall winner

Boyle’s Gin Small Batch

Gold medals
Dublin City Gin
Thin Gin

Irish Vodka                      

This is Connacht Distillery making a grand entrance. Straw Boys Irish Vodka is distilled from wheat in Connacht's own copper pot stills.

Overall winner
Straw Boys Irish Vodka

Gold medals
Boru vodka
Kalak Vodka

There were also awards for the best Irish whiskey bars. Nominations were gathered from members of the Celtic Whiskey Club and Irish Whiskey Society.

Irish Whiskey Bar of the Year 2016

Dick Mack’s, Dingle

Irish Whiskey Bar of the Year - Leinster

Overall winner
The Dylan Whisky Bar, Kilkenny

Gold medals

The Palace Bar, Dublin
Bowes Bar, Dublin

Irish Whiskey Bar of the Year - Munster

Overall winner
Dick Mack’s, Dingle

Gold medals

Folkhouse, Kinsale
The Shelbourne Bar, Cork

Irish Whiskey Bar of the Year - Connacht

Overall winner
Garavan’s, Galway

Gold medals

An Púcán, Galway

Irish Whiskey Bar of the Year - Ulster

Overall winner
The Duke of York, Belfast

Gold medals

McCauls bar, Cavan
Fealty’s, Bangor

Irish Whiskey Bar of the Year - International

Overall winner
Patricks Bar, Paris

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

The Irish Whiskey Awards - Last Call

There is an important deadline coming up this week. Entries for this year's Irish Whiskey Awards must be submitted by Thursday, August 11th.

If you know me at all, you know I'm not a fan of awards generally. Too many of them are money-making rackets designed to mislead consumers. For several hundred euros your product can have a important-sounding medal to stick on the bottle.

Leave it to Rio

Think a gold medal means a whiskey was judged against all of its peers and found to be the best? Nope. In a "whiskey Olympics" a gold medal can be awarded to every whiskey in a category. Not that there are many whiskeys in each race, since the category will have been sliced thinly to exclude most competitors in the first place. (Congrats to the Irish Single Malt Cask Strength Single Cask Aged 13-14 Years Whiskey Gold Medal Winner for overcoming stiff opposition!)

Nor is the gold a rank; it's an acknowledgement of quality, apparently. So everyone can have a medal just for participating (i.e. paying). Gold is not even the highest award available. That will be Double Gold, or Master, or Crown of Awesome, or whatever.

Irish Supermarket Blended Whiskey, KBE

Think an "Irish" food and drink awards scheme is necessarily Irish? Of course not! It'll likely be some British PR firm hoovering up easy money from a thousand Irish producers and doling out awards like the Queen dishes out New Year's Honours.

The Irish Irish Whiskey Awards Award

So I'm awarding my own award, for an Irish spirits competition that meets several criteria:
  • It's Irish
  • It doesn't charge a fee for entry
  • It's judged by people who are familiar with Irish whiskey
  • Not everybody wins
And the award (the only award) goes to... The Irish Whiskey Awards!

Now in it's fourth year, The Irish Whiskey Awards are organised by Ally Alpine at the Celtic Whiskey Shop. The judging is scrupulously thorough and entirely blind, and involves members of the Celtic Whiskey Club and Irish Whiskey Society, honest folk who train hard throughout the year to keep their Irish whiskey palates honed.

The awards ceremony last year was a huge party for the industry. This year's bash will be held in the old Tullamore Dew distillery building in Tullamore. Tickets are €40. All proceeds go to charity.

If you are in the business and you have a spirit you think the world should know about (it's not just for whiskey, there are categories for vodka, gin, poitín and liqueur too), why not throw it in to the mix? It's the Irish spirits community supporting itself, and a good cause to boot.

Remember, Thursday is the deadline!

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Join us for a gin!

American Gin Tasting
7pm, Wednesday, Aug 10th
The Palace Bar, 21 Fleet Street, Dublin 2

All the noise about Irish whiskey in recent years has equipped the (wo)man on the street with a few handy talking points they can resort to when stuck in a conversation with me. Distilleries, styles, brands... we Irish are beginning to get a handle on the topic.

We are not yet such diligent students of gin. Sure, we've noticed the cucumber garnish and can order a Hendrick's by name but that's about it. We don't ponder how it's made or what's in it and are largely oblivious to the recent appearance of Irish craft gins.

It is not that gin is inherently less interesting than whiskey. Historically, in fact, gin and whiskey had much the same starting point.

The problem they both address is how to make spirit distilled from malted grain palatable. Throwing that spirit into oak casks for a few years will knock the harsh edges off and infuse new flavours from the wood. That's whiskey.

Now take that same raw malt spirit, add juniper, spices and other botanicals, distil one more time... et voilà: gin. Or at least the precursor to modern gin. We have since discovered how to distil pure alcohol so we no longer need to mask the underlying taste. But the idea of botanically flavouring spirit persists.

