Monday, 6 June 2016

Irish Whiskey Society "Marrowbone Lane" Single Pot Still

There is a clue to the origins of the latest Irish Whiskey Society bottling in the pages of A Glass Apart, the ultimate guide to Irish single pot still whiskey. It's in the description of a legendary single pot still whiskey released at the turn of the millennium, Jameson 15-year old:
... this bottle is dense like a sinking ship full of dates and figs, punctured by the bristle of its own brown sugar gingers and drowning in an oil spillage... Wide cut, unrelentingly lathery, dense Irish spirit aged in an old sherry barrel - the kind of whiskey that would have been right at home in [the Dublin of the late 1800s]
The author can't quite bring himself to favour one whiskey above all others but quietly confesses that, if pressed, he would probably name this one.

He's not alone. Many members of the Irish Whiskey Society have tasted old Irish pot still whiskey from long-silent distilleries, enjoyed its characteristic oily, musty heft and now await its return like the Second Coming. Back in 2000, Jameson 15yo indicated both that the new Midleton distillery could venture into the denser reaches of the pot still spectrum, and that there was at least some inclination at the distillery to do so.

Fast forward to today, and Ireland has just marked the centenary of the 1916 Rising. Rather than focusing solely on the headline events of that year, the hugely popular commemorations aimed to recall the lives of ordinary Irish citizens a hundred years ago.

The Irish Whiskey Society's bottling for 2016 meshed well with this theme. The committee, led by the president, Peter White, aimed to recreate a typical Dublin whiskey of 1916. That would be the heavy pot still spirit mentioned above, aged in an indifferent sherry cask (wood management and consistency not being the thing then that it is now) that kept the distillate character to the fore during maturation.

A sub-committee of Peter, Willie Murphy (a noted collector of old Irish whiskey and whiskey lore) and Fionnán O'Connor (the author of A Glass Apart) drew up a more precise liquid brief for submission to Midleton distillery, heavily influenced by the lingering memory of Jameson 15yo.

With the brief in mind, Billy Leighton, Midleton's master blender, drew samples from three casks that the committee tasted one evening in January at Wynn's Hotel.

Marrowbone Lane Edition Single Pot Still

The whiskey chosen from those three for the 1916 commemorative bottling is an 11-year old single pot still. It spent the first 7 years in refill bourbon casks and the last 4 years in a first-fill oloroso sherry cask.

Bourbon casks are not exactly faithful to the period but if the point is to avoid a lot of wood influence, a refill bourbon is the best available option today. A first-fill sherry cask, on the other hand, is quite potent and those final 4 years are clearly imprinted on the liquid.

The whiskey is named the Marrowbone Lane Edition, commemorating one of the "Big Four" distilleries operating in Dublin in 1916, William Jameson & Co, of Marrowbone Lane. It was occupied by rebels during the Easter Rising but is almost entirely forgotten today. Hardly a trace remains of the 14-acre distillery.

The Marrowbone Lane Edition was launched last Thursday at Wynn's Hotel. Wynn's is the current venue for Dublin meetings of the Irish Whiskey Society but it has its own strong associations with 1916. Besides hosting the founding meeting of the Irish Volunteers in 1913 with several leaders of the subsequent Rising in attendance, the hotel was completely destroyed during the fighting of 1916.

The building didn't appear to harbour any grudges and the launch was a happy event with society members and representatives of Irish Distillers enjoying a superb and unique whiskey in historic surroundings.

Fionnán O'Connor, Peter White, Willie Murphy [Photo courtesy of Ove Grunnér]

Fionnán introduced the Marrowbone Lane Edition noting, by the way, that it did not turn out to be a reproduction of the elusive Jameson 15yo (that quest continues), but that it is still a fitting nod to the hallowed Dublin whiskeys of a century ago.

The whiskey was filled into cask on February 13th, 2005, and bottled on March 9th, 2016, at a cask strength of 54.7% ABV. The 300 bottles in this release are available only to members of the Irish Whiskey Society.

The tasting notes were also written by Fionnán:
Sherry – but not the sweet, pungent sherry of many modern malts. Musky old sherry distorted into something drier, more leathery, and less immediately inviting by the pot still mustiness and liquorice once sported by the genre hallmarks. Beneath that, a bass clef robustness of earthy distillate-driven oils, cloves, shoe polishy resins and herbal moss all strangely stained by the Oloroso glaze. 
Like an old traditional Dublin pot still with a touch of the pub’s house sherry tipped in... Classic pre 70s too-dry-for-dried-fruit apricot, old polished floorboards, and sherry stained leather like the musty linoleum over a spicy base so thick that even its irrepressible spices feel a little too heavy for spice. Large sip advised for texture. 
Not so much long as mouth filling. Oils, resins, and a slight sherry echo. The finale, like the palate, is all about weight – and that weight is unapologetically cut with the prickles of its own residual oils.

Friday, 3 June 2016

Bloom 2016

Bloom is a magical village where the weather is always sunny and the people are always happy. Like some kind of Irish Food Board-sponsored Brigadoon, it appears from nowhere once a year in Dublin's Phoenix Park.

