Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Jameson Caskmates

This is a fun one. The story begins with a pub conversation somewhere in Cork between Midleton's Master of Science, David Quinn, and Franciscan Well's founder, Shane Long. Shane asked if he might lay his hands on a few spare whiskey casks to age his beer in. He wasn't holding out much hope but it turns out that sometimes all you gotta do is ask. Franciscan Well released its first Jameson cask-aged stout in time for Christmas 2012.

When the most recent batch of twelve casks came back to Midleton, the distillery figured they might as well try their own experimental maturation. The casks had only been used once to age pot still spirit before their stout "seasoning" so there was plenty of oomph left in the wood. They refilled the casks with blended Jameson (at around the normal cask strength of 60% rather than bottling strength of 40%).

After six months, according to David Quinn, they were "shocked" by the transformation. The cask wasn't simply overlaying a beery character on the whiskey. There was something interesting going on, something they wanted to share with the rest of us. Hence Jameson Caskmates, 3,500 bottles of it, at the very generous price of €35.

If you can find it, that is. It all disappeared from the Jameson shop in Smithfield before I could get there. But there are still a few, I understand, to be distributed to various off licences. I'll be trying to bag one of those.

The marketing people took the theme of collaboration and ran with it, inviting artists in various media down to Midleton to absorb the atmosphere and spark off each other. Some of the results are viewable on YouTube: photography / illustration & stained glass / graphic art.

There was a PR launch event last Thursday in Dublin that featured the art work plus live music and a spoken word piece besides. The original collaborators, David Quinn and Shane Long were there to lead us all in raising a glass but there was a sizeable Irish Distillers contingent mingling with the crowd too. They all seem genuinely delighted with Caskmates which must bode well for more small, quick experiments and affordable releases. Midleton never chased the fashion for finished whiskeys but having pulled this one off successfully I hope they are inspired to do more.

David Quinn told me they refilled those same casks with more Jameson, just to see what happens. That was only two months ago so it's too early to know how that might turn out.

The partnership with Franciscan Well continues too with a Jameson cask-matured Pale Ale. This one is intended for consumption alongside Jameson whiskey.

Tasting notes

It neither smells nor tastes like a regular Irish whiskey. It took me a few goes to get past the unfamiliar notes but I'm rather enjoying it now. The official tasting notes:
The initial aroma of freshly mown hay is complimented by a crisp orchard fruit character, green apples and pears along with a twist of lime zest. Mild pot still spices appear, deepening from green tea to hazel nut and milk chocolate. The lingering hop influence combines effortlessly with toasted oak and barley grains to form a solid base. 
As expected, there is the initial sweet mouth coating typical of the Irish pot still whiskey inclusion. Then the effect of the beer cask finish becomes apparent with the subtle touch of hops and cocoa beans. Some marzipan and charred oak add to the complexity. 
Long and sweet with milk chocolate and butterscotch.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Powers Single Cask Release

In the 22 years it has been owned by the Cleary family, the Temple Bar Pub has built up an extensive whiskey list. It has also developed a strong working relationship with Irish Distillers that culminated recently in the pub's own exclusive single cask, single pot still Powers whiskey. Quite the coup, only topped by having Midleton's Master Distiller Emeritus, Barry Crockett, launch it in Dublin on September 30th.

It's 14 years old, distilled on 6th July 1999. It's the usual Powers pot still distillate, aged in a second-fill American bourbon cask which limits the wood influence and allows the spirit to shine through. The two previous single pot still Powers - the John's Lane and Signature releases - have a small (less than 10%) sherry-matured component that obviously is not present in this new single cask bottling. According to Barry, this is as close as you can get to Powers as it was in the John's Lane distillery days, before production moved to Midleton.

The cask that matured the new Powers is suspended above the bar.

There are 252 bottles, at 46% ABV, individually numbered. In the bar you can buy a measure (for €22.50) or a whole bottle (for €395). As bottles are sold, the price goes up to reflect the diminishing supply.

We are guaranteed more exclusive whiskeys from the Temple Bar Pub because there are two casks filled with 10-year old malt sitting right there in the pub, quietly maturing. I asked owner, Tom Cleary, which distillery they had come from but he's keeping that under his hat, for now at least.

Powers Single Cask official tasting notes:
Wealth of pot still spices of cinnamon and clove, all softened with a touch of milk chocolate and green tea. 
Initial all spice flavours resolve to spiced honey on a background of hazelnut. A dusting of pepper settling back to a grapefruit finish. 
Lengthy finish with a barley crispness giving way to toasted oak.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Glendalough 7-Year Old Single Malt

From Glendalough Distillery - hitherto known for its poitíns - comes this 7-year old single malt whiskey: 

Glendalough is still warming up its brand new still so the liquid in this bottle comes from Cooley. It has been double-distilled and aged in first-fill ex-bourbon casks. It is unpeated and bottled at 46%.

There are about 5,000 bottles for the Irish market, retailing between €47.50 and €50. Look for it in good independent off licences.

Also due from Glendalough before Christmas is a small volume of a 13-year old expression and their first seasonal gin. If you follow Glendalough on Twitter you will have seen the fruits of their foraging expeditions in Wicklow - botanicals for an autumn gin. I'm really looking forward to trying that one.

Official tasting notes for the 7-year old single malt:
A smooth and sweet premium single malt Irish whiskey with a touch of spice and more than a hint of citrus fruit… Lemon touched with vanilla ice cream. Fresh floral notes like meadow flowers. 
Silky smooth palate with the citrus fruits to the fore and just enough spice to keep it interesting, followed by the beautiful malt and oak which mix wonderfully as the warmth expands through. 
Oaky, sweet and lingering - everything you'd expect from the perfect sipping whiskey.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Connemara 22 Year Old

The Kilbeggan Distilling Company (formerly Cooley) has released a 22-year old Connemara, the oldest to date. The age would suggest it was distilled in 1992 so it's about as old as a Connemara could be (according to my notes, Cooley first distilled peated malt in 1991).

It's bottled at 46% and limited to 333 9-litre cases (something a little over 4,000 bottles, then). Most of these will go to Ireland, the UK, Germany and France. In Ireland it retails for about €170.

I haven't tried it and there were no official tasting notes but the Celtic Whiskey Club sent samples out to its members for a Twitter tasting last night. These are the club's own impressions:
Some gentle smoke, then tropical fruit, baked apples, oak, sweet lemons and sack cloth. Quite powerful. 
Powerful with nice smokiness at full strength. Bittersweet fruit flavours, sappy oak with some vanilla, toast, cooked apples and spice. 
Some nicely sooty/dry smoke, pencil shavings and oak.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Irish Distillers Archive

There was one other course module at the Irish Whiskey Academy that I didn't touch on in that article. We settled into the comfy chairs around the Academy fireplace to hear a presentation from Midleton's archivist, Carol Quinn.

In 2013, the historical records of Irish Distillers, incorporating those of predecessor companies Jameson, Powers and Cork Distilleries Company, were brought together for the first time. They were housed in a disused part of the Distiller's Cottage fitted with five temperature- and humidity-controlled strongrooms.

The archive has several important functions, including:
  • To identify and protect trademarks and brand names, and to supply legal evidence when these are threatened.
  • To feed into marketing programmes and brand development. 
  • To act as a repository for corporate memory and experience.
By way of example, Carol fleshed out the career of Paddy Flaherty for us, drawing on payroll and other records. I have to confess, I thought that the story of Paddy Whiskey being named for a flamboyant Cork Distilleries salesman was apocryphal, another example of Irish whiskey marketing stretching historical fact.

But there he was, Paddy Flaherty, from appointment to retirement, leaving a trail in company files that spoke of blown expense accounts, frustrated wage ambitions and, finally, a brilliant coup that saw him paid his salary until the end of his days. Here, from 1913, is his signature on the document signing over the use of his name for Paddy Whiskey:

Paddy Flaherty's signature.

This documentation informed the design of packaging for last year's Paddy Centenary Edition.

The archive held a particular and unexpected bonus for me. I mentioned to Carol that my great-grandfather had worked as a cooper in Powers Distillery of John's Lane in Dublin and, miraculously, she was able to produce a photograph of him:

Coopers at Powers Distillery, Dublin, in the 1920s. Photo courtesy of the Irish Distillers Archive.

That's my great-grandfather, John O'Reilly, in the front row, on the right.

I usually nominate Powers John's Lane Release Single Pot Still as my favourite whiskey. I can't see that ever changing now!

I'm immensely grateful to Carol for taking the time to surface this piece of family history. Because of previous articles I have posted on coopering in Dublin, I am occasionally contacted by people trying to trace ancestors in that profession. The recently-established archive at Midleton is not yet open for full public consultation as the collection is still being catalogued. Nevertheless, the archive does try to help with tracing family records, where possible.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Irish Whiskey Academy

I've been scribbling in this space now for seven years. My enjoyment of whiskey goes back a lot further but my early drinking career was marred by a shameful lack of curiosity about the contents of the glass. When I eventually stirred into action, I found solid information on Irish whiskey hard to come by.