The development of both whiskey and gin was influenced by international trade. Whiskey makers reused the casks that had been used to ship fortified wine to these parts. The Dutch, who invented gin, had global trade connections and colonial possessions that supplied the home market with exotic fruits, berries and spices that became the ingredients of gin. The British enthusiastically adopted the Dutch drink. They had their own global trading empire, surely no coincidence.

Gin though, more than whiskey, is a blank slate upon which to tell a story. It's endlessly fascinating. Behold the variety of themes already in Irish gin:

Historical Trade Links

The inspiration for the entire recipe of Blackwater Gin came from a Victorian-era import catalogue of White's of Waterford. Gunpowder Gin highlights its use of Oriental botanicals.


While keeping a familiar base of gin botanicals, some distilleries opt to make their gins hyperlocal too, foraging around the distillery for native plants. So Dingle Gin includes rowan berry, fuchsia, bog myrtle, hawthorn and heather. Shortcross Gin uses wild clover, elderflowers, elderberries and green apples. Dublin City Gin celebrates Dublin rhubarb, something we all seem to grow and quietly adore.

Highbank goes the extra mile and makes the base spirit for its Organic Apple Crystal Gin from apples grown in its own orchard. Echlinville (makers of Jawbox Gin) does the same with grain from around its distillery on the Ards Peninsula.


One step beyond local is seasonal. Glendalough makes four gins a year with the taste of each heavily influenced by plants foraged in season. Dingle now offers seasonal variations too.

As a lifelong city dweller unschooled in Nature, I finally have a way in to plants, flowers, trees, roots, all that cool stuff. Thanks, Professor Gin!


Savvy folk who know when and where to look for the likes of sloes and damsons have long made their own infused gins, combining an off-the-shelf gin with local berries and fruits. There are now commercial versions like St Patrick's Sloe & Honey.


Besides being a vehicle for flavour, gin can carry a good story too. The true tale of the world's oldest cow is proving a popular draw for Bertha's Revenge (nicely tied in with the milk-derived base spirit). Thin Gin is linked with a larger-than-life character from the owner's family's past.

Jawbox Gin invokes the character of Belfast city, Glendalough resurrects St Kevin. Like football fans, gin drinkers can painlessly acquire a smattering of geography, and history to boot.

Echlinville Distillery, makers of Jawbox Gin

Bar brands

Placing the focus back on the contents of the bottle are the bar and distillery house brands, like Black's Gin (from Black's Brewery and Distillery in Kinsale), Eglington Gin (An Púcán, Galway) and No. 57 Irish Gin (from 57 The Headline).

Only the beGINning...

There are a bunch more Irish gin brands on the way, not to mention hundreds next door in Great Britain and countless others worldwide. Now is the perfect time to jump into gin with both feet, while we are all just figuring it out.

Come join us for a gin or four!

To help the conversation along, myself and Marie Byrne are organising a gin tasting in Dublin this month. If all goes well, it will become a regular event. It's not a money-making venture, or a formal society, it's just somewhere for gin fans to congregate, try something new, and learn more about the spirit.

The first tasting is on Wednesday, August 10th, upstairs at The Palace Bar on Fleet Street, at 7pm (sharp!). The theme is American gin. We'll be tasting Aviation Gin, Cold River Gin, FEW American Gin, and Death's Door Gin. Samples will be generous, to allow tasting without and with tonic.

There will also be a chance to scratch and sniff a couple of the botanicals used in these gins.

All this for just €20! Tickets available here.

Do come, it will be fun!

Aviation Gin 
A few more American gins, and a mystery botanical!

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Oliver Hughes

There are two people in the Irish whiskey industry that I put in a category of their own: John Teeling and Oliver Hughes. They share an ability to speak about business in plain language openly, honestly and generously with anyone, and they have inspired countless entrepreneurs in their wake as a result.

Sadly, Oliver Hughes passed away suddenly this weekend.

Oliver Hughes, at the opening of Dingle Distillery
Beer drinkers have cause to thank him for standing in the way of the total domination of multinational beer brands in Ireland, and for proving that brewing local craft beer is viable.

Spirits drinkers like myself are grateful for the Dingle Whiskey Distillery, the first of the new crop of distilleries to release a whiskey, Dingle Cask No. 2 (three years old, last December). Then there's Dingle Gin, the first of the new wave of Irish distilled gins. And Dingle Vodka.

Oliver's Dingle Whiskey Bar in Dublin is a home-from-home for the whiskey fan and venue for weekly whiskey classes with A Glass Apart author, Fionnán O'Connor.

For a slightly younger, trendier set, perhaps, there are the Dance & Distil sessions every weekend at Lillie's Bordello, where patrons can watch gins and flavoured vodkas distilled in front of them.