Bloom has several distinct themes but for me it's a chance to meet small food & drink producers from all over the country. Many of them have launched since last year's event and have brought their wares to Dublin for the first time. It's a great opportunity for consumers and producers alike.

I was at Bloom on its first day yesterday. Here are a few highlights from the drinks tent.

Bloom Inn

Blackwater Distillery

Blackwater distillery, inspired by the strawberries coming into season in the neighbouring county of Wexford, has just launched a new gin: Wexford Strawberry Gin.

Peter Mulryan and Kieran Curtin of Blackwater Distillery

The watery fruit proved reluctant to yield its flavour despite macerating in alcohol for 48 hours before distillation. The result does not shout strawberry but a good gin should aim for balanced flavours anyway and this is a very good gin. The strawberry is there in the mix. Particularly, I felt, in the finish.

The colour does not survive distillation, of course, so the gin is tinted an eye-catching pink post-distillation with blackcurrants and more strawberries.

It is served at Bloom with tonic, a slice of strawberry, basil and cracked black pepper.

Móinéir Wine

More strawberries, this time a 100% Irish strawberry wine, made by Brett Stephenson and Pamela Walsh of Wicklow Way Wines. The Irish word "móinéir" means "meadows".

The strawberries are pressed, fermented and then aged in a process that takes about a year. The outcome is an off-dry wine with a rich natural red colour.

The wine can be paired with food (including spicy dishes, the website suggests) or served as an aperitif.

It is only just launched but is available in Whelehans Wines in Loughlinstown, The Parting Glass in Enniskerry, and online from the company itself.

There are more wines on the way, including Blackberry & Elderberry and Elderflower.

Stonewell Cider

East Ferry Farm in Midleton had a few acres under rhubarb that risked going unused. So they called up Daniel Emerson of Stonewell to see if he had any thoughts.

Daniel dug out one of his retired hand-cranked apple scratters and set to juicing the rhubarb. He then fermented it with sugar to a strength of 12%. Due to the acidity, fermentation is slow.

An unusual feature of rhubarb, he told me, is that it retains its flavour and aroma through fermentation. With the rhubarb wine as the backbone, he added small amounts of eating apple cider, dessert apple cider and fresh dessert apple juice. For visual appeal, fresh rhubarb juice made from the redder stalks was also blended in.

The delicate and refreshing result is available on cask at Bloom. In about three weeks' time it will be available in 330ml bottles too, though with a slightly higher fresh rhubarb juice content for a more rosé tint.

By the way, a top tip from a professional rhubarb farmer: don't cut your rhubarb in the heat. It will not regenerate as quickly. Thursday was so blazingly hot that East Ferry's harvest had been delayed until nightfall.

Glendalough Distillery

Glendalough makes seasonal gins, foraging in the forests of Wicklow for botanicals. I was very impressed by their distinctive Spring gin last year. The 2016 version came out a few weeks ago.

It's similar to last year's recipe with about 23 botanicals in all, gorse flower to the fore. That said, with a foraged product it is impossible to replicate previous batches exactly. This one is lighter but still very flavourful.

3,000 bottles of each season were made last year. Volumes will be much higher this year to match demand. They will also hold back a proportion so that they will eventually be able to sell all four seasons side-by-side.

Longueville House

2009 is the latest apple brandy vintage from Longueville House. The apples would have been picked in 2006, fermented to cider, double-distilled, then aged for 4 to 5 years in French oak casks. The fruits of all that effort can be had for the very reasonable price of €35 (for a 50cl bottle). Anyone who finds Irish whiskey becoming too pricey should run Irish apple brandy past their palate.

Longueville House Mór is their base cider fortified with their own brandy. The brandy brings the ABV up from 5% to 8%.

Teeling Whiskey Company

Besides their familiar trio of single malt, single grain and blend, Teeling brought along their new poitín. This is the first released product actually distilled at the new distillery. It's a triple distilled pot still spirit (50% malted barley, 50% unmalted barley), a glimpse of the whiskey that will eventually emerge from cask in a few years' time.

It's one more milestone in the revival of distilling in Dublin, something Teeling marked with a Revival Single Malt last October. There were 10,000 bottles of that all-rum cask matured 15yo malt, now sold out at the distillery shop. There will be a second edition Revival arriving within a few weeks. That will be a 13yo Calvados finish single malt. I tasted it at a recent meeting of the Irish Whiskey Society and I reckon it's going to find a lot of fans, myself included.

Kevin Hurley, Teeling's Global Brand Ambassador, was behind the stand serving up his own cocktail creation, the Teeling Redleg Rebellion. Starting with the rum-influenced Small Batch whiskey, the cocktail layers on tropical and Caribbean flavours of pineapple, citrus and falernum (a sweet and spicy citrus liqueur from Barbados).

The Sun Tavern in London (specialising in Irish whiskey and poitín) recently posted a two-part interview with Kevin...

Dingle Distillery

There is plenty of interest to come from Dingle this year. They already have a good gin, along with a fairly recently launched set of seasonal varieties. In a few months they will add a more premium gin to this lineup.

Dingle began distilling whiskey at the end of 2012. In about October this year they hope to have bottled a selection of whiskeys - both single malt and single pot still - matured in various kinds of wood.

Monday, 29 February 2016

Redbreast Single Cask 1999

The Whisky Exchange, a London (and online) retailer of fine spirits, has bagged itself an exclusive single (sherry) cask Redbreast pot still whiskey. I refer you to their own blog for the full story and detailed tasting notes. The basic stats: 59.9% ABV, 16 years old, 576 bottles, £180.

When I heard about it, I was a little wary. I've tried plenty of whiskeys that tasted more like sherry than whiskey, including a cask sample or two from the Midleton distillery. I tend to eschew a whiskey where one element is too loud in the mix but, for some, such "sherry bombs" are a treat to be relished.

A small sample fell through the letterbox on Friday, which I've just poured...

It's a big whiskey. The sherry-seasoned wood and pot still spirit have clearly been duking it out for 16 years in the cask, but neither has managed to gain the upper hand. They have both bulked up in the process though and are now delivering huge punches of prunes, raisins, liquorice, spices... It's all there, amped up, but still remarkably balanced.

I thoroughly enjoyed being whacked around the chops by this heavyweight tag team. It's unlike anything else on my (mostly Irish) shelf, which includes several other members of the Redbreast family. If you're a Redbreast fan, and cool with cask strength whiskey, you've got to love this.

Friday, 18 December 2015

Waterford Distillery - Part I

The first promotional video from the brand new Waterford Distillery is called The FacilitatorThe name evokes the potential of their fancy, pre-owned brewing kit, as well as something of the looming character of the once mothballed site.

They could have named it The Palimpsest. Like a mediaeval parchment scraped clean to be written on again, Waterford Distillery is layered atop a defunct brewery, which itself was preceded by another brewery, and so on back to 1792.

The hulking form fronting the river was a Diageo-owned brewery until 2013. It made Guinness concentrate, also known as Guinness Flavour Extract or Beverage Blending Agent. BBA is shipped overseas - to Africa, for example - and combined with locally brewed, pale malt lager to create Guinness Foreign Extra Stout.

Waterford Distillery

The main ingredient of BBA is roasted barley, or "black", as it was known here on Grattan Quay. After roasting, milling, mashing and fermenting the grain, the alcohol content was stripped away in a column still to produce essence of Guinness.

That column still remains and will "facilitate" some interesting malt distillation experiments down the road. A less welcome remnant of the past is the messy residue of "black" that the new distillery team has been scrubbing away since moving in.

The concentrate plant was quite a recent arrival on the quays. Diageo spent €40m fitting it out with top-of-the-line kit to produce 6.5m litres of concentrate per year. But it only operated from late 2003 until 2013. On its closure, some equipment was relocated to the Guinness brewery in Dublin but most was left behind, to the delight of its new owners.

On the same site, in an older, adjacent building, is a brewery that ceased operation when the concentrate plant came online. Here they made Smithwick's, and occasionally Macardle's. Capacity was 45m litres per annum.

The old brewery, with a stranded Arthur Guinness on the end wall.

Inside, there couldn't be a greater contrast with the stainless steel and computer automation of the distillery. The appearance can't have changed much since late-Victorian times. As with the modern plant, when Diageo were finished with it they just walked out the door leaving everything behind.

James Ellickson, who started his brewing career here in 1998 and who is now a distiller at Waterford, kindly showed me around.

Below is a 4-roller Porteus mill. Very common in Scottish distilleries, they have a reputation for reliability. This one worked perfectly until the day brewing ceased. It worked better, indeed, than the mill that was bought to replace it in the late 80s / early 90s.

Porteus mill


James cranked a wheel that set chains and counterweights in motion, raising the great copper dome from the mashtun in the photo above. (If you would like to know what that sounds like, have a listen...)

The counterweights drop as the dome rises.

The sparge arms are revealed

Clearly a lot more recent than the surrounding brewing vessels - though still looking like a relic of another industrial age - is this control board, or "mimic".

The mimic

Via switches and lamps, the whole process could be monitored and controlled from here, with every piece of equipment represented schematically: ... malt bin, hot liquor tank, mill, grist case, mashtun, underback, kettle, whirlpool separator, chiller, fermenter, centrifuge, bright beer tank, filter... even the delivery truck that took the finished product out the gate is on the mimic!

This switch panel is acquiring a beautiful patina.

The eerie Mary Celeste vibe is enhanced by whiteboards preserving forever the mundane brewing details - malt types, sugar origin, etc - of the final days of production.

Guinness, Cherry's, Strangman's... the brewery on this site has had various names over the centuries. Today, as Waterford Distillery, it's still milling, mashing and fermenting malted barley. The same raw material, the same processing steps. There is a continuity of craft - and a passion for that craft - that has been passed down through the various incarnations and which has been inherited by the current distillery team.

It was a huge treat to poke around in the archaeological strata that underpin Waterford Distillery. There is a desire to open the old brewhouse for tours some day. It can be tricky to make out what's going on in the complex modern plant next door but steering visitors through an old, legible, time capsule of a brewery will certainly illuminate the process, as well as celebrate Waterford's industrial heritage.

Monday, 14 December 2015

Irish Oak & Midleton Dair Ghaelach - Part III

See also

This is the final part of Eric Ryan's story of Irish oak. Eric's full bio is available on Part I of this article. Eric will also host an Irish Whiskey Society tasting in Cork on Wednesday examining the influence of oak on Midleton's pot still whiskeys.

We finished the last episode on a hopeful note, with the Irish government encouraging tree planting. From a low of 1% forestry cover, the country now boasts a cover of 11% and growing.

Our reward for all that oak planting was the most spectacular Irish whiskey of 2015: Midleton Dair Ghaelach, a single pot still whiskey finished in virgin Irish oak...

Irish Oak & Midleton Dair Ghaelach - Part III

by Eric Ryan

From Tree to Cask

Considering the contemporary growth in Irish oak forestry reserves, Kevin O’Gorman, Master of Maturation in Midleton, sparked the initial idea of using native oak to mature Irish whiskey. More than six years ago, the Midleton Masters, with the advice of professional foresters Purser, Tarleton and Russell, began the process of sourcing sustainable, mature Irish oaks for the purpose of cask manufacture.

After careful research by the Midleton Master of Science, David Quinn, and his extended team, the project was given the go-ahead to have its auspicious beginnings on the Ballaghtobin Estate near Callan, Co. Kilkenny.

Amazingly, the process for producing this special whiskey started back in the mid 1800’s when Irish oaks were first planted on the Estate, the same Irish oaks that would be selected for the first batch of Midleton Dair Ghaelach.

The 114 acres of woodland at Ballaghtobin were first mapped in 1655 and continue to this day to be managed, down through the generations, by the Gabbett family. The Estate is carefully managed in a sustainable way, which is integral to the Midleton Dair Ghaelach story.

Ten trees of 130 years of age were selected from Grinsell’s Wood on the estate. For every mature tree harvested, five saplings were planted in their place to hopefully be available, about 130 years in the future, to once again produce Irish oak whiskey casks.

After harvest, they were shipped to the north-western Spanish region of Galicia and onward to the Madebar Sawmills in Baralla, where for more than 50 years the same family has been working the wood. Here the staves are produced, under the watchful eyes of Midleton’s Master of Maturation, Kevin O’Gorman and Master Cooper, Ger Buckley, by means of the time-honoured, traditional quarter-sawing method.

The precisely shaped and honed staves then made the 10-hour journey from the Madebar sawmills to the Antonio Paez Lobato cooperage in Jerez, where they were laid out to dry naturally in the glowing warmth of the Spanish sun. Fifteen long months later, the Ballaghtobin oak staves were ready to work, coopered into 48 Irish Oak Hogshead casks of 250ltrs capacity and given a toast of medium intensity.

To Embrace Once Again - Single Pot Still & Irish Oak

The Irish Oak casks then completed their journey back to Ireland where they were filled with a range of light, medium and heavy Single Pot Still styles that had been matured for between 15 and 22 years in ex-bourbon (2nd & 3rd fill) American casks.

Each of these whiskeys had been crafted in the classical Single Pot Still Irish whiskey style; a mixed cereal base of malted and unmalted barley, triple distilled in the bulbous copper pot stills of Midleton and given the personal seal of approval by Midleton Master Distiller, Brian Nation.

After an initial vatting of two days, the casks were again allowed to sleep in the maturation warehouse. On this occasion, considering that this would be the first time since probably the early 19th century that Irish whiskey would be matured in virgin Irish Oak Hogsheads, it was imperative that caution be the order of the day with regard to that final peaceful slumber.

Midleton’s Master of Maturation, Kevin O’Gorman and Master Blender, Billy Leighton patiently nosed and tasted Midleton Dair Ghaelach each and every month, so as to monitor closely the range of flavours that were coming through.

After almost a year this unique whiskey was judged to be beautifully balanced and flavoured to subtle perfection by the Irish oak that gives it its name.

The initial experiments in Midleton confirmed what everyone was hoping for: Irish oak is unique in the manner of wood extractives or taste compounds that it contributes to the maturing spirit.

The mild, wet Irish climate results in a longer growing season and faster growing rates than in the USA, Spain or indeed any other part of Europe. A faster growth rate causes Irish oak hardwood to be less dense and more porous.

The wider, more open grain structure means a greater oak contribution from the cask when ageing spirits. This results in greater levels of lignin breakdown products, including Vanillin, Vanillic acid and Furfural.

You should expect a greater degree of Vanilla, Caramel, Chocolate and Toasted Wood flavours as a result of the levels of these compounds in Irish oak.

To preserve this wonderfully rich contribution from the Irish oak, Midleton Dair Ghaelach is non-chill filtered and bottled at cask strength.

To reflect the incredible sustainability and traceability efforts made with Dair Ghaelach, each and every bottle is labelled with the name of the Irish Forestry Estate where the oak was sourced, the batch number, the individual tree number and the bottle number.

