Saturday, 19 April 2014

The Centenary Series Whiskey Collection

Things were really kicking off a hundred years ago. As if the excitement of a front row seat to World War I wasn't enough, some in Ireland chose the war years to violently oppose British rule. A limited uprising was succeeded by a successful war of independence and then a civil war. We'll be commemorating blood-soaked centenaries for years to come.

That same period also feels like the birth of the modern era. There were long-distance telephone calls, cinemas, Model T Fords, cubism, general relativity and quantum theory. Aviation milestones were coming thick and fast since the first powered flight only a decade earlier.

The Irish Whiskey Collection at Dublin and Cork airports has selected five events from this period - one for each year from 1914 to 1918 - to commemorate in whiskey form:

  • 1914: James Joyce's collection of short stories, Dubliners, was published.
  • 1915: Hugh Lane, great patron of the arts in Ireland, died when the Lusitania was sunk.
  • 1916: WB Yeats's poem of the same name was written.
  • 1917: John McCormack recorded Keep the Home Fires Burning.
  • 1918: Constance Markievicz was elected to Westminster. She refused to take her seat, choosing to join the first Dáil Éireann in Dublin instead, where she became the first female government minister.

Five casks of single malt, double-distilled in 1988 have been set aside in the Teeling Whiskey Company's warehouse. They were selected for their balance of spice, fruit and wood, according to Alex Chasko, TWC's whiskey wizard, who rates them as "some of the best casks we have in the warehouse".

Each year one of these ex-bourbon casks will be bottled at 46% for sale at The Loop in Irish airports. There will be 250 bottles of each. Collecting all five is an opportunity to track the maturation of some very old Irish malt from 25 to 29 years old. "There is still loads of life left in these casks with a very exciting flavour profile", says Alex.

The 2014 Centenary whiskey was released in March. A 70cl bottle goes for €395 (or €295 Duty Free). That sounds expensive but Teeling's recent 26 year old Gold Reserve will set you back €450. I wouldn't often say this, but I've tasted the Gold Reserve and it's worth it. It is a "wow" whiskey. I haven't had the opportunity to try the Centenary yet but Alex tells me people have the same reaction to that.

Official tasting notes:
Sweet full body nose with mango, tropical fruit, cracked pepper and apple notes to the fore. 
Spice and ginger gives way to jam fruits and toasty well-balanced oak dryness. 
The tropical fruit returns with lychee, strawberry and bubblegum in force.

The events of almost a hundred years ago - independence and Prohibition, in particular - were disastrous for the Irish whiskey industry and almost killed it off. A century later, with the industry in rude health, we can remember that time more fondly and offer a toast to some of the inspiring figures who helped shape a brand new nation.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

The tortilla revolution

This is going to seem very like a story about tortillas, rather than whiskey. Think of it as allegory.

According to Philip Martin, owner of the Little Ass Burrito Bar in Dawson Street, we don't know tortillas in Ireland, or even in Europe. The real deal is a corn tortilla (by corn, I mean maize), not the wheat imposters that we have latched on to. And the corn must have been nixtamalized first, which means steeping and cooking in limewater. This increases its nutritional value and improves flavour.

Philip Martin. Photo courtesy Blanco Niño.

Philip, who is a connoisseur of Mexican cuisine, has not been able to source authentic tortillas in Europe. So he is going to make them in Dublin, and ship 'em continent-wide. The part of this story that caught my eye is that these will not just be Irish-made tortillas. They will be properly Irish, made from Irish-grown corn.

Whoa, back the corn truck up there... corn grows in Ireland? I assumed it didn't because we import corn from southern France to make grain whiskey. It's combined with malt or pot still whiskey made from Irish-grown barley to produce all of our famous blends. I guessed that corn requires sunny climes to prosper.

Turns out that's only true up to a point. By choosing an appropriate early-maturing variety and taking into account soil, exposure and aspect, you can sow and reap maize quite successfully in Ireland. It's not going to be sweetcorn (though there are a few farmers pulling that trick off in low volumes every year) but it makes a good animal feed. And it can make corn flour.

Talking to Philip, I learned that corn has become quite a conventional feed crop in Ireland in recent decades. It calls for some quite technical farming - taking the temperature of the soil and using plastic to warm it up for planting, for example. But Teagasc and the universities have been throwing science at the problem for some time and have figured out what works on this island.

Corn tortillas. Photo courtesy Blanco Niño.

Blanco Niño, Philip's company, plans to be making tortillas by June (though not from Irish corn this first year, I think, it being too late to plant). The tortilla revolution will be crowd-funded. It has already met its basic funding goal but there is a week left to swap cash for equity, with full voting rights.

What a marvellous idea, eh? Philip saw a market for corn-based products and has matched it up with spare capacity on Irish farms following the forced demise of the sugar beet industry.

It seems to me that a gauntlet has been thrown down here. If tortillas can be Irish, surely Irish whiskey can be Irish, made of grain grown in Irish soil, in an Irish climate. Since distillers started importing French corn, research, experience and - perhaps - global warming have made maize a commercial crop in Ireland. Philip's collective of farmers would be just as happy to supply corn for alcohol as for flour so how about it? I'm just floating the thought.

In the meantime, if this article has you jonesing for good Mexican food in Dublin, here are a few leads. First, of course, Philip will fix you a tasty burrito at his Little Ass restaurant in Dawson Street. Check out the menu (pdf).

My neighbours, Lily and Alan, run an online shop that sells specially sourced Mexican ingredients. Lily will be showing how to make real corn tortillas, among other Mexican standards, at the upcoming Slow Food Irish-Mex Taco Night.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

The Irish Whiskey Association

I spied an original 1887 edition of Alfred Barnard's Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom yesterday.
The archivist from Irish Distillers in Midleton had brought it along to the launch of the Irish Whiskey Association (IWA) and it was very appropriate to the occasion. Barnard's tour is both a 19th century record of past glories in Irish distilling and an aspirational document for today describing an island dotted with dozens of world-renowned distilleries.

Eighteen whiskey companies have joined forces under the IWA banner to make sure that aspiration becomes reality. Most were represented at the launch, where multinationals mingled with micro-distillers and grizzled veterans gossiped with the young guns.

That itself is one of the main purposes of the new organisation: to diffuse knowledge among the member companies, and especially to the new market entrants. It's already happening and I have heard very nice things said about Irish Distillers and Bushmills, for example, regarding the generous help they have supplied to those setting up. I picked up a hard-won tip myself yesterday from Alltech's Jack O'Shea on burnishing copper stills; a myriad of such details contribute to the efficient operation and maintenance of a distillery.

The established companies' willingness to mentor the up-and-coming stems from, I think, a mix of altruism and a reasonable desire to see that the new players reinforce Irish whiskey's reputation for quality.

Bring it, Scotland

Nothing unites, of course, like a common enemy, and that enemy is... Scotland. I jest but we certainly envy their heft in the business. They shipped 93m cases of whiskey in 2013, compared to our 6.2m. If we want to take them on we have to band together to promote and protect the category worldwide. Scotland has an industry organisation that does this, namely the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA). The SWA stalks the planet scrutinising bottle labels for illicit suggestions of tartan that might mislead the unwary into thinking they are buying Scotch.

Some IWA members have already felt the displeasure of the SWA. If I recall correctly, for example, Cooley once tried to use a local placename (Glenmore?) for a new whiskey. The SWA objected, claiming ownership over anything with 'Glen' in the name.

That was a stretch, perhaps, but one of the strongest defensive measures that the IWA can deploy is the Geographic Indication (GI) for Irish whiskey that is defined at EU level. The IWA is currently working on technical files to be lodged with the Commission that will nail down what does and doesn't qualify as Irish whiskey under this GI. Trade agreements between the EU and other countries ensure that our GIs are respected on other continents. I believe we can also look forward to the restoration of the term Irish Pot Still in law, which has been missing (and occasionally misused) since 1980.

Recruiting government

The IWA will also represent the whiskey industry's interests to the Irish government. This seems to me its most challenging task. The Minister for Agriculture, Food & the Marine, Simon Coveney, formally launched the association yesterday. He seems like a decent chap, genuinely batting for Ireland and Irish products abroad. I have long admired what Bord Bia - under his department - does for craft food producers and I understand they are now taking a greater interest in artisan spirits.

