Friday, 10 July 2015

Kalak Vodka

Vodka Martini
One part vermouth
Seven parts Kalak vodka
A strip of lemon peel
A stick of cinnamon
A week ago I had yet to taste my first martini. Now I'm ready to elbow James Bond aside at the bar to demand it be made just so.

Until recently I had the usual whiskey drinker's prejudice about vodka: that all the flavour had been intentionally distilled out of it. But the recipe above goes light on the vermouth, leaving Kalak to carry the martini. Which it does, easily. Kalak is a vodka with substance.


The big vodka brands (Grey Goose and Absolut, for example) are typically made from wheat. A couple of weeks ago I was standing in fields of winter wheat just north of Dublin wondering why an Irish vodka would use anything else.

According to Kalak's founder, Patrick Shelley, it's all about the character of the finished product. Malted barley delivers that in spades, wheat doesn't. Kalak is made solely from malted barley and water, and is distilled in pot stills. The same jumping off point as single malt whiskey, as it happens.

The kinship with whiskey is apparent on the nose and on the tongue. If you have tried new make whiskey, straight from the still, you will recognise Kalak.

It does not have the rawness of new make whiskey, however, having been distilled to a purity of 96%. It takes three passes through a pot still to reach that point. A further distillation reduces congeners and improves the flavour. Finally, it is filtered through charcoal and cut with spring water to a bottling strength of 40%.

The process is simple to describe but it has taken Patrick 2½ years to get to the point of launching Kalak. Two years alone was spent perfecting the spirit.

The resulting mouthfeel is remarkable. So soft it's ethereal. Pure flavour wafting over the tastebuds.

Official tasting notes:
Nose
Freshly baked brioche, vanilla and fresh fruit. 
Taste
A deliciously elegant texture with hints of dark chocolate, cream and candied fruit. 
Finish
A soft and glowing lingering complexity.

Kalak is 100% Irish in every respect. It's an Irish brand, made by the fully Irish-owned West Cork Distillers, from 100% Irish malted barley. The name, too, is Irish in disguise, derived from a mythological figure, An Cailleach, whose legendary qualities and accoutrements suffuse the branding.

It goes for about €44 and is so far available in James Fox and the Celtic Whiskey Shop (Dublin city centre), Redmonds (Ranelagh), Jus de Vine (Portmarnock) and Eldon's (Clonmel).


By the glass

It's also pouring in at least one of Dublin's top cocktail bars, Upstairs @ Kinara Kitchen. That's where I encountered the Kalak martini, devised by Kinara's Paul Lambert.

Paul is some kind of hypnotist, apparently, because he turned me into a cocktail drinker. After kicking off the evening with the martini, I had two more insanely tasty concoctions that did not frighten the palate of this die-hard whiskey drinker. I'd gladly have any one of them again, something I have never before said of a cocktail.

I always wondered what 007 was thinking, alternating whiskey and martinis. But he knew what he was doing. Now, where can a guy find a game of Chemin de Fer in this town?

Monday, 29 June 2015

Tullamore Dew Cider Cask Finish

"More apples, dammit!" 
The Director of Product Strategy paused to chomp deeply on a Cox's Orange Pippin. 
"We've made whiskey that smells of apple. We've served it up with apple juice. We're really close on this, people. We just need a touch more apple."
...

That is how I imagine the challenge was laid out for the boffins at Tullamore Dew HQ last summer. The solution they came up with: the cider finish.

About 100 casks were assembled near the end of October in a warehouse in Clonmel. They were filled with freshly pressed Irish apple juice which was allowed to ferment naturally. The resulting cider was decanted in mid-January and replaced with already-blended Tullamore Dew Original whiskey. After a further three months finishing, here it is: Tullamore Dew Cider Cask.


It's available exclusively in global travel retail (it's already at Dublin Airport) and at the Tullamore Dew Visitor Centre in Tullamore. It comes in one-litre bottles for a recommended retail price of €54 (€35 duty free).