This blog represents the slow accumulation of knowledge gained from seven years of tastings, reading between the lines of press releases, stalking those in the know at rare public appearances, getting a night job as a cleaner in Midleton (no, wait, that's the plot of Wall Street). Piecing together what is going on behind the distillery gates has been an exercise akin to Kremlinology.

If only the Irish Whiskey Academy had existed when I was starting along this road. I could have downloaded all of that hard-won knowledge into my noggin in just two days.

The Academy was launched by Irish Distillers in early 2013 to educate employees, members of the drinks trade, media folk and whiskey connoisseurs on the craft of making Irish whiskey, as practised at Midleton. It occupies the renovated Mill Manager's House, dating from 1794, right on the boundary between the old and new Midleton distilleries.

The Irish Whiskey Academy, with the new Midleton Distillery looming behind.

I was recently invited to spend two days at the Academy which was quite the thrill.

Our instructor, David McCabe, took us for a quick spin through the old distillery to set the scene. It was both a wonderful reminder of our industrial heritage and a first pass over the whiskey-making process, which hasn't changed all that much in centuries.

The old Midleton Distillery contains what is, apparently, the largest pot still in the world.

The recently restored 19th Century A1 warehouse with casks of maturing pot still whiskey.

On we went to the Academy building, the interior of which overflows with fun detail. There are flavour descriptors carved into the edge of the tasting room table. The metalwork on the whiskey cabinets depicts drops of whiskey, bottles, barley and cask ends. The bar is like a printer's block of reversed type, ready to ink vintage labels.

The Academy bar. Photo courtesy of the Irish Whiskey Academy.

Immense imagination and care has likewise gone into the teaching materials. Since this is a single-topic school, the blackboards come pre-loaded with neat, indelible diagrams of distillery kit that can be chalked over by the instructor.

Our instructor, David McCabe. Photo courtesy of the Irish Whiskey Academy.

The maturation story is beautifully etched onto sliding oak panels.

The chalk-and-talk sessions were short and punchy but attention never got a chance to wane anyway as we constantly relocated within the building depending on the task at hand. Besides the classroom, there is a lab, a bar, a tasting room and a fireside area with comfortable chairs.

After covering pot distillation, for example, we moved over to the lab to see distillation on a small scale and to sample spirit before and after ageing.

The lab.

Later, after a module on column stills, we decamped to the tasting room to work through the Jameson range which relies on the output of those stills.

The tasting room.

David McCabe imparts the intricacies of the production process with fluency and charm. It's clear that his knowledge extends well beyond the material he has time to present to us, and he fields questions easily. I particularly appreciate that nothing was concealed from us or dumbed down. We genuinely learned how whiskey is made at Midleton. (Of course there are certain things that nobody in Irish Distillers ever discusses, like future products, or the exact percentages of this or that in the recipe for a particular whiskey.)

It would be crazy to attend class in a distillery without casting an eye over the plant itself. And so off we went to view the grain delivery, the cooperage, the brewhouse, the fermenters, the control room, the stillhouse, the filling line and a warehouse stacked high with casks. Along the way, we met Midleton's various "masters", or at least those who were not on the road turning the world onto Irish whiskey.

Master Cooper, Ger Buckley, demonstrated the various coopering tools and dismantled a cask before building it up again.

We met Master Distiller, Brian Nation, in the Garden Stillhouse. Photo courtesy of Irish Distillers.

We tasted from various casks in the company of Master of Maturation, Kevin O'Gorman

When we had absorbed all that Dave and the masters could impart, it was time for us to create our own whiskeys. Starting from the various components that make up Jameson Black Barrel, we were invited to combine them according to our own preference. We produced a number of blends, a couple of which were gorgeous, a couple of which were not. The variation possible in finished product from such a limited palette was remarkable.

We blend our own whiskeys, taking away a small bottle of something truly unique.

I'm not new to Irish whiskey, nor was this even my first visit to the Midleton plant. But I always have more questions. For example, before this trip I had idly wondered:
  • What does wash (i.e. the result of fermentation, before distillation) taste like? (We had a sample of this and it was quite drinkable.)
  • What is the difference between spring barley and winter barley?
  • Why do some column stills (like that at Midleton) have three columns rather than two?
I got answers to all these at the Academy but I know if I repeated my two days there that I would notice new things, generate fresh questions.

That two days, by the way, is the Enthusiast Package, and costs €1,199. It includes all local transfers, one night's accommodation (at the rather plush Castlemartyr Resort Hotel), a hosted evening at a premium restaurant (for us this was the fabled Ballymaloe House) and lunches at the Midleton Distillery visitor centre restaurant (which were outstanding). Attendees are also presented with a most marvellous and highly technical book containing the course material and more. It is not obtainable by any other means.