From the minister's speech, I took it that his interest in whiskey was export earnings, tourism and jobs. He understands too the benefit to Ireland's image from quality, craft products like whiskey. What I didn't pick up especially was an appreciation for whiskey as a drink.

It would be unreasonable to expect the minister to consume everything he helps promote but I wonder if anyone in government enjoys a measure. It's hard to imagine they do when they actively try to prevent Irish people drinking it. Every year, after the Budget, I describe the level of VAT and excise duty on whiskey as theft rather than tax. Only Monty Brewster with his millions can afford to throw his money away on decent whiskey in an Irish bar. It's fine, apparently, to send this demon spirit abroad to corrupt foreigners but Irish people are to be priced out of developing an appreciation for it.

It's sad that few in Ireland know anything about their native spirit and that even those who do take a whiskey often confine their explorations to Scotch. It does not help the export and tourism markets when the Irish themselves are such poor ambassadors for Irish whiskey.

So I'd like a champion for Irish whiskey at the cabinet table, advised and encouraged by the IWA, who can curb the worst excesses of the finance and health ministers and return the slow - inherently responsible - enjoyment of craft Irish whiskey to the Irish people.

The members

There are 18 founding members of the IWA: Alltech, Burren Irish Whiskey, Carlow Brewing Company, Castle Brands, Gruppo Campari/TJ Carolan, Beam/Cooley, Diageo/Bushmills, Dublin Whiskey Company, First Ireland Spirits, Glendalough Irish Whiskey, Great Northern Distillery, Irish Distillers, Slane Castle Whiskey, Teeling Whiskey Company, William Grant & Sons/Tullamore DEW, Walsh Whiskey Distillery, West Cork Distillers and Wild Geese Irish Whiskey. It is an all-island organisation.

Headed by Aoife Keane, it comes under the Alcohol Beverage Foundation of Ireland, itself part of the business group, IBEC. The founding chairman is Peter Morehead, moonlighting from his day job as Production Director at Midleton.

Irish Whiskey Association members celebrating the launch. Photo courtesy of the IWA.
There are some very familiar faces in that "family" photo, savouring a landmark moment in the renaissance of Irish whiskey. How many can you recognise?

It was a very enjoyable launch event (with tea and coffee the strongest drinks consumed!) that finished long before I had a chance to interrogate everyone. Besides catching up with some old friends of the blog, I spoke for the first time with Campari (who recently released Irish Mist Whiskey), First Ireland Spirits (makers of Dubliner Whiskey Liqueur, and recently acquired by Quintessential) and Burren Irish Whiskey (which wasn't on my radar at all but sounds very promising). I also note that Carlow Brewing Company (ie O'Hara's) is a member in its own right, separate from Alltech, whose stills they are hosting temporarily. Is that a hint of something exciting in the works?

The new association is a huge leap forward for the Irish whiskey industry. I congratulate Aoife and the founding member companies for making it happen and wish them continued success around the world with this greatest of Irish products.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Alltech First Principals - Whiskey by the Cask

It's a tantalising time for Irish whiskey lovers. New distilleries are filling casks day after day, but those casks won't leave the warehouse again for years. We won't entirely go thirsty in the meantime but we must nevertheless dig deep into our reserves of patience as the whiskey matures.

What might help is if we could each adopt a cask and look in on it every now and then to check how it ages, stealing a quick sip to make sure. Alltech is now offering exactly that chance, to snag one of three hundred young casks right now. They are inviting you to meet the Master Distiller, and to personalise a cask which you will then be able to visit every year to taste. All the details are in this document (pdf).

Filled casks waiting for you in Carlow. Photo courtesy of Alltech.

Alltech has been distilling single malt spirit since November 2012 in Carlow, though the plan is to up sticks to Dublin by June 2015. So far they have been maturing exclusively in ex-bourbon casks, though some of those may have tasted beer too (Alltech's American single malt, Pearse Lyons Reserve, is aged in casks that have previously held bourbon, then beer for a brief 6 weeks. That's a beautiful whiskey so I'm all for ex-beer casks). A little bird tells me there are sherry casks in Carlow now so you might be able to persuade the distiller, Jack O'Shea, to part with one of those instead. (Sherry casks are usually bigger than bourbon casks so you might have to chip in a few more groats for the extra liquid.)