The bottle I sampled was:
  • Grinsell’s Wood
  • Ballaghtobin Estate
  • Batch 1 
  • Tree No. 09 
  • Bottle No. 3416

Tasting notes:
Caramel, light mahogany, woodland fragrances, blossom honey, vanilla, mocha, coffee, and hazelnut...develops with air to a more fragrant, citrus-laced nuttiness 
Spicy, nutty, oily, buttered toast, cloves, cinnamon...with a long peppery, toasty oak finish 
Nose with Water
A more refined nose: crème Brule, apple-drops, pear, mango, peach, vanilla, milk chocolate, floral, and even a touch of mint 
Palate with Water
Silky, oily palate and an understated toasty honey- nut with just a touch of cloves and a long, lingering mouth warming finish that showcases all of the above

“Grinsell’s Wood” Edition is just the first Dair Ghaelach batch with three more batches already in the pipeline:
  • Batch 2 of Dair Ghaelach is maturing in Midleton right now and should be ready, once Kevin and Billy are happy with the quality, sometime next year.
  • Batch 3 oak is currently air drying in Jerez.
  • Batch 4 oak was recently felled and is probably in Spain right now. 
The forestry reserves for the second and third batches remain a closely guarded secret, but it is by now common knowledge that the location of the oak for the fourth batch was Ballykilcavan Forest in Co. Laois.
“With the recent resurgence in plantation, only now has it been viable for us to consider Irish Oak in the maturation of our whiskeys while ensuring that the oak reserves can be enjoyed by generations to come.”

 - Kevin O’Gorman, Master of Maturation
“The process of maturing in native oak has enabled us to showcase our Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey style in a new and innovative way; the casks impart much more generous toasted wood, vanilla and caramel flavours than what we expect from American bourbon and Spanish oak, which we hope whiskey lovers will appreciate and enjoy.”
 - Billy Leighton, Master Blender

  1. “Nature in Ireland, A Scientific and Cultural History” by Eoin Neeson, edited by John Wilson Foster (1997) 
  2. Teagasc website accessed on 1st Dec 2015: 

  3. “Malting The Barley, John H Bennett, The Man and his Firm” by Trevor West (2006) 

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Irish Oak & Midleton Dair Ghaelach - Part II

See also

To recap, Eric Ryan, of Midleton Distillery and the Irish Whiskey Society, has been recounting the history of Irish oak. Eric's full bio is available on Part I of this article.

(Eric will host an Irish Whiskey Society tasting in Cork on Wednesday examining the influence of oak on Midleton's pot still whiskeys.)

When we left off, the English had decided our thick forests were both an administrative hindrance and a handy resource for shipbuilding. The Irish oak's fate was sealed...

Irish Oak & Midleton Dair Ghaelach - Part II

by Eric Ryan

By the beginning of the 17th century, Fynes Moryson, the same gentleman who commented that Irish Uisqebaugh, the forerunner to Irish whiskey, “is held the best in the world of that kind, which is made also in England, but nothing so good as that whisch is brought out of Ireland” admitted to “having found in my long journey from Armagh to Kinsale few or no woods by the way, except the great woods of Ofaly, and some low shrubby places which they call Glins”. 1

Boate noted in his Natural History of Ireland that “the great woods which the maps do represent to us upon the mountains between Dundalk and the Newry are quite vanished, there being nothing left of them these many years since, but only one tree standing close by the highway, at the very top of one of the mountain, so as it may be seen a great way off, and therefore serveth travellers for a mark.

Irish forestry was now down to total land coverage of approximately 12%. Even so, it was estimated in 1606 that the ancient Shillelagh Woods, which once covered all of the hills and valleys of south Wicklow, could furnish the Crown with timber for shipping and other uses for the following twenty years.

Following the wars of rebellion, there was further demand on remaining native forestry by the growth of Irish industry e.g. tanning, building, coopering, glass- making, and iron smelting. Boate commented that “it is incredible what quantity of charcoal is consumed by one iron-work in a year.” Richard Boyle, the well-known Earl of Cork who had once noted in his diary of 20th March, 1617 what was in all probability the first recorded export of whiskey or ‘Choice Aquavite’ to America, was reputed to have made £100,000, a colossal sum at the time, by means of his iron-works alone.

According to McCracken (1971), the forests of Cork and Kerry “were used to cask nearly all the wine that France (and to a lesser extent) Spain would produce”. Philip Cottingham’s 1608 report to the Crown had also noted that oaks were instead being used, contrary to law, to make staves for barrels. In complete reversal to the trade of today, Ireland was a net exporter of oak barrel staves throughout the 17th century.

When the Great Fire of 1666 burned London to the ground, one of the curiosities of this disaster was that Irish oak was used extensively to rebuild the city. Soon after, a law was passed prohibiting the use of wood for the building of houses in Dublin. This measure may have been initiated to protect Dublin from the same flaming fate or perhaps to conserve limited oak stocks. Whatever the motivation during this turbulent time, the laws of supply and demand would have dictated a steep price increase for the already-expensive oak and a corresponding increase in oak felling to serve the black market.