There are shorter experiences available starting at 2 hours for €59.

For more views on the Academy and the course, some of my classmates have written up their own experiences:

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Tullamore Distillery

"Uncle Charles chose the path of greatest resistance." So said Peter Gordon, CEO of William Grant & Sons, last week at the launch of their new Tullamore Distillery. He was recalling a trip with Charles Gordon around Ireland to assess possible locations for the distillery that would supply their Tullamore Dew brand. There were suitable sites, and then there was Tullamore, boggy underfoot and lacking a rather essential ingredient: water.

Peter Gordon, CEO William Grant & Sons
William Grant & Sons is a family-owned company whose statement of values commits to "long-term thinking". Despite the daunting shortcomings of the Tullamore site, it was perhaps an easy choice for a company that can draw on a century and more of experience, and imagine itself looking back to this moment from a century hence. Expediency has preserved the Tullamore Dew brand in recent decades as it bounced from distillery to distillery, owner to owner. But 60 years after distillation ceased in Tullamore town, the Gordon family has brought it home.

Any problems were rendered trifles by the application of €35m and 1,200 distillery engineers and construction workers. 250,000 tonnes of spongy peat and soil were excavated (and redistributed to become the rolling landscape around the distillery) and 2,300 piles were sunk. Offaly County Council solved the water shortage by laying a 14km pipe from the Slieve Bloom Mountains. On September 17th, 2014, a mere 20 months after planning permission was granted, construction was complete, the stills were hot and hundreds of invited guests watched as the spirit flowed.

Not only was the build completed on-schedule and on-budget, they even brought forward some construction from Phase 2, not originally due to commence until 2019. That includes the section with the three pagoda roofs in the photo above, known as "Distillery House". (You can click on all photos to enlarge.)

The main building is a strikingly hefty presence in fairly flat and open countryside, but is visually broken up horizontally and vertically by clever detailing. Cues were taken from old distillery buildings around Ireland, echoing here in the small windows and brick lintels, for example.

The Tullamore Dew visitor centre in Tullamore town inhabits a late-19th Century bonded warehouse belonging to the original distillery. Observe the brick window surrounds and compare to the large arched windows in the new distillery that frame the copper stills.

Tullamore Dew Visitor Centre

Note the brick detailing, copper finials, Spanish slate roofs and yorkstone walls, rough-hewn at ground level and dressed above. 

The new building diverges from its forebears most obviously in its colour. That's yorkstone, less porous than native stone. Yellow sandstone is very unusual on a traditional industrial building in this country, though there is a light sprinkling of it on Dublin city streets, most notably, perhaps, on the Irish Whiskey Museum. It's warm and cheery, and they say it will look just as good in a hundred years' time.

Let's take a look inside. Distillery House - the bit under the three pagoda roofs, recalling the malting kilns of yesteryear - is where VIP visitors will be shown a good time, besides housing some administrative functions. This is the bar, on the first floor:

I'll have a, umm... Tullamore Dew, please. That's Ewen Cameron, Engineering Manager, at the end of the bar.
At the far end is the blending room, lined with cabinets full of cask samples, for serious product development work, and for hosting tastings.

One floor up and it's fine dining and comfortable lounging, accessorised by antique bits and bobs. They were still working on this as I passed through. I reckon they could warm it up with a few big old Persian carpets.

This level is directly under the pagoda roofs, which are exposed internally to reveal their traditional wooden construction.

Along one wall stretches a heavy, wooden screen concealing a view that drew gasps from our group when it was revealed, the gleaming industrial facility through the picture window a startling contrast to the wood panelling and antiques of our surroundings.

The shiny brewing and distilling floor has been decluttered by hiding services below, at ground floor level. A clear path leads visitors through the process of making whiskey. Let's take a look from the other side of the glass.

Mash conversion tun
The little window on the left of the photo above overlooks the grain mill, a Variomill conditioning wet roller. It's a wet process because the unmalted barley included in the mash for Irish pot still spirit is exceptionally hard and must be softened before it's crushed.

In the mash conversion tun, the milled grain is mixed with hot water. Enzymes in the malt convert the starch to sugar.

Pegasus C lauter tun
In the lauter tun, the sugary liquid (wort) is separated from the spent grain and goes on to the next stage, fermentation. A weaker solution of sugar is flushed out with additional water, stored in weak-wort tanks and used for for the next mash, so as not to waste any sugar.

Weak-wort tanks

There are six 34,000 litre fermenters, with room for six more. With the addition of yeast, the sugar is converted to alcohol in these vessels over three days.