Alltech has made an enormous impression on the whiskey and craft beer community in Ireland since they fetched up in Carlow with a couple of stills a scant year-and-a-half ago. They have the smartest, friendliest and most professional staff and are refreshingly open about their plans and ideas. They have hosted two huge conferences in Dublin that put potential brewers and distillers in the same room as still makers, maltsters, coopers, chemists, marketers, journalists and drinkers to network and trade knowledge.

I listened to founder and president of Alltech, Dr Pearse Lyons, exhort the attendees at one of those conferences to make something great and Irish, and sell it to the world. I watched him walk around the exhibition floor, meeting and talking to people, figuring out how he could help them, or do business with them. Things happen when you fall into Pearse's orbit. It's an enlightened way of doing business that I admire: growing the industry as a whole through cooperation and sharing, while competing by making great products.

Dr Pearse Lyons at the Alltech Craft Brewing & Distilling Convention, Dublin. © Alltech 2013

I don't know what Alltech's Irish whiskey is going to taste like when it's 5 or 10 years old. That's the risk of investing in a cask. Think of it, perhaps, as a bet on an accomplished company and a talented team.

I should mention that Dingle Distillery is still offering casks through its Founding Fathers programme. Dingle is another company with a fine provenance so what better way to hedge your liquid investments than by acquiring a cask from both distilleries.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

How many Irish whiskey distilleries are there?

Update 30 March 2014: Added new information about whiskey production at West Cork Distillers.

Global interest in Irish whiskey peaks around this time each year (eg Google searches). Let's do a quick run around the existing and proposed distilleries to see where we are and where we are going in 2014 and beyond.

I have only included announced projects. I have seen plans for more distilleries and heard rumours of others but until they are ready to go public I won't mention them here.

There are eight whiskey distilleries currently producing. There could easily be another five by the end of the year.

Operational Distilleries

Without missing a beat, Midleton completed its project to double capacity in 2013 and passed the Master Distiller baton from the legendary Barry Crockett to Brian Nation. The distillery fuels the remarkable volume growth in Irish whiskey (via Jameson) while simultaneously releasing some of the best whiskeys in the world (most recently Redbreast 21 year old). Expect more of the same this year.

They still make good whiskey but don't seem very interested to talk about it or to release new expressions. But they do launch wooden headphones and sunglasses, and promote indie music bands. Please, Bushmills, give me something to write about in 2014.

Cooley / Riverstown
During the Noughties, Cooley was garnering the appreciation of enthusiasts with lots of experimentation, innovation and fine whiskeys. Cooley's new owners, Beam, abandoned that approach for a pure volume play. With Beam now due to be swallowed by Suntory, I am hoping the good times are on the way back.

When Cooley was independent, Kilbeggan was their small, experimental distillery that was building up a stock of all sorts of interesting spirit like pot still, rye and so on. Beam renamed the whole company after Kilbeggan and tasked the distillery with producing a standard malt that could be vatted into the signature blend along with the far greater volumes produced at Riverstown. Perhaps Suntory will allow Andrina Fitzgerald, Kilbeggan's distiller, play around with the mashbills again.

Distilling since the end of 2012. Not just whiskey, but vodka and gin too. The gin (just launched in the US) has been very well received and I expect it to kindle an interest in craft Irish gins. I'm surprised among all the announced distillery projects that there hasn't been one targeting gin exclusively but chances are high that some will try their hand at gin anyway, just for the immediate return on investment.

Distilling since June last year. They recently acquired a defunct but well-known Belfast whiskey brand, Dunville's. This will be handy when their own whiskey matures (their other brand is the jokey Feckin Irish Whiskey) but they have somehow managed to put Dunville's on the market already (a rebadged Cooley blend, one presumes).

Alltech / Carlow
Distilling since November 1st, 2012 on Carlow Brewing Company premises but due to move to James's Street in Dublin in 2014. They have recently announced a cask pre-purchase scheme.