Sour apples (or cooking apples, as we know them around here) were selected for the cider, to play well against the whiskey. How did it work out? The official tasting notes emphasise the apple:
Nose 
Fresh, leafy, crisp green apple scent and sweet maltiness. 
Taste 
Distinctive – soft and mellow, with a lovely balance of oak, creamy malt and sweet, fresh apple notes. Light-bodied, with a fruity vibrancy. 
Finish 
A sweet, lingering taste carrying subtle fruity notes.
But apple is not the most prominent aspect for me. Putting it alongside Tullamore Dew Original (they are both 40% so the only difference is the extra few months in cider cask), the nose for me is a lot more honeyed, the mouthfeel more buttery and the finish warmer and biscuity. The Original still pokes through so if you like that you should enjoy the Cider Cask too.

I'd like to taste the cider effect on more rounded starting point, like Tullamore Dew 12yo. The Original is young and shouty enough that it doesn't lie down easily. The tart cider has proved surprisingly self-effacing.

The cider, by the way, hasn't been wasted. It's currently enjoying a secondary ("malolactic") fermentation in a huge vat at a cider maker I can't name. I sampled a little. It's still quite acidic but it'll probably appear as a component in some future bottled cider.

If the Cider Cask finish proves popular, this will be an annual release. I certainly hope the experimentation continues, perhaps with other varieties of apple, different whiskeys, or further ageing. More apples!

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

An Púcán / Teeling Single Cask Single Malt

The revival of Irish whiskey is usually quantified as the number of working and planned distilleries. One indicator I'd like to hear is the number of whiskey bars in Ireland, where a "whiskey bar" would have a minimum of, say, 100 whiskeys on the shelf. (And, of course, bar staff who can explain the virtues of each.)

The supply of whiskey is assured into the distant future but we have hardly begun to stimulate a matching demand. As the fresh spirit is laid down, we need to be forging new whiskey drinkers ready to soak it up.

The small craft producers will need a local fan base to support their work in the early days and to act as unpaid evangelists at home, abroad and on social media. The responsibility for recruiting this volunteer army rests with the bars of Ireland.

Some have already embraced the task. An Púcán, in the centre of Galway city, for example.

Photo courtesy of An Púcán
I haven't been in Galway since the bar was relaunched in June last year but, as I understand it, this is the standard welcome for first-time visitors...

Eoin. Photo courtesy of An Púcán
The bar stocks over 200 whiskeys. The emphasis is on Irish but Scotland, America, Japan and others are accorded generous shelf space too. During the Rugby Six Nations, the pub brought in whiskeys from each country and held tasting battles. Customers can enjoy food matched with whiskey or attend whiskey-related events such as a recent talk on The History of Distilling in Galway.

An Púcán has considerable whiskey cred, obviously. But they recently kicked it up one more notch with their very own whiskey. It's a single cask, single malt produced especially for the pub by the Teeling Whiskey Company.

Photo courtesy of An Púcán
It was distilled in 2002, spending most of its life in a bourbon cask before being transferred to a Carcavelos white port pipe for 12 months. To my knowledge it's the only Irish whiskey ever finished thus. It was bottled in March (making it 13 years old) at cask strength (56%) in a very limited edition of 140 bottles. It sells for €125, or €12.50 per measure at the bar.

The tasting notes on the bottle are:
Nose
White chocolate with citrus zest and a subtle fruit sweetness. 
Taste
Exceptional mouth feel - rich, warm and inviting. Lemon meringue, subtle soft spice with vanilla and toffee notes. 
Finish
Warm and satisfyingly long with gentle toasted oak and spice.
Cyril Briscoe, of An Púcán, very generously gave me a bottle to try. I liked it with a little water, which brought apples and strawberry jam out on the nose and enhanced that lingering gentle toasted oak.

It's a Teeling-labeled bottle with An Púcán branding. The small print additionally dubs the whiskey Revival. Teeling have literally revived distilling in Dublin but the tag can apply equally well to the renewed appreciation for whiskey shown by pubs like An Púcán and then instilled in the rest of us.


The back bar at An Púcán. Photo courtesy of An Púcán. 

One of many whiskey cabinets. Photo courtesy of An Púcán.

The coin wall. Photo courtesy of An Púcán.