The result is a beer, or wash, of 9.5-10% ABV. Now we are ready to distil.

Pot stills. L-R: low wines, spirit, pot still wash, malt wash

The spirit for Tullamore Dew is distilled three times, in three different stills. The first is the wash still, followed by the low wines still, then the spirit still. At each stage the alcohol concentration climbs, ending up between 80% and 84% ABV.

You will notice there are four stills in the photo above. That's because there are two wash stills. Which one is used depends on whether malt (from malted barley) or pot still (from a mix of malted and unmalted barley) spirit is being made.

Note the offset neck of the wash still in the centre of the photo above. The shape of this pot is based on the still pattern used at the original Tullamore distillery that closed in 1954. Those stills ended up at Kilbeggan distillery where they can be seen today, though they are not in use. Note the similarity in shape:

The original Tullamore pot stills, now at Kilbeggan distillery
There is space beside the malt wash still for two more stills. These will duplicate the low wines and spirit still so that malt and pot still spirit can be made in parallel. When that's done, production capacity will double from 1.84mla (million litres of alcohol per annum) to 3.69mla. The plumbing for this is already in place so it's a small enough upgrade that could be in place by 2018.

Malt wash still, with space for two more stills

John Quinn, Global Brand Ambassador for Tullamore Dew, is adamant that the taste of Tullamore Dew won't change when its spirit is made on these stills, rather than on those at Midleton. I asked Brian Kinsman, William Grant's Master Blender, if he would be able to achieve this. Even though they were still dialling in the stills and hadn't started with the pot still mash, he didn't foresee any difficulty achieving the flavour profile required by, for example, adjusting boiling rates and cut points.

(I'm sure there are many of us who plan to keep by a bottle of today's Dew to compare with future versions to see if they pull this off.)

It's worth an aside at this point to note that "Dew" is not part of the name of the distillery. The Tullamore Distillery will make Tullamore Dew but other styles of whiskey under other brands are possible. I look forward to tasting the best whiskeys that this new kit can produce.

The William Grant company has an unusual tradition when commissioning a new still. Their coppersmith, Dennis McBain, insists on "sweetening the still" by boiling water in it, along with a bunch of juniper. This happened in Tullamore in August. Nobody knows where or why the tradition began. Dennis is the longest-serving Willam Grant employee, having started in 1958, and he picked it up from a predecessor.

A feature of most still rooms is the spirit safe. The condensed output from each still passes through the safe and can be diverted to various receiver tanks. The idea is to allow only the middle - and best - part of each distillation to proceed to the next stage. Like the pot stills, the safe here was made by Forsyths of Scotland.

Spirit safe
Unusually, it is triangular in shape. This is a reference to Tullamore Dew's triple-distillation and also its triple blend recipe of pot still, malt and grain whiskey.

A control room and lab sits adjacent to the still floor. The level of automation is such that the whole distillery can be run by just 14 people (most recruited locally). Remarkable.

Behind the main building are various receiver tanks and grain silos...

... and a pipeline to the filling store:

The filling store. Don't worry, that's not spirit soaking the floor, just water.
Conveyors will be added later to move the casks around the store. From there, casks go to a warehouse to rest for a few years.

There are currently two warehouses built, with planning permission for eleven more. Each can hold 55,000 casks.

In a nice touch, the first casks to be filled have been circulating around Tullamore pubs to be signed by locals. More casks were signed by guests at the launch last week.

Cask staves signed by guests

The distillery is up and running now, though tweaking continues. It can produce pot still and malt spirit but not yet the third component of Tullamore Dew, i.e. grain spirit. That's a lighter spirit made in a column still rather than a pot still. Planning for a grain distillery is already under way. A visitor centre and cooperage are coming too, along with more warehouses.

It's not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are.
- Roy Disney
William Grant's values are written all over this project. The fit and finish of the construction and landscaping is superb, no doubt intended to reflect the quality of the craftsmanship within. I am not all that familiar with Grant's non-Irish portfolio but I had a chance to work through some of it during my visit to Tullamore, sampling Monkey Shoulder, Grant's Family Reserve, Glenfiddich 18-year old and Reyka Icelandic Vodka. They were uniformly excellent.

Charles Gordon, sadly, passed away last year, but he helped to give Tullamore Distillery the best possible start. There is no hurrying the next step, but the whiskey that finally emerges from those warehouses should be worth the wait.

The Distillery Ambassador, Jane Maher, will be at the next Irish Whiskey Society tasting, on Thursday, along with a selection of Tullamore Dew's more unusual and harder-to-find bottlings. If you are in Dublin, do come!