West Cork Distillers
West Cork are well known for their innovative brown spirit drinks (like Drombeg, Lough Hyne and Kennedy) but they are also laying down whiskey spirit that is maturing in first-fill bourbon and sherry casks. They tell me they have an Irish whiskey on the market already, which I missed but hope to get information on soon.

West Cork are also fuelling the attempt to launch poitín as a viable spirit category. They have their own Two Trees brand and supply some of the other labels on the market too.

Not yet operational

Tullamore Dew is made under contract by Irish Distillers in Midleton but William Grant, who bought the brand in 2010, have been building a huge new distillery in Tullamore to take production back in house. It recently took delivery of four copper pot stills from Forsyths, replicas of the originals from the old Tullamore Distillery that closed in 1954. It should begin distilling in the autumn.

Recently secured planning permission for a new distillery in Newmarket Square, Dublin 8. Aims to be in production by the fourth quarter of this year. Of course Teeling has been releasing quality whiskeys already, distilled elsewhere but finished in their own wood and custom blended by Alex Chasko. We can look forward to more of that in 2014.

Slane Castle
Received planning permission for a new distillery last July. Camus Cognac was involved back then but its two directors have since resigned from Slane Castle Whiskey. I believe the project proceeds regardless.

Glendalough Poitín is an attractive range of spirits with an affinity for red lemonade. Currently made under contract, the team is looking to build a distillery close to Glendalough itself. I haven't been able to find an associated planning application but I'm told this is happening, and sooner rather than later.

Dublin Whiskey Company
A planning application has been submitted for a distillery in Mill Street, Dublin 8. The team includes Dr Jim Swan who has consulted for distilleries such as Penderyn and Kavalan.

Alltech / St James Street Distillery
The stills are moving up from Carlow and they are going to need some new mashing and fermenting kit they have been borrowing from their hosts up till now. A planning application has yet to be submitted for the former church and lighting showroom but it's due to be lodged soon. You might think the €35,000 they had to fork over to the Church of Ireland would have secured permission from The Highest Power of All but apparently Caesar must be rendered unto separately.

Walsh Whiskey Distillery
Carlow is losing one distillery (when Alltech decamps to Dublin) but gaining another, thanks to Bernard Walsh and his successful Irishman and Writers Tears brands. Although Bernard's signature "blend" of pot still and malt whiskeys is unique in the business and cask selection is overseen by himself, the liquid has always been supplied under contract from Midleton. Together with his partners, Italian company Illva Saronno, he is going to build a new distillery on the estate of Holloden House, County Carlow. The derelict house will be restored too. The planning application has been submitted, with a decision due in mid-April.

Great Northern Distillery
The epic name was a gift from the site's previous incarnation as the Great Northern Brewery, until recently part of the Diageo empire but now surplus to requirements and sold on. It was bought by a new company with the utterly prosaic name of the Irish Whiskey Company. Two-thirds owned by the Teeling family, it's going to be a huge operation, second only to Midleton. The initial idea is to supply bulk whiskey to private labels, retail brands, etc. It's supposed to be operational during the third quarter of 2014.

Belfast / Titanic / Crumlin Road Gaol
The company behind the Titanic and Danny Boy whiskeys got permission in April last year to construct a distillery within one wing of the historic Crumlin Road Gaol. It has been pretty quiet since then but I note that an engineering consultancy was awarded a contract for the mechanical and electrical fit-out at the end of January. That bodes well.

Niche Drinks / Derry
Niche Drinks was granted permission to to build a distillery on the outskirts of Derry in May, 2013. Niche already makes Irish cream liqueur on a different site in Derry and has been seeking planning permission to redevelop that location as a supermarket in order to have the funds to invest in the new distillery. The application has been tied up in objections and other correspondence and is still undecided.

Outline planning permission was granted for a micro-distillery in Portaferry on the Ards peninsula in June 2013. I've heard nothing more about that.

Other announced projects

Planning permission was recently denied for Horse Island off the coast of Cork. It doesn't sound like owner Adrian Fitzgibbon is going to pursue that location but he is reported to be looking for another site.

