Thursday, 30 October 2014

Midleton Very Rare 30th Anniversary Pearl Edition

For three decades now, Midleton Very Rare has marked the passage of time with an annual vintage release. To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the first bottling in 1984, Irish Distillers has produced a very, very rare Midleton Very Rare Pearl Edition. It's a collaboration between Master Distillers present and former, Brian Nation and Barry Crockett, the bottle carrying the signatures of both.

Back in 1984, the new Midleton distillery had been producing for just nine years, so the first Midleton VR was relatively young (the latest edition, in contrast, contains components between 15 and 22 years old). The concept for Pearl, according to Barry, was to ask how that first edition might have developed had it continued to age for 30 years.

Barry Crockett, Master Distiller Emeritus, raising a glass of Midleton Pearl

From the very limited inventory of 30-plus year old casks that Midleton retains, Barry chose a pot still cask from 1984, while Brian selected a grain cask from 1981. These were were then married in a fourth-fill bourbon cask for 6 months. ("Fourth-fill" means the fourth time the distillery has filled the cask. Midleton normally retires a cask after three fills because the wood no longer contributes to maturation. For marrying these two whiskeys, however, a negligible effect from the wood was exactly what was required.)

Evaporation loss over three decades, along with bottling at the cask strength of 53.1%, meant that there was only enough liquid to fill 117 bottles.

Brian Nation, Master Distiller

Introducing the new whiskey at the launch dinner, Barry Crockett likened Midleton Very Rare to a symphony, each vintage being a variation on a theme, with Pearl the closing movement.

Let's riff on Barry's musical metaphor for a while, and see where it takes us. Your regular Midleton Very Rare is a set of gentle variations on a theme of vanilla and toasted oak (contributed by the exclusive use of ex-bourbon casks, mostly first- and second-fill). It's technically accomplished, with all the notes in the right place, but also unassuming, not intruding on the foreground of your attention unless you invite it to. It's a Haydn symphony, such as Lyric FM might stick on outside of rush hour when listeners are less distracted.




Is Midleton Pearl another movement in the same symphony? I'm not even sure it's the same composer. Those extra years in cask have seen out the Classical era and ushered in that of the Romantics. We have added another 30 instruments to the orchestra, doubled down on the strings and filled out the bass staves with room-trembling low notes. We're enveloped in a lushly arranged melody, with emotion and memory prodded by a colourful, dynamic soundscape.

This whiskey leaps from the glass with a rich, deep embrace of the senses. The official tasting notes are below but the age tells on the nose as beeswax or, as Master Blender Billy Leighton put it to me, as polished sideboard. (In our orchestra, Billy is, perhaps, first violin - the leader - ensuring that all instruments are in tune before the music begins.)

The antique character is prominent, but don't think of the mustiness we associate with old pot still whiskeys from silent distilleries. Midleton Pearl is rich and vibrant on the nose and palate.

After a long finish, right at the end, the vanilla and toasted oak theme returns as the music fades away.

You may have guessed that I like this whiskey but you might also fairly suspect me of succumbing to the ambience of the launch event. The whiskey was served in a Waterford Crystal tumbler, after a candlelit dinner prepared by Ballymaloe chefs, in Warehouse No. 8 of the Old Midleton Distillery, in the company of the various Masters. If there is any environment that would predispose one to rave about a whiskey, this is it.

I still claim, however, that it is the finest Irish whiskey I've ever tried. I can't afford the price tag of €6,000 for a bottle but if there had been an option to trade €300 for a second glass, I'd have taken it.


If you do have the means, the 117 bottles (well, 116 now) have been allocated for sale in Ireland, the UK, France, Germany and China (I was amazed to discover that 20 bottles are destined for China).

Naturally the presentation is something rather special. The bottles are handmade by Jerpoint Glass Studio in Kilkenny (I've mentioned Jerpoint before). Each box contains a 700ml bottle and a hand-blown 50ml miniature that allows the whiskey to be tasted without cracking open the larger bottle. (I really hope, though, that Pearl finds its way to people who love whiskey and will drink it.)

The oak cases were crafted in County Wexford, from wood supplied by the Shanes Castle Estate in County Antrim.

Encore

I occasionally taste a whiskey from a long-vanished distillery. It's a bittersweet experience, knowing I can never revisit it, mixed with some guilt for assisting in its extinction. It's likely I won't renew my acquaintance with Pearl either but I'm optimistic that a whiskey just as good, or better, will eventually come my way.

There was a massive clear out of casks in Midleton in the 1980s and early 1990s to allow a fresh start under a stricter wood management policy. As a consequence there is very little in the warehouse that stretches back 30 years. But the pipeline is filling up again.

There have been a succession of whiskeys from Midleton in recent years that have excited me: Redbreast 15yo, Powers John's Lane 12yo, Yellow Spot 12yo, Redbreast 21yo. On the evidence of Pearl, Midleton distillery is just getting warmed up. Not only does its spirit continue to improve as it ages, the recent expansion means it now has the production headroom to relieve pressure on ageing stock. The handful of distillate styles that Midleton was producing in the 1980s has been augmented since then, and the extra capacity will allow a lot more experimentation in that regard.

So I'm not going to think of Midleton Pearl as the final movement of a symphony. Instead I regard it as an overture, a taster of extraordinary delights to come.

Official tasting notes
Nose
The initial fresh herbal notes of crushed garden mint and rosemary, are a testament to the quality of the ex-bourbon barrels in which this whiskey has rested for many years. Soft honey sweetness along with beeswax shows its antique character, while hints of gingerbread combine with toasted oak to compliment some pot still spices. 
Taste
The soft silky mouth coating is initially honey sweet, then the fresh herbal flavours follow through with a touch of menthol. The spicy notes concentrate, staying sweet with cinnamon and liquorice before the toasted oak adds to the complexity. 
Finish
The succulence of the herbs and spices is very slow to fade.


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 and Shane Long. Photo courtesy of Burrell Marketing and Publicity.

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:
Nose 
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. 
Taste 
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. 
Finish
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:
Nose
Wealth of pot still spices of cinnamon and clove, all softened with a touch of milk chocolate and green tea. 
Taste
Initial all spice flavours resolve to spiced honey on a background of hazelnut. A dusting of pepper settling back to a grapefruit finish. 
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:
Nose
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. 
Taste
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. 
Finish
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:
Nose
Some gentle smoke, then tropical fruit, baked apples, oak, sweet lemons and sack cloth. Quite powerful. 
Taste
Powerful with nice smokiness at full strength. Bittersweet fruit flavours, sappy oak with some vanilla, toast, cooked apples and spice. 
Finish
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.