There was a four-fold increase in the population of Ireland between 1700 and 1840 that was to dramatically increase the demand for wood as fuel, shelter and as a raw material for all kinds of booming industry. Despite some government efforts to stem the tide, the destruction of Ireland’s remaining forestry continued and the country became, for the first time, a net importer of wood, timber, staves and barrels.

Back from the Brink - Reforestation Efforts

In 1698 half-hearted efforts were finally made to protect forestry stocks in Ireland, when legislation was introduced by William III to encourage the growing of more trees. Succeeding regimes, until well into the 18th century, enacted various strands of largely ineffective legislation.

By 1765 Irish tenants, rather than their landlords, became entitled to the trees, or value of the trees, that they had planted. This had a marked effect on the number of trees planted over the succeeding decades. Afforestation and principles of forestry management become a minor craze of the time and Irish landlords as well as their tenants began devoting much time to planting, seeding and growing.

By 1794, Samuel Hayes, a member of the Irish House of Commons and a founding member of the Botanical Gardens in Dublin, had published a book ‘A Practical Treatise on Planting, and the Management of Woods and Coppices’.

His efforts further stimulated a revived interest in forestry that lasted another hundred years. It is estimated that between 1766 and 1806 some 25 million trees were planted and it was these efforts that provide many of the mature specimens that we enjoy in Ireland today. 2

A Series of Setbacks

Land league agitation from 1879 included the mutilation of trees as part of the nationwide protests. The deprived peasantry viewed forestry not as a valuable asset, but rather as another means of depriving them of the use of land that they claimed was rightfully theirs.

The passing of the Wyndham Land Act in 1903 effectively killed off the “Landlordism” culture in agricultural Ireland. Government loans were advanced to tenants to purchase their land at reasonable terms, facilitating the transfer of about 9 million acres up to 1914.

Landlords hastily felled forestry to generate revenue before the final transfers of ownership. The new owners often continued the destructive felling process so as, much like the plantation settlers of previous centuries, to recoup the costs of purchase and provide more cleared land to farm.

Almost 880 sawmills were in operation around this time, with numerous travelling sawmills completing the devastation. Woodland cover fell to an all-time low of approximately 1.5%, with the remaining areas being of very poor quality.

World War I signaled the absolute low point for forestry coverage in this country. Shortages during the war accelerated the felling of mature trees, and so reduced the extent of Irish forests planted during the previous century. By the end of the Great War, just 1% of Irish land was now under forest.

The 100 Year Fightback

Even though the First World War interrupted efforts, State sponsored forestry began in earnest near the dawn of the twentieth century, with the acquisition of the woodland areas of some estates and the purchase in 1903 of Avondale House in Co. Wicklow as a forestry training centre.

In the 1920’s, modest afforestation efforts were made by the new government of the Irish Free State.

Within twenty years however, severe timber shortages during World War II (1939 - 1945) was to amplify the dire forestry situation in Ireland.
“Soon after the War, Sean McBride, as leader of Clann na Poblachta, introduced a vastly expanded planting target of 25,000 acres per-year, signifying the nation’s first real long-term forest policy.” 3
In 1973, Ireland had joined the European Economic Community (EEC), later to become known as the European Union. By the end of that decade, EU support for private forestry development helped Ireland to record the largest and most rapidly expanding forest area per capita in Europe. By the 1980’s woodland cover stood at approximately 5% of the overall land area of the country.

In 1996, the Irish government published ‘Growing for the Future’, outlining a strategic plan for the development of the forestry sector well into the next century. Objectives included more emphasis on the multi-benefit aspects of forests, and increased species diversity, including broadleaves.

Oak trees grow very slowly at about one foot per year, reach up to forty metres high, live for hundreds of years and take 120-140 years to mature. The significance of these focused Government objectives has been that native broadleaf species, such as oak, are being planted in higher numbers than at any time since the start of the Free State afforestation programme in the 1920s. These demanding tree species are increasing in number as tree planting moves from the mountains to the valleys – a direct result of the grants and support structures becoming more viable for farmers in particular.

There has been, since 1996, a significant increase in broadleaf planting. Broadleaf afforestation was almost 20% of the total Irish forestry in 1995, up from an average of 2 – 3% in the 1980’s, but accounted for nearly 38% of new planting in 2010.

In a far cry from the situation of 1% woodland cover after World War I, Ireland now has circa 11% of the country under forest cover with, due to improved grant schemes, an ever-increasing broadleaf forestry ratio that includes oak. The 2012 National Forestry Inventory showed there to be 16,850 hectares of oak woodland in Ireland, although this is shown to be growing by 2.4% per year thanks to the sustainability planting scheme that is supported by the Irish Government.

  1. A Description of Ireland, by Fynes Moryson (1600 – 1603) 

  2. Communities and Forest Management in Western Europe, by Sally Jeanrenaud, IUCN (2001)
  3. Forestry Focus Website accessed on 7th Dec 2015: forestry/forestry-since-tudor-times/

Monday, 7 December 2015

Irish Oak & Midleton Dair Ghaelach - Part I

See also

One of the highlights of 2015 was the release of Midleton Dair Ghaelach, a single pot still whiskey finished in Irish oak casks. Just today, Whisky Advocate magazine declared it their Irish Whiskey of the Year.