The stairway to heaven. Photo courtesy of An Púcán.



Thursday, 4 June 2015

Green Spot Château Léoville Barton

If we were taking bets on the next "Spot" whiskey to follow Green Spot and Yellow Spot, the smart money would have favoured Red, with Blue attracting few takers at very long odds. I wish I had been running that book because Irish Distillers surprised all of us yesterday with a wine-finished Green Spot instead.

A few years ago the official line from Midleton distillery would have been "we don't do finishes". Last year, though, we had the beer-finished Jameson Caskmates, which was more of a happy accident than something planned. More recently we had the Midleton Dair Ghaelach, pot still whiskey transferred to Irish oak casks for the final 10 months of maturation. Again, that might be ascribed to special circumstances: the need to experiment with the new type of wood, the heavy effect of virgin oak, etc.

The new Green Spot Château Léoville Barton puts finishes firmly on the menu once and for all. It's regular Green Spot that has been vatted together from ex-oloroso sherry and ex-bourbon casks, then transferred to red wine barriques from a Bordeaux winery. After 12 to 24 months resting in these casks, Midleton's master blender, Billy Leighton, constructs the final bottling.

The new whiskey was launched at an event in Bordeaux layered with significance. The Spot range of pot still whiskeys was created by one of Dublin's traditional wine importers and whiskey bonders, Mitchell & Son, founded in 1805. It's still a family-run enterprise, with Robert and Jonathan Mitchell making the trip to Château Léoville Barton yesterday. The winery is also a family affair, overseen by Anthony and Lilian Barton, direct descendants of Irishman, Thomas Barton, who founded a wine merchant company there in 1725.

The new whiskey recalls and updates the historic links between Ireland and France, and between whiskey and wine production in the two countries.

The new Green Spot is bottled at a higher strength (46%) than the classic version (40%). It'll be available from this month in five markets ("including Ireland, the UK and France" - I don't know why they don't just list all five in the press release). RRP is €65. Depending on sales and the reaction from the whiskey community, it might become a permanent part of the single pot still range.

I'm very much looking forward to trying it. Here's what to expect, according to Kevin O’Gorman, Master of Maturation at the Midleton Distillery:
Maturing Green Spot in the Château Léoville Barton wine casks provided a fascinating assortment of floral and wood characteristics on the nose and palate, which give way to a long, spicy finish reminiscent of the terroir in France and Ireland.
The official tasting notes come from Master Blender, Billy Leighton:
Nose 
It is the contribution of the French oak which drives the initial aroma adding some crisp woodland notes to the spicy Single Pot Still character. The wine seasoning brings a delicate touch of floral perfume and a hint of ripe berries such as raspberries and strawberries, these are in addition to the orchard fruits typical of Green Spot. 
Taste 
The familiar mouth coating effect is a very satisfying balance of oak and spices. Some vanilla sweetness works in harmony with the dry wine influence, while the fresh orchard fruits and French oak combine effortlessly with barley grains to complete the complexity. 
Finish 
The rich French oak character is slow to fade leaving the wine and spices of France and Ireland with the last word.

Now, here's a fun serving suggestion. If you are passing through Terminal 1 at Dublin Airport, after you pick up your Green Spot at the Irish Whiskey Collection, check out the adjacent retail area, known as The Wine Goose Chase. This is a unique collection of wines with Irish connections curated by wine expert, Susan Boyle. (If the Irish wine story fascinates you, go see Susan's touring theatrical show on this very subject!)

On the shelves there you will find Château Léoville Barton's eponymous wine, along with La Reserve de Léoville Barton. It would be a fascinating experiment to try original Green Spot, the wine, and the wine-finished Green Spot side-by-side.

The Wine Goose Chase at Dublin Airport


Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Whiskey Class at the Dingle Whiskey Bar

One of the attractions of whiskey drinking as a lifelong pursuit is the sure knowledge there are always fresh flavours yet to be discovered. But the same infinite variety can be daunting when approaching whiskey for the first time.