Oliver was also a co-founder of the forthcoming Sliabh Liag Distillery in County Donegal.

Oliver Hughes' opinions on business were never dull, often unprintable, always illuminating. The last time I spoke with Oliver was at Lillie's. He inspired an idea in my head that night that I have spent the last few months working hard on.

Thank you, Oliver.

My sincerest condolences to his family and friends.

Dingle Whiskey Distillery, Cask No. 1

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Jameson - The Whiskey Makers Series (etc.)

I remember a theory advanced some years ago that Jameson had exhausted the pool of potential Irish whiskey drinkers in the United States. To pursue further growth, it would have to pitch lifestyle rather than product. Think cosmopolitan party lubricant rather than heritage craft spirit.

If that was ever true (and it does fit with some Jameson marketing in recent years), it no longer is.

Craft focus 

The re-emphasis on craft began, I think, with Jameson Select Reserve, launched in 2010. It soon acquired a "Black Barrel" strapline calling attention to the heavily charred oak casks used for its maturation. Black Barrel promotional events featured the distillery's master cooper, Ger Buckley, knocking down and rebuilding casks around Ireland and beyond.

The Black Barrel Craft Series showcased collaborations with weavers, leatherworkers and so on, further humanising the 5 million case a year brand juggernaut that is Jameson.

Another small-scale collaboration with the local Franciscan Well brewery became an unexpected hit. Jameson whiskey finished in casks that had previously held stout was released as Jameson Caskmates, and it has since been getting the same marketing love that Black Barrel got.

Jameson Caskmates, another 'craft' collaboration
Note that word 'craft' in the advertisement again. Caskmates may have been a happy accident but it plugged neatly into a project started four years ago to completely rethink the Jameson range.

Project Clean Sweep

The result of that project has been the ruthless culling of the Jameson "Reserve" range. Gone are the Special Reserve (12yo), Gold Reserve and Rarest Vintage Reserve. The Limited Reserve (18yo) has been spared for now, but it is absent in the new family photos. The name "Select Reserve" has also been dropped from bottles of Jameson Black Barrel.

Jameson Black Barrel

Signature Reserve survives, as Jameson Signature. It has always been exclusive to Travel Retail and the press release indicates that's still the case. I've heard that may change now that there are three new Travel Retail exclusives (the Deconstructed Series below).

Jameson Signature

Crested Ten has become Jameson Crested. (There is an 'X' in the label background, an echo of the 'Ten'.) This was mostly a domestic brand that has now been launched in other markets. The opportunity was taken to tweak the recipe a bit but it remains a sherry-forward version of Jameson.

Jameson Crested

Out of fashion, along with the word "Reserve", is Jameson's signature green glass. The updated range, aside from standard Jameson and Caskmates (because it's also standard Jameson, beneath the stout finish), now comes in clear bottles. Looks very well it does. It would suit standard Jameson too, I'm sure, but at the risk of confusing the consumers of 5m cases a year. I wouldn't take that risk either. Perhaps a limited St Patrick's Day clear bottle edition could test the waters?

In with the new

Pulling so many expressions at once, I might have expected some grumbling in the whiskey drinking community. I've always held up Jameson Gold as an exceptional Irish blend, for example, and I'm sorry to see it go. But there has been general understanding of the worthy motivations behind all of this. Besides, there are some shiny new whiskeys to dive into, which draws some of the sting. Let's take a squint at those...

Deconstructed Series

Known as Bold, Lively and Round, these are the new Travel Retail exclusives, taking Signature Reserve's place in that regard. The idea is that each plays up one contribution to the overall experience of drinking Jameson. So Bold is the pot still whiskey contribution, Lively is the grain whiskey contribution, and Round is the wood influence.

The Deconstructed range

I haven't tried any of these yet but the RRP is only €36 so they are worth a punt.

Makers Series

On the face of it, the Makers series is quite similar to Deconstructed in that it separately highlights different aspects of Jameson whiskey. The twist here is that three of the distillery "masters" have each been asked to create a blend that illustrates their own speciality. The bottlings are named after key tools they use to do their job.

Distiller's Safe

This is master distiller Brian Nation's creation. It keeps cask type constant (ex-bourbon, obviously) and the age fairly young to limit the wood influence while blending various distillates to produce a characterful whiskey.
Jameson Distiller's Safe

In the mix there is some heavy pot, regular grain whiskey, and a portion of another small batch grain that hasn't appeared in any other whiskey from Midleton (it's a variation on the Black Barrel small batch grain that is made from a pot still mash, distilled once in a pot still, then finished in the final columns of a column still).

Note that the Makers series doesn't stick strictly to the components present in ordinary Jameson.

The name refers to the spirit safe through which the output of distillation flows. The distiller uses it to monitor the alcohol content and to select only the most desirable portion of the output for further distillation and eventual casking.