It's also the topic of the very first guest post on Liquid Irish! The author, Eric Ryan, works in Midleton as a distillery operative - currently as a Still-man - and also as a production ambassador for Irish Distillers. He completed brewing & distilling studies with the Institute of Brewing & Distilling and with Heriot-Watt university in Edinburgh (where his thesis was "Intrinsic Whiskey Character: the influence of Oak Wood").

He serves on the committee of the Irish Whiskey Society and helps to run its Cork Chapter (usually meeting on the last Wednesday of each month).

He attends University College Cork on occasion as an evening lecture, presenting on the subject of Irish whiskey and Irish distilling history.

The following exploration of the story of Irish oak and its influence on the new Midleton whiskey will be published in several instalments.

If reading about the whiskey makes you thirsty, you have the opportunity to taste Midleton Dair Ghaelach in Cork with Eric Ryan himself on December 16th.

Over to Eric...

Irish Oak & Midleton Dair Ghaelach - Part I

by Eric Ryan

Midleton “Dair Ghaelach” Grinsell's Wood Edition is a recent addition to the ever-expanding Single Pot Stills of Midleton Range. This is the Irish whiskey that was judged as one of the top three whiskeys in the world by whiskey writer Jim Murray in the 2016 edition of his well respected Whiskey Bible, the world's leading whiskey guide.

“Dair Ghaelach” translates as “Irish Oak”, and it is our native oak, and the lamentable story behind it, that results in a whiskey that makes such a distinguished and lasting impression. The ancient legends of this land and the history of Irish forestry provide a fascinating backdrop to the story of Midleton “Dair Ghaelach”.

The Oak Tree and the Celts

Said to have fallen sometime before 600AD, Eo Mugna was one of the five legendary trees of Ireland and was reputedly a majestic oak that bore apples, acorns and hazelnuts.

With the arrival of Christianity, Celtic veneration for this oak transferred into Irish folklore with Eo Mugna now said to have been descended from the Tree of Knowledge, found in the Garden of Eden.

With oral traditions like this, it is no surprise to learn that the ancient Celts believed oak trees to be very sacred. Within the Gaelic tribes, respect for trees was practically universal.
“Out of 16,000 town lands in Ireland, 13,000 were named in one way or another after trees.” 1
Mayo, Roscommon, Derry, Newry, Trim, Roscrea, Adare, Kildare, Kilcullen, Cratloe, Youghal, and Clonakilty are examples of Irish place names derived from the name of a tree or a wood. Root words expressive of woods, forests and trees include coil/coillte (wood); daire/daur (oak); coll (hazel); cuileann (holly); sail (willow); iúir/eo (yew), trom (elder) and beithe (birch).

Bretha na Comaithchesca (Law of the Neighbourhood) was an eight century Celtic document that served to protect woodland and regulate wood use. Under Brehon Law, strict fines were imposed if trees of certain value were cut down or damaged without permission.

Legal protection for trees was documented in a poem of the same century, Ma be rí rofesser, from the law tract Críth Gablach which reads: “A danger from which there is no escape is the penalty for felling a sacred tree” (translation D. A. Binchy).

The Celts had four sets of classification for trees:

  1. Airig Fedo (Nobles of the Wood): oak, hazel, holly, yew, ash, apple

  2. Aithig Fedo (Commoners of the Wood): alder, willow, hawthorn, birch, elm, wild cherry

  3. Fodla Fedo (Lower Divisions of the Wood): blackthorn, elder, juniper, spindle, whitebeam

  4. Iosa Fedo (Bushes of the Wood): bracken, gorse, bramble, heather, wild rose
Of all the Airig Fedo, the oak tree was considered the "King of the Forest" and a symbol of knowledge. The Celts believed that oak trees provided a door to the Otherworld and that doors made of oak would ward off evil spirits. In Irish mythology the oak was the sacred tree of An Dagda, the Father God and protector of the tribe, which gave shelter to all of pure heart.

As a symbol of this Celtic veneration, many place names in Ireland are called after the oak tree, or Dair, as it is called in Irish. Examples include; Kildare or Cill Dara: translating loosely to 'Church of the Oak', Adare or Ath-Dara: the ford of the oak tree, Derrynane or Doire-Fhionan: the oak grove of St. Finan, Portumna or Portomna: the landing place of the oak, and Durrow or Dearmhagh: the field of the oaks.

Columcille was said to have built a church on the site where Derry is situated today.
“He supposedly built a church there in the middle of the sixth century. However he was so attached to the forest of oak trees that stood on the site that he would not allow even one to be felled to make room for his buildings.” 2
These adored trees gave the place its name. Doire or Daire, meaning an oak wood or an island covered by oak trees, later became anglicised to Derry.

Large areas of Ulster were at that time covered in woods. In north Armagh, there are folk memories of these ancient woods. It was said that "a bird could hop or a man could walk on the top of the trees all the way from Toome to Coleraine".
“The Annals of the Four Masters abound in references to the ancient woods of Ireland, which prove that in a great part of the country a dominant characteristic of the social system of ancient Ireland was the forest life of the people.” 3
As this story unfolds however, we will see that, due in large part to war and rebellion, the tragic fate of the “Protector of the Tribe” is destined to mirror that of the indigenous Celtic people.