West Cork Distillers were reported in March 2013 to be renovating an old distillery in Bandon. I don't know the status of that project.

Dingle Brewing Company have long threatened to open a distillery in Dingle and even named their future whiskey "Shackleton". Given the length of time and lack of action, my feeling is that this is not happening.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Irish handmade whiskey tumblers

In the Makers & Brothers pop-up shop in Dublin before Christmas, I found a whiskey tumbler made by Jerpoint Glass in Kilkenny. It had remarkable heft - heavier than any other glass I've held - handy, perhaps, for working some bicep curls into one's drinking routine.

I love glass as a material - it's not just an enclosure for conveying whiskey from shop to home. The look and feel of the bottle while pouring is part of the enjoyment of consuming whiskey. A tumbler that fits the hand and the mood elevates and extends the experience of drinking. With the proliferation of new distilleries and growing interest in whiskey in Ireland I expect we will pay a lot more attention to the theatre of spirit consumption. The whiskey enthusiasts I know experiment a lot with glassware and are always open to road-testing a new beaker in pursuit of libatious transcendence.

A while back, Makers & Brothers were commissioned by Jameson Black Barrel to design and produce a custom batch of 100 Irish-made whiskey tumblers. They started with Jerpoint's version, tweaking it to create a form slighter to the eye yet retaining that weightiness. Jerpoint's craftsmen then made these tumblers in the traditional way, by hand-blowing molten glass.

Those first hundred were given away to some lucky sods but more have now been forged by Jerpoint and are available to the world from the Makers & Brothers website at €34 a pop.

Whiskey Tumbler JRS01 by Makers & Brothers / Jerpoint

Photos courtesy of Makers & Brothers

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Celtic Cask Sé

In the space of little more than one year, the Celtic Whiskey Shop has already released six bottlings in its Celtic Cask series, enough for a great evening's tasting at the Whiskey Palace recently. The shop's owner, Ally Alpine, magicked up a bottle of each - even of the sold out Dó (2) - and poured them for a full house.

In an exotically-accented two-handed act, the shop's Stephen Magennis introduced the range and its whiskeys while Ally revealed how he coaxed empty vintage casks from wine producers around Europe and fine spirit from Ireland's whiskey producers. It was a relaxed, fun and informative night in the perfect venue.

Celtic Casks 1 to 6. Photo courtesy of Stephen Reilly ©

The latest Celtic Cask incarnation, Sé (the Irish word for "six", pronounced "shay"), is double-distilled crystal malt whiskey from September 1991 that spent the subsequent 21 years in a hogshead. (The use of crystal malt is unusual in distilling but it turned up in Bushmills' 1608 Anniversary Edition a few years ago.) The precise origin of this Irish whiskey hasn't been made public but it's one of a large consignment of casks that ended up in the Teeling Whiskey Company's warehouse.

The contents of two hogsheads were transferred into two first-fill red wine Ànima Negra casks from Mallorca supplied by Ally. Seven months later, in November 2013, one of these casks was bottled as Sé while the other continues to mature.

As I said, we had the chance to sample all six of the Celtic Casks side-by-side. There were murmurs of appreciation from at least one corner of the room for each whiskey, and voting on the favourite at the end was thoroughly split. Each will have their own preference among this very diverse range that encompasses all styles of whiskey from the widest possible range of Irish distilleries, finished in a diverse and original selection of casks.

My favourite is Cúig (5), which is an unfinished pot still whiskey but next is Sé, only slightly behind. It's lovely stuff. Here are the official tasting notes. Sounds good, right?
Aromas of fig jam, dried apricots, mace, citrus and pineapple. 
On the palate it is fruity and densely textured with flavours of apricots, exotic spices and dried fruits. 
Warming and spicy on the finish.
There are just 328 bottles of Sé, at 46% ABV. The price is €195.

We will be seeing plenty more of these marriages between Irish spirit and wood from Ally's wine suppliers. There are currently about 20 casks of whiskey stashed away, quietly transforming in their own time, to be released only when they are good and ready.

[There will be a tweet tasting of Celtic Cask Sé on Wednesday, January 22nd at 7:30pm GMT. Follow @Celticwhiskey for details]