Last week I was at the Dingle Whiskey Bar in Nassau Street, Dublin, for their weekly tasting event. If you live in the city and have been meaning to get better acquainted with the spirit, start freeing up your Tuesday evenings because the moment for action has arrived.


Mr Fionnán O'Connor has a residency there for the next while, and there is nobody on this island who speaks more enthusiastically or knowledgeably on the topic than the guy who literally wrote the book on Irish pot still whiskey. He also conducts the occasional all-day walking tour of Dublin, revealing the traces of a once-mighty whiskey industry, along with signs of its revival. He's both a friend and fellow member of the Irish Whiskey Society.

Each Tuesday, Fionnán plucks five bottles from the bar's shelves (there are currently 165 to choose from) to illustrate some aspect of whiskey making. When I was there, for example, the theme was the effect of cask seasoning on maturation. So we tried Redbreast 12yo (with its sherry cask influence), Tyrconnell 10yo Port Finish, Tyrconnell 10yo Madeira Finish, Tullamore Dew 10yo Single Malt (which combines bourbon, port, sherry and madeira casks) and Yellow Spot (which features malaga wine casks).

This week, the theme was the impact of oak. The varying line-up is a good excuse to return week after week. It's an education, painlessly administered.


Regardless of the selected theme, Fionnán will explain exactly what you are drinking, and how and where it was made, with historical digressions, literary references and potted bios of whiskey personalities. Ask him anything and you'll get an honest, unbiased answer. These tastings are not sponsored by any whiskey company and so are free of the marketing noise that often obscures and distracts.

It's €18 for each tasting, bookable online (you could also try showing up to see if there are seats free). I thoroughly recommend the experience and, if it sounds like your thing, try to catch at least one while Fionnán is hosting, before he moves on to other things.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

(What's not in) The Technical File - Part 3

I've been flipping through the Irish Whiskey Technical File in recent posts (part 1, part 2). The document is a map of the Irish whiskey landscape, compiled by the industry and its trade body, the Irish Whiskey Association. The Department of Agriculture endorsed it and lodged it with the EU. It's now a map with legal force, staking out territory defensible at home and abroad.

The rest of us should now ponder what we have signed up to. If we are to place our gunboats on standby, it should be in the service of something we believe in. That "Irish" in "Irish whiskey" belongs to all of us, and we should be sure it reflects the best of us.

Irish whiskey has been and is an excellent ambassador for this country. That said, there is room for a few improvements that the industry is unlikely to push through by itself.

Colouring

Irish whiskey is sometimes described as nothing but grain, water and time. That's an attractive, simple message. It comes with an asterisk, however:
 * may also contain E150a, also known as plain caramel colouring.
The technical file is up front about the use of colouring. Whiskey matured in wood naturally varies in colour so a small, variable amount of caramel is added to each batch to produce a consistent final tint for bottling.

It's done because consumers in some markets equate inconsistency with fakery. Since counterfeit alcohol can be poisonous, that's a fair concern.

The technical file calls the use of caramel a traditional practice, dating back to the 19th century.



There are two problems with the use of colouring:

  1. It undermines the authenticity of the product. If you would monkey with the colour of the whiskey after the fact, what else would you do? Consumers will never accept this practice as above board.
  2. Caramel is used by large well-known brands in small amounts, without affecting flavour, and this is the use case cited by the technical file. However this has opened the door to the heavy-handed use of caramel in minimally-aged whiskey to fake the appearance of something far older. This is not good for the reputation of Irish whiskey.

We have come a long way since the 19th century. Careful wood management and computer-controlled charring of casks must reduce the colour variation problem. The vatting together of a huge number of casks for the likes of Jameson, must also skew colour towards the average. I feel certain that the folks at Midleton - among the smartest in the business - can figure out how to eliminate the residual need for caramel.

On the retail side, there are packaging measures that would reassure consumers they have the genuine article in their hand.


Grain Origin

Part of the Irish self-image is that we are an agricultural nation with land suited for, among other things, growing grain. It's not an accident we've been making whiskey as long as we have. The raw material is abundantly available.

So the technical file surely guarantees that Irish whiskey is made from Irish grain grown by Irish farmers, correct? Nope. There is no requirement that any of the raw materials come from this island.

In practise, most of the barley used - malted and unmalted - is properly Irish. (The exception is peated malt which must be imported from Scotland since we don't (yet) have any maltsters willing to produce that).

Barley field. Image copyright Richard Webb.

At some point in recent decades, however, a brutally unsentimental decision was taken to feed the column stills with maize from the south of France. Our grain whiskeys and blends, therefore, are more than a bit French.

The long-defunct Irish Whiskey Act of 1950 made a gesture towards farmers, specifying that Pot Still Whiskey had to be distilled from "a mash of cereal grains such as are ordinarily grown in the State". The grain didn't have to be produced here (allowing for a duff harvest, perhaps?) but at least it could be. With maize we have dropped even the pretence of a native grain because we just don't have the sunshine to grow it here. (Though I have hopes.)

We could substitute Irish-grown wheat for maize. If we fudge the meaning of "Irish" in a protected term like "Irish whiskey", we devalue its meaning in other contexts too.


Mystery Whiskey

An EU geographical indication implies tradition, skill and quality. There shouldn't be anything vague about a well-crafted Irish whiskey. What is there to hide? I would like to see these two pieces of information on bottle labels:

  1. Ingredients: the grains used and caramel, if present.
  2. Where it was distilled. In a few years' time there will be dozens of low quality Irish whiskeys made under contract for private labels and released at close to minimum age. (With a suspiciously deep colour too, no doubt.) It's going to be a lot harder to tell the good stuff from bad by looking at the bottle. Consumers around the world can't be expected to know if the placename on the front corresponds to an actual distillery location or if it's just there to mislead. So make it clear.

Aim High

None of the above is unique to Irish whiskey. It applies equally well to Scottish whiskey. Wouldn't it be a nice point of differentiation to be able to say, for example: "Irish whiskey differs from scotch in that no additives are allowed and it must be made from locally-grown grain"?

There is an opportunity to decide what we want "Irish" to stand for, not just with regard to whiskey, but across all our endeavours. We should hold ourselves to the highest of standards.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Whiskey or Whisky? The Technical File - Part 2

The Irish Whiskey Technical File (see yesterday's article) takes no sides on the spelling question. Label it Irish Whiskey or Irish Whisky, according to your like or dislike of the letter e.

I think that's a mistake.

Yes, I know that up until little more than three decades ago, the non-e variant still had some currency in Ireland (Paddy Whisky was the last holdout). But then the one remaining distiller on the island standardised on whiskey and every Irish whiskey brand since then has embraced the convention.

It is a wonderful, accidental gift to marketers that should not be lightly relinquished. Those in the distilling business forget, I think, how mysterious and intimidating whiskey is to the uninitiated. What's it made from? How do you turn grain into alcohol? What does an age statement mean? What's the difference between bourbon and scotch? And so on.

The one tidbit of knowledge that people around the world find easy to latch on to is that Scotland spells it whisky but Ireland prefers whiskey. The to e or not to e thing appears in myriad forms in the headlines of hundreds of articles. It immediately establishes that Irish whiskey is somehow distinct from scotch. And it is a beachhead from which the curious can strike out to explore a new landscape.

There are already those in the Irish distilling game plotting to erase this fortunate distinction. Peter Mulryan of Blackwater Distillery has declared for the opposing side. Everything he says in that article is correct. Yes, it's pure marketing. But that's more than enough reason to preserve the e.


On a related topic, I would like to commend the hidden hand who added this line to the Technical File:
The customary term for the plural of Irish whiskey is "Irish whiskeys".
Yes! Not whiskies. That would be the plural of whisky. This shouldn't be news to anyone; we are just following the most routine conventions of English. But it's regularly stuffed up by all the distilleries in press releases and other marketing bumph. The Irish Times gets it wrong. The Irish Whiskey Society gets it wrong.

I often see both whiskies and whiskeys in the same piece, which proves it's not a conscious choice, just carelessness.

So, choose whisky or whiskey when you pick up your pen. But whichever one you select would you please confine yourself to the correct, corresponding plural. Thanks!