Irish Oak – A Turbulent History

For 9,000 years, post-glacial wild woodland covered approximately 80% of Ireland. The authentic landscape of Ireland is western Atlantic temperate rainforest and, without human interference, the country today would still be a dense blanket of ancient forest.

Between five and six thousand years ago, the hunter-gatherer Mesolithic people were joined by Neolithic farmers, and since agricultural living requires land clearing and permanent settlements, the decline of Ireland’s forest cover began.

Nevertheless, Ireland remained largely under ancient forestry around the time of the Norman invasions from 1169. It was under the Normans that this country became a source of timber for the building of castles, roads, bridges and dwellings in England.
“It was from the fair green of Oxmantown, once covered with woods that extended westward over the whole of what is now the Phoenix Park, that William Rufus drew the timber around 1097 for the roof of Westminster Hall, where, as the chronicle of Dr. Hanmer has it, no English spider webbeth or breedeth to this day.” 4
Nevertheless, little attempt was made, for up to three centuries after the arrival of the English in Ireland, to encroach to any serious extent upon the native forest reserves of the Irish inhabitants, though a Statute of Edward I, passed in 1296, did contain a largely ineffective clause which was designed to provide highways through the country.

During the rule of Elizabeth I (1558 – 1603), when bitter rebellion in Ireland was widespread, there was a proverb that ‘the Irish will never be tamed while the leaves are on the trees’ 4, meaning that the winter was the only time in which the woods could be entered by an army with any hope of success.

Elizabeth I, in an effort to deprive Irish insurgents of safety and shelter, whilst at the same time sourcing much needed timber for construction and galley building, ordered the complete destruction of forestry in Ireland.

A report submitted to the Crown in 1608 by Philip Cottingham stated that the country was abounding in timber, mainly ‘noble oaks’ fit for the purposes of shipbuilding. The English sea trading network had begun to widen from the 1550’s and thousands of mature oak trees were required to build each of the Elizabethan Galleon’s and merchant ships required to defend Britain from the marauding Spanish Armada of 1588.

Many of the famous hulking timber battleships, that defended Britain in this hour of need, were built of Irish oak.
“A 74-gun ship consumed about two thousand large trees of about two tons each, the equivalent of clearing about fifty acres of well grown woodland”. 5
Royal ships were by 1600 routinely sailing to the Americas and into the Mediterranean, on voyages of trade or privateering, and the first attempts were being made to break into the valuable spice trade in Asia. The demand for these voyages contributed further to the steady and rapid decline of Irish forestry.

It wasn’t only Crown ships that were being built with Irish oak. “The Irish build very good ships,” said Sir Arthur Chichester, the Lord Deputy of Ireland from 1605 to 1616, who also noted that many English merchants preferred to have their vessels made in this country of Irish oak.

Sir Arthur Chichester was the very man who granted the first licenses to distill in Ireland, one of which was awarded to Sir Thomas Phillips in April 1608 to cover the “countie of Colrane, otherwise called O Cahanes countrey, or within the territorie called the Rowte, in Co. Antrim”.

Sir Thomas Phillips and the well-connected Earl of Salisbury were to hatch a cunning plan to persuade the powerful and prosperous City of London to fund a proper plantation in north western Ireland. With the blessing of the King, the unconvinced City fathers agreed to accompany Sir Thomas Phillips on a visit to the area. Requiring reassurances that their investments would pay off, they were suitably impressed by the vast swathes of valuable oak forestry.

Due largely to the vast resources of oak forests still in Ireland, a consortium of London City merchant companies, in return for certain privileges, duly contracted with the Crown to carry out the plantation of Derry, Coleraine County and the barony of Loughinsholin.

The Ulster plantations began in earnest around 1609 with a steady influx of Scottish and English settlers spreading across the country and proceeding to fell woodland at an incredible rate. So profitable was timber that it was often the case that the amount for which an estate was bought was recovered in full, thus, as a saying of the time went, ‘making the feathers pay for the goose’.

This clearance of large tracts of woodland was to change the landscape of Ireland forever.

  1. Ireland’s Medieval Woodland: An Archaeological Approach to Understanding Long Term Patterns of Wood Use, Management and Exploitation, by Susan Lyons, Department of Archaeology, UCC, The Boolean (2014) 

  2. The Siege of Derry – A History, by Carlo Gebler (2005) 

  3. The Woods of Ireland, by Caesar Litton Falkiner in Illustrations of Irish History and Topography: Mainly of the Seventeenth Century, Green, (1904) 

  4. Ancient Irish Histories, Dr. Meredith Hanmer's and Henry Marleburrough's Chronicles of Ireland (1570), Edited by Sir James Ware in 1633, Reprinted in 1970 

  5. The Critical Review, Or Annals of Literature, Volume the Sixtieth, by A Society of Gentlemen, Printed for A Hamilton (1781) 

Stay tuned for Part II...