Cooper's Croze

This is master cooper Ger Buckley's whiskey. It keeps age and distillate variation to a minimum and goes to town on cask type with first-fill bourbon casks, first-fill sherry casks, and virgin oak casks employed.
Jameson Cooper's Croze

There was virgin oak in the Jameson Gold too but the wood influence is clearer here.

A croze is a tool for carving a groove around the inside of a barrel for securing the barrel end.

Blender's Dog

Master blender Billy Leighton had a free hand to vary distillate, cask type and age for this one. Well, not an entirely free hand, because part of the skill of the blender is to ensure that the whiskey is reproducible year after year, with enough stock always available to bottle fresh batches. Billy oversaw the development of the other two whiskeys as well to ensure this would be the case.

Jameson Blender's Dog
Billy wanted to demonstrate how age influences a whiskey, where the lighter floral fruity notes come from in Jameson and how these are balanced out with wood and time. Thus the Blender's Dog includes standard grain whiskey, some aged in younger refill bourbon casks, some in older virgin American oak which contribute floral and heavier charred oak notes respectively.

There is also some spirit aged in sherry casks and first-fill bourbon casks, but with a different profile and a wider age range to the Cooper's Croze.

A blender's dog is a cup on a chain that is lowered through a cask bunghole to extract a sample.

Personal touch

Each bottle bears the fingerprint of the maker behind it, to push home the message that Jameson is made by real people. (There's also a fingerprint on the new Black Barrel label, but I don't know to whom it belongs.)

The whiskeys are all bottled at 43% and are not chill-filtered. Nor is there added colouring. Side-by-side in their clear bottles, there is obvious colour variation between the expressions which is exactly what you would expect given the different woods and ages involved.

They are all priced at a suggested €70. With a traditional whiskey family of escalating ages, you position yourself on the ladder according to what you can afford. With this new concept of a horizontal family, you can buy the whiskey you like the best.

Assuming you can stump up €70, that is. The revamped Jameson range is a response to the younger drinkers who have reacted enthusiastically to Black Barrel and Caskmates. It gives them another waypoint in their continuing exploration and enjoyment of Jameson whiskey. It's quite a step up from Black Barrel's €47 price tag though. A set of three 200ml bottles would be more affordable (and luggable), and would be attractive as a self-administered whiskey masterclass.

At the launch, a quick poll of favourites at our table counted 6 votes for Cooper's Croze, and one vote for each of the other two. I hear the Cooper's Croze is outselling the others handily at Dublin Airport too. But I suggest watching out for a tasting of the three side-by-side and making up your own mind. (There's a tasting on August 18th in Dublin, as it happens.)

Without Fear

That was the new Jameson line-up, as announced. Brian Nation, however, dropped a mention of one more Jameson expression in a recent interview: Jameson Gan Eagla. (The Irish phrase means 'without fear'; it's on the Jameson crest in Latin.)

It has not been mentioned anywhere else, to my knowledge. According to Brian, it represents "the future of Jameson" but I know nothing more about it.

Bonus Content: Eat like a Master

If you want to know how to tempt three Midleton masters out of Cork, the secret is to allow them to choose a course each for a meal hosted by L. Mulligan Grocer in Dublin. For the Makers Series Dublin launch, they revealed their culinary preferences to Mulligan's co-owner and food genius, Seaneen O'Sullivan, who came up with the menu below. The text was written by Mulligan's.

Brian Nation, Ger Buckley and Billy Leighton

Seared scallops, black pudding bon bon, red wine poached pear purée, pea shoots.

This course is an homage to Brian Nation, Head Distiller. We have used black pudding made by ‘Sir’ Jack McCarthy, Cork’s finest butcher, and paired it with East Cork scallops which is Brian’s (an aspiring Masterchef contestant!) favourite starter. The dish is served on a russet coloured plate, mimicking the copper of the still.

Main course

Slow roast fillet of Ballinwillin House beef, carrot purée, rainbow carrot & potato gratin, wild mushroom duxelles, pickled mushroom, spiced beef jus.

Cork’s best fillet from Ballinwillin Farm is served as an homage to Head Cooper, Ger Buckley. A proud Corkman, he graciously decided against inflicting spiced beef upon us all, so we have spiced the jus with star anise & nutmeg as a nod to the Cork staple dish. The mushrooms have been toasted over oak and then slightly charred, echoing the wood of the casks and the barrel charring process.


Chocolate mousse, lemon curd, apricot purée, blackcurrant purée, raspberries, strawberries, cape gooseberry, sea salt chocolate oranges, meringues, apple sticks.

Billy, the Head Blender, requested fruit salad for dessert. We have taken seasonal fruit and poached it in Northern Irish honey. Billy is from North Antrim, where a famous sweet called Yellowman is made. We have served this alongside, as well as blends tiny meringues and lemon curd.