Thursday, 23 October 2014

The Irish Whiskey Awards 2014

The second annual Irish Whiskey Awards took place in Kilbeggan Distillery last night. I couldn't be there which was unfortunate as I thoroughly enjoyed the first one.

The awards are organised by Ally Alpine of the Celtic Whiskey Shop and judged by the members of the shop's Celtic Whiskey Club and the Irish Whiskey Society. Everything is tasted blind and I know the number of samples participants had to get through was huge so it seems comprehensive too.

The runners-up are listed on the awards website. I mention only the winners below.

Overall Best Irish Whiskey 2014
Redbreast 21 Year Old Whiskey
This doesn't surprise me at all. It's wonderful whiskey. The other whiskeys that stood out for me over the last year were Teeling's 26-year old single malt and the Celtic Whiskey Shop's Cúig.

Irish Single Pot Whiskey
Redbreast 21 Year Old Whiskey
Irish Single Malt Whiskey (12 years & younger)
Jack Ryan's 12 Year Old Whiskey
I haven't tried this one. Clearly I've been missing out. It was made by Teeling for Jack Ryan's pub in Beggars Bush.

Irish Single Malt Whiskey (13 years and older)
Teeling 21 Year Old Whiskey
I thought this category would be Teeling's this year, but for the 26-year old, rather than the 21-year old. Their 30-year old could easily have taken it too.

Irish Blended Whiskey (RRP of less than €60)
Powers 12 Year Old Whiskey
I don't know what was in the running but last year this category was won by Writers Tears, a blend of pot still and malt whiskeys (unlike most blends which include grain whiskey). I'd still be inclined to give the nod to Writers Tears but it's good to mix it up and it'll certainly encourage me to revisit Powers 12yo.

Irish Blended Whiskey (RRP of more than €60)
Jameson Gold Reserve
My favourite of the Jameson range (though I feel I've never given Rarest Vintage Reserve a fair chance; tastes of that are few and far between, however). I can't think offhand of a current blend I'd rate higher than the Gold. (That said, however, I tried a new blend last night that blows the rest out of the water, and most single malts and pot stills besides. More about that in a later article.)

Irish Single Cask Whiskey
Celtic Cask Naoi
This is not even released yet but clearly the panel members were able to try it. Lucky sods. I'll be hoping for a sip at this weekend's Whiskey Live in Dublin.

Irish Cask Strength Whiskey
Redbreast 12yo Cask Strength
I had some only last night. I rate it very highly.

Irish Single Grain Whiskey
Teeling Whiskey Single Grain
When Celtic Cask Trí came out late last year, I speculated that we might finally have enough single grains for a proper showdown. And here it is, in a new category for the awards.

There's a rumour of another limited edition single grain on the way so Greenore and Teeling might face some fresh competition next year.  

Irish Poitín
Teeling Whiskey Company Poitín

Jack "Three Gongs" Teeling

Irish Liqueur
Coole Swan
If you think you know what an Irish cream liqueur tastes like, try Coole Swan. And then tell everyone how fabulous it is. It has been around for six years now but the word has not reached most bars and shops. That needs to change.

Irish Whiskey Barrel Aged Irish Craft Beer
Franciscan Well Jameson Stout
I can't think of too many barrel-aged Irish craft beers but I do like the effect of whiskey casks on beer so I hope to see more of our many craft breweries giving it a go.

Irish Whiskey Bars of the Year
Leinster: Palace Bar, Dublin
Munster: Dick Mack's Bar, Dingle
Connaught: Garavan's Bar, Galway
Ulster: Duke of York, Belfast
International: Whisky and Alement, Melbourne, Australia
Overall: Dick Mack's, Dingle, Co. Kerry
This is becoming a very healthy category with 33 nominees from around Ireland and another 7 from the rest of the world.

Of the winners, I have first hand knowledge of just one: The Palace Bar, in Dublin. The Palace has gone further than most to showcase Irish whiskey with their Whiskey Palace lounge, and their house whiskeys, including The Palace Bar Fourth Estate Single Malt and the imminent Three Generations.

Dingle is obviously a bit of a hotspot for whiskey now, with the Dingle Distillery and now the overall Irish Whiskey Bar of the Year, Dick Mack's. I hear good things about the pub from the Irish Whiskey Society vice president, Peter White. He's a Dick Mack's regular and has encouraged and assisted their embrace of whiskey this last couple of years.

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: