Tuesday 30 October 2007

Dublin Coopers Guild

The making of wooden barrels, or cooperage, was once a highly respected craft in Dublin city. Guinness alone employed hundreds of coopers to make and maintain the oak casks that carried the famous stout far and wide. Sadly, in the 1960s, a long tradition ended when metal casks displaced the older variety.

The various Dublin distilleries maintained substantial coopering departments too but whiskey production ceased completely in Dublin during the 1970s.

My grandfather (Mr Edward J. O'Reilly, pictured below) was employed as a cooper in Guinness and his father at the John's Lane distillery where Power's Whiskey was made. Coopering was a family business and carefully protected as such by the Coopers' Guild.

I have published some archive material on this site related to this historic guild. The Rules of the Society give some flavour of how a guild operated, how much control it exerted over the profession and how apprentices were inducted into the trade. The minutes of the final meeting of the Coopers' Guild in 1983 mark the end of an era for Dublin craft and industry.

Monday 29 October 2007

Dublin Coopers' Guild - Rules

The Regular Dublin Operative Coopers' Society (also known as the Guild of St. Patrick) was incorporated in 1501 and received its Royal Charter from Charles II in 1666.

The Rules of the Society give some flavour of how a guild operated, how much control it exerted over the profession and how apprentices were inducted into the trade.

Regular Dublin Operative Coopers' Society
22 Nth. Frederick Street, Dublin 1
Revised Rules, 1976

1. - Formation of the Society

The Society shall be known as the Regular Dublin Operative Coopers' Society, and it shall consist of men of approved character, who are competent workmen. The objects of the Society shall be to regulate the relations between its members, being Coopers, and their Employers, and to provide benefits to members in accordance with these Rules. The place of meeting for the business of the Society and the office to which communications and notices may be addressed shall be at 22 North Frederick Street, Dublin 1.

2. - Officers

The officers of the Society shall consist of a President (who shall also act as Treasurer), a Secretary, three Trustees for the Current Account, being the President, the Secretary, and one other member, and four Trustees for the Reserve Fund, two Auditors and a Council of five members.

3. - Election and Removal of Officers

The President, the Secretary, the Auditors and the Trustees for the Current Account and the Reserve Fund shall be elected every three years and by ballot. The Council and a delegate to the Dublin Council of Trade Unions shall be elected every two years and by ballot.

The nominations shall take place at the first Quarterly General Meeting of the relevant year.

Candidates for office shall be selected from amongst the benefit members of the General Body attending such meeting, the ballot shall take place as soon as possible afterwards.

In the event of a vacancy occurring on Council, the Council shall be empowered to fill such vacancy by co-option, at their discretion.

Any officer or member of the Council may be removed from office by a resolution passed on a ballot of the members of the Society by a majority of the members voting at a General Meeting.

4. - Duties of Reserve Fund Trustees

The Trustees, for the time being, of the Society shall have charge of all stocks in the Reserve Fund, which must be purchased and lodged in their names as Trustees of the Society. They shall sign all documents necessary for the withdrawal, transfer or sale of any stock or Reserve Fund which is the property of the Society on receipt of a letter signed by the President and Secretary of the Society stating that a General Meeting of the members had taken place and that they were instructed by a majority of those voting to request them to carry out the wishes of the meeting. All Trustees of the Society's Funds shall give up trust when called upon to do so by a resolution of a majority of the members voting at a General Meeting. In the event of any Trustee or Trustees resigning, dying or being removed from office, another or others shall be elected as aforesaid within one month from the date of the occurrence of a vacancy.

5. - Duties of President

The President shall attend all Meetings of the Society at the appointed hour. He shall preside at all Meetings, except Special Meetings at which he shall not preside unless requested to do so. He shall receive and pay out all moneys whenever necessary, and enter all receipts and payments in the cash book, get receipts for all payments, bank surplus cash, and pay walking men their benefit in accordance with Rule 10 of these Rules not later than 9.00pm on Tuesdays.

6. - Duties of Secretary

The Secretary shall attend all Meetings of the Society, take account of all moneys paid in, enter subscriptions, furnish members with their accounts quarterly, carry on all correspondence in connection with the Society, keep a correct record of all business transacted, and draw out a balance sheet to be submitted for audit at the expiration of each quarter.

7. - Duties and Powers of Council

The Council shall meet whenever summoned by the Secretary. Such meetings shall take place at least four times per annum, and prior to each Quarterly General Meeting.

Five members shall form a quorum, inclusive of the President and Secretary, all business to be submitted to them.

The business and affairs of the Society shall be managed by the Council and shall be conducted under the control and supervision of such Council, who shall, in addition to any powers by these Rules, specifically conferred on them, have power, in particular to direct the General Policy of the Society (subject to the General Meetings thereof) in all matters affecting the object for which the Society is established. Subject as aforesaid, the Council shall in all things act for and in the name of the Society, and every member shall at all times conform in all respects to all instructions given to him by the Council in pursuance of these Rules, and all acts or orders done or given by the Council in the name and on behalf of the Society under any power by these rules given to them shall bind every member as fully as if they had been acts or orders of a majority of the benefit members of the Society at a General Meeting thereof.

8. - Auditors and Audit Meetings

The Auditors shall audit the books quarterly within a fortnight after the quarterly nights, and at any time it may be considered necessary to do so. They shall act with any other Auditors who may be appointed by a General Meeting for a special audit. They shall inspect the Collectors' books, check the Secretary's and President's books, see all receipts for moneys paid out, inspect the Bank Book and all documents connected with any funds which are the property of the Society, and affix their names as Auditors to the quarterly report of the income and expenditure.

They shall also send forward the names of any defaulters, and shall state their respective outstanding amounts to the Quarterly General Meetings.

9. - General Meetings

Four Quarterly General Meetings shall be held in each year, all business of the Society being referred to such meetings. The Chair shall be taken at 8.00 p.m. sharp.

10. Subscriptions and Checks Benefits

The weekly subscriptions of each member shall be £0.50p unless in the case of a member making a special arrangement with the Council, and should circumstances arise whereby the expenditure of the Society would be increased, an additional sum shall be levied, such sum being fixed by a General Meeting called by the Council.

Members who have to work abroad, when no work is available here, shall pay the full subscription and levy to this Society less any amount paid to any local Coopers' Society where he is employed. Proof of amount paid to any other Trade Union must be provided.

Members in receipt of full pay while off sick, inclusive of State Benefit are not entitled to checks.

Members who leave the City of Dublin except for the purpose of seeking employment at cooperage are not entitled to checks.

Any member who voluntarily follows another occupation while work as a cooper is to be had in the City of Dublin ceases to be a member of the Society, and is not entitled to checks.

Members entitled to checks must make a claim for such at least every four weeks, as claims for more will not be entertained at any one time.

The sum of £5.00 per week for a period not exceeding 15 weeks in any year shall be paid to any member who, being in benefit, becomes disemployed through slackness of work and who cannot obtain the earnings of 30% of the basic rate agreed by the Society. Any further grants shall be made only at the discretion of the General Body.

Any member waiting for employment while work is to be had in Dublin is not entitled to walking money or checks.

Any member being in benefit and seeking employment in any part of Great Britain or Ireland shall receive three weeks Walking money in advance provided there is no prospect of work in the City of Dublin.

Any member secreting earnings at his trade, in excess of 30% of the basic rate agreed by the Society, while drawing walking money will be deprived of walking money for one month.

Subject to any nominations made under the provisions of the Trade Union Amendment Act 1876, the representatives of a member who dies in benefit shall be entitled to receive the sum of £40 (forty pounds) for his interment, less all sums, if any, according to Rule 13, that may at the time be due by the deceased to the funds of the Society.

11. - Dispute Benefit

In the event of a trade dispute the amount of the benefit and its duration shall be fixed by a Committee to be appointed by the General Body.

12. - Members Leaving Employment

Before leaving an employment, working piece or day-work, all journeymen shall give one week's notice of their intention to do so, and all employers shall in like manner give similar notice to members of the Society before they are discharged.

Members receiving notice of disemployment must notify the Secretary on the following Tuesday night. All members shall receive at least one full week's work. Benefit members shall receive preferential treatment in the matter of the employing and discharging of men.

13. - Arrears

Members must be clear on the books to be entitled to walking money or dispute pay and not more than four weeks arrears with current subscription, exclusive of fines and levies, will be accepted to bring a member into benefit for walking money or dispute pay.

Subject as aforesaid, arrears will not be accepted during unemployment to bring a member into benefit for walking money.

Any member who is over 13 weeks in arrears, exclusive of fines and levies, shall not be entitled to mortality benefit.

Any member who is over 4 weeks in arrears, exclusive of fines or levies shall not be entitled to vote at any meeting of the Society.

Members over 26 weeks in arrears, exclusive of fines and levies, shall be excluded from the Society.

The Secretary shall notify in writing, any member who is 22 weeks in arrears, of his liability to exclusion from membership of the Society.

14. - Fines

Any member striking another shall be fined £5.00 (five pounds); any member using unbecoming language so as to cause disturbance at any of our meetings shall be fined £2.00 (two pounds); and when the Chairman calls order, if such call be not complied with, every person so offending shall, for each offence, be fined 50p.

Any member who is guilty of any fraudulent act in his employment, whether practised towards his employer or shopmates, shall be fined for the first offence not less than £4 (four pounds) and not more than £10 (ten pounds), and for the second offence he shall be expelled from membership of the Society.

Any member who fails to carry out directions of Council or General Meeting, issued to him in writing by the Secretary, shall be fined for the first offence not less than £4 (four pounds) and not more than £10 (ten pounds) and for the
second offence he shall be expelled from the Society.

Any member who is guilty of any disgraceful conduct in his employment which will reflect discredit on our Society shall be fined £2 (two pounds).

Any foreman or deputy foreman found picking good casks for either men or boys, and thus leaving the inferior class to their fellow workmen, shall, if the same be proved against him, be fined not less than £4 (four pounds) and not more
than £10 (ten pounds).

All members working in a shop where this Rule is violated and not reporting same to the Society shall be considered aiders and abettors of the party or parties in fault, and are liable to the full penalty provided by this Rule.

15. - Collectors

Each shop shall elect a Collector annually whose duty it shall be to collect all subscriptions, fines, levies etc. and hand them over at least one week prior to Quarterly Night to those appointed to receive them or when requested by the President to do so. The Collectors book shall be receipted for the amount received.

16. - Salaries, Commission, Etc.

The President shall be paid the sum of £211.12p per annum, payable quarterly.

The Secretary shall be paid the sum of £316.72p per annum, payable quarterly.

The Auditors, ordinary and special, shall be paid the sum of £1 each per quarterly account audited.

Collectors shall receive 5% (five per cent) on their collections of subscriptions only.

17. - Deputations

All members appointed on deputations to our employers, or otherwise on business in connection with the Society, shall report as soon as possible the particulars of their interview on conclusion of negotiations.

18. - New and Excluded Members

Personal application for membership will be received at any Council Meeting, and if the applicant be considered suitable, his name will be forwarded for approval of a General Meeting. Admission fee £50 (fifty pounds).

New members to prove themselves competent.

The names of all new members and their sponsors, with the date of their admission to the Society, shall be recorded in a register to be kept for the purpose, and all new members shall be supplied with Trade Card, Rule Book and Price List on payment of the entrance fee. Members are not entitled to any benefits of the Society until they have made 26 weekly payments on account of subscriptions.

19. - Apprentices and Terms of Apprenticeship

All apprentices to our trade must be sons or grandsons of benefit members. All boys seeking apprenticeship must produce proof of relationship. Where any such is the son of a non benefit member or defaulter, that boy shall not be entitled to be apprenticed, even though his grandfather was or had been a full benefit member.

All apprentices shall be registered by the Society before starting to work. Any apprentice serving his time in opposition to the Society shall not be acknowledged by it.

No master Cooper shall be allowed more than one apprentice.

No Foreman Cooper shall be allowed to have an apprentice, and no journeyman shall be allowed to have more than one apprentice at any one time.

All apprentices shall serve their apprenticeship with benefit members only. The master shall be responsible to the Society for the teaching of his apprentice.

The terms of apprenticeship shall be four years, with weekly pay as follows:-

First year (minimum) 1/5 of coopers take home pay.
Second year (minimum) 1/4 of coopers take home pay.
Third year (minimum) 1/3 of coopers take home pay.
Fourth year (minimum) 1/2 of coopers take home pay.

Working hours of apprentices shall be regulated by the standard time of shops where they are employed.

All young men at the expiration of their apprenticeship, shall pay the sum of £10 (ten pounds), and produce two sponsors, who shall guarantee as to their workmanship under a penalty of £10 (ten pounds).

No apprentice shall seek employment as a journeyman until he has complied with this Rule.

The first three years of apprenticeship shall be served in the Making Shop, where possible.

No non-member shall be allowed to have an apprentice.

20. Allotment of Work by Foreman

All casks for coopering must be allotted without discrimination amongst the men in the shop appointed by the foreman or deputy foreman to do that class of work.

21. - Investments

The Reserve Fund shall be invested in the Post Office Savings Bank or on deposit receipt in any other recognised public bank or in municipal or other trustee stock approved of by a General Meeting.

Trustees shall be appointed in the manner herein before provided, and any such stock shall vest in the Trustees for the time being of the Society.

22. Questions of Importance

Any questions of importance arising upon these Rules or with our employers must on demand of ten benefit members, be decided by ballot of the members of the Society.

A Special General Meeting shall be called on receipt by the Secretary of an application, in writing, signed by ten benefit members.

23. - Access to Records

The accounts and records of this Society shall be open to inspection by any benefit member of the Society. The books of the Society and the names of the members thereof shall be open at all reasonable times to inspection by every person having an interest in the funds of the Society. The register of members shall be open for inspection in accordance with section 12 of the Trade Union Act, 1941 and the relevant Statutory Regulations.

24. - Grants

All proposals relating to the making of grants, usually payable at Christmas, shall be submitted for approval at the Fourth Quarterly General Meeting in each year.

25. - Contribution Cards

Every member or non-member subscribing to this Society shall be supplied with a Contribution Card, which must be signed by the Collector on the occasion of every payment which is required to be entered thereon.

26. - New Rule or Rules

Whenever any new rule or rules is or are required, a General Meeting shall appoint a Committee of five benefit members who shall draw up such new rule or rules and submit the same to the General Body for approval.

The General Body shall recommend whatever remuneration they think proper for the Rules Committee. All members of the Society shall be supplied with a type-written copy of every alteration of Rules.

27. - Indemnity of Officers

All officers of the Society shall be and are hereby indemnified out of its funds and property from and against any loss, costs, charges, damages and expenses whatever which they may incur or are put to in or about the execution of their respective offices, services or trusts: and none of them shall be answerable for any act or default of any of the others, nor for any insufficiency or deficiency in the value or otherwise of any security whatever, unless the loss arising by any such means happens through their own wilful neglect or default: nor shall they be liable for any banker, broker or other person with whom the funds or property of the Society may be deposited for safe keeping, investment, or otherwise: The Treasurer and property of the Society shall be insured.

28. - Power and Operation of Rules

The foregoing Rules shall be binding on the members of the Society, and shall be considered in operation from the date of their registration: and no new Rule shall be made, nor shall any of the Rules herein contained or hereafter to be made, be amended, altered or rescinded unless with the consent of a majority of the members present at a General Meeting specially called for that purpose. Three months notice in writing, signed by at least ten members of the Society in full benefit, must be given to the Secretary of any proposal to amend, alter or rescind these Rules or to make a new Rule. No new Rule or alteration of Rule shall be valid until registered.

29. - Duties of Shop Stewards

All shop stewards shall be men capable of discriminating between bona fide and frivolous complaints and who are well conversant with all the Rules of the Society.

All complaints shall be reported to the shop steward, who shall be the only one empowered to "call the shop."

The shop steward shall have power to attend at Council Meetings when what, in his opinion is an irregularity occurs in his particular shop.

Any serious loss incurred by the shop stewards in the performance of their duties shall be met by the funds of the Society, and they shall be compensated at the discretion of the Council.

All shop stewards shall see that apprentices are properly treated.

In the event of any dispute arising between master and apprentice, the same shall be referred to the shop steward in the shop in which it arises.

In the event of a shop steward being unable to settle a dispute the matter in dispute shall be referred to Council.

30. - General Rules

No cooper shall be allowed to work at any class of work other than coopering while employed as a cooper, during working hours. No cooper who is fully employed shall be allowed to work in any shop other than the one in which he is normally employed while men are drawing walking benefit.

No cooper who is retired on pension by an employer shall be allowed to work at coopering while active members are unemployed.

Any member guilty of a breach of this Rule shall forfeit all benefits from the Society.

All public bank holidays shall be paid for by the employer. Coopers working on bank or public holidays shall receive double rate of pay, in addition to holiday pay.

No man shall be appointed to a grade or foremanship unless he is a benefit member of the Society.

One shop steward shall be elected annually for each shop, by the workers in each shop, respectively.

Any member found disregarding these Rules shall be liable to a fine of not less than £10 (ten pounds) and not more than £20 (twenty pounds) for each offence.

This Society shall not declare a strike unless by resolution of a Special General Meeting summoned for that purpose, and carried by a simple majority of the benefit members present at such meeting.

Every member shall receive, if possible, individual notice of such meeting.

Any member retired from work who is in receipt of a pension from his former employer and who wishes to resume work shall apply to the Society for permission to do so. Only if the amount of work justifies it, shall such permission be granted and if granted, shall be subject to the following conditions:-

(a) That such permission shall not entitle him to any right or claim on the Society's funds.

(b) That he shall resume payment of the weekly subscriptions for as long as he remains in employment.

(c) That he shall terminate his employment on one week's notice from the Society to do so.

Such applicants shall sign a leaflet containing these conditions before taking up work.

Members who are fully employed and leave their employment to take up work with another firm must pay subscriptions for each of twelve weeks subsequent to their change of employment before becoming entitled to Walking Benefit.

Non Society coopers seeking employment may be allowed to take a job provided there is no Society member unemployed and subject to the following conditions.

That they sign an agreement to contribute to the Society, weekly, an amount equal to the weekly subscription for members,


That if a member becomes disemployed they shall vacate their employment if called upon by the Society to do so.

31. - Dissolution

This Society shall not be dissolved unless at a Special General Meeting called for that purpose and with a majority of five sixths of the benefit membership voting by ballot.

Each member shall be notified of the Special General Meeting and of the object for which such meeting is called. Notice of Dissolution shall be given to the Registrar of Friendly Societies in the form and manner prescribed by the Statutory Regulation in that behalf.

Sunday 28 October 2007

Dublin Coopers' Guild - The Final Meeting

The Regular Dublin Operative Coopers' Society (also known as the Guild of St. Patrick) was incorporated in 1501 and received its Royal Charter from Charles II in 1666. It managed to survive until 1983 when the last remaining coopers voted the Society out of existence.

My grandfather was a cooper in Guinness and was present at the final meeting. These are the minutes of that sad occasion.

Regular Dublin Coopers
Incorporated 1501
Guild of St. Patrick

Coopers' Committee Rooms,
22 Nth. Frederick Street,
Dublin 1.

24th March 1983

Summary of Minutes of Special Dissolution Meeting of the above Society held on 24th March 1983.

CHAIRMAN: Mr. Augustine Gibney

Mr. Gibney elected Chairman on the motion of Mr. R.P. Lynch, seconded by Mr. W. Lynch and passed unanimously.

Minutes of quarterly meeting held on 1st March 1983 signed by Chairman on motion of Mr. R. Roach, seconded by Mr. B. Ralph and passed unanimously.

Progress report given by Secretary on findings of Dissolution Committee and agreed earlier this afternoon by Council.

Approximation of assets was given to the meeting by the President/Treasurer, Mr. A. Gibney.

Mr. J. White complimented both Officers and also Messrs. G. White and J. Tyrell of the Dissolution Committee for all the time and effort given in the interest of the Society.

Mr. D. Kavanagh moved in event of dissolution £300.00 be left in Bank for 12 months for reasons already agreed, and should be given to charity. Mr. P. Lynch seconded and motion passed unanimously. Mr. J. Boylan moved Charity One = Retarded Children's Association. Mr. J. White moved Charity Two = Alone. Mr. K. Doherty moved Charity Three = Simon Community. Above resolutions were seconded by Messrs. R.P. Lynch, R. Roach, V. Tyrell and were passed unanimously.

Mr. J. Boylan moved that only benefit members should partake of any divide of Society funds. Mr. K. Doherty seconded and motion passed unanimously

Mr. J. Tyrell moved that the Society Charter, Banner and Oldest Minute Book be presented to A.G.S. Museum on basis outlined in Secretary's Report. Mr. J. Boylan seconded and motion passed unanimously. Generally agreed that other Society Books should be presented to Labour History Society. Mr. R.P. Lynch moved that recommendation of Council regarding Dissolution Ballot be adopted. Mr. P. Lynch seconded and motion passed unanimously.

Agreed Scrutineers to Ballot: Messrs. G. White, R. Roach and D. Kavanagh.

Result of Ballot
In favour of Dissolution: 37
Against Dissolution: None
Votes Cast: 37

Motion to Dissolve Society passed unanimously.

It was generally agreed that decision to dissolve should be marked by way of a Dinner Party to be organised by the Officers and Mr. Gerald White. Both the Secretary and President thanked the members and referred to tonight's decision as sad but necessary.

Mr. V. Tyrell on behalf of the members thanked both officers for what he referred to as the excellent way they handled the affairs of the Society over many difficult years.

Roll Call of members attending

R. Agnew, J. Boylan, C. Doherty, K. Doherty, L. Doherty, N. Doherty, O. Doherty, R. Dunne, A. Gibney, B. Higgins, B. Hopkins, E. Joyce, I[?]. Kavanagh, D. Kavanagh, J. Kavanagh, A[?]. Lynch, P. Lynch, R.J. Lynch, R.P. Lynch, W. Lynch, J. McCann I, J. McCann II, J. McCann, P. Mills, B. O'Connor, E. O'Reilly, B. Ralph, J.V. Ralph, J. Ryan, V. Tyrrell, J. Tyrrell, R. Roach, J. Nolan, G. White, J. White, J. McCarthy, W. Carlson.

Total 37.

Signed: Augustine Gibney, 24th March 1983

Saturday 27 October 2007

Redbreast 15 year old

John Hansell of The Malt Advocate writes about one of my favourite whiskeys, Redbreast 15 year old, in his latest blog entry. I wasn't aware that this bottling was produced especially for the 50th anniversary of La Maison du Whisky, a specialist whiskey retailer in France. Indeed, I've seen it for sale elsewhere, for example the Celtic Whiskey Shop in Dublin and The Whisky Exchange in London.

It's a pure pot still whiskey, which means it is entirely made in copper pot stills from malted barley combined with various unmalted grains. No grain whiskey (the lighter result produced from a different, continuous distillation process) is blended in before bottling.

It is also distinct from the somewhat more common Redbreast 12 year old in that it is bottled at a strength of 46% (rather than 40%) and is not chill filtered. Whiskey is typically chill filtered to remove any components that might cloud the whiskey during storage though these components also contribute to flavour.

The result is a very richly flavoured whiskey indeed. I was particularly amazed by the long, citrus finish (of which I am just reminding myself as I write). It certainly knocks even the finest blended whiskeys into a cocked hat.

This whiskey demands a return to the pure pot still style of whiskey manufacture. That is the root of Irish whiskey and now that the hard times have passed for Irish distilleries and premium spirits are once again in demand it is surely logical to return there.

Unfortunately there is no evidence that any distillery is thinking along these lines and John Hansell warns that there is no guarantee that Redbreast 15 year old will be made again. Alarmingly, my own bottle is running dry and I don't see the whiskey listed on the websites of the Celtic Whiskey Shop or The Whiskey Exchange any longer.

Monday 22 October 2007

New Jameson whiskey: Rarest Vintage Reserve

The place to be last week was apparently Irish Distillers' Midleton facility for the launch of a new Jameson whiskey. Rock star Sinead O'Connor entertained as guests were introduced to Jameson Rarest Vintage Reserve. Nicely echoing the current Annals of the Four Masters exhibition in Dublin, the "Four Masters" of production at Midleton took the stage: Barry Crockett (Master Distiller), Billy Leighton (Master Blender), David Quinn (Master of Science), and Brendan Monks (Master of Maturation).

Like Midleton Very Rare, another premium whiskey from the same stable, this new bottling has no age statement. Rather, like wine, it has a "vintage" indicating that this limited edition whiskey may vary from year to year. John Hansell, editor of the Malt Advocate magazine, provides some useful detail:
Rarest Vintage Reserve is a blend, like the other Jameson whiskeys, consisting of older grain whiskeys in addition to pure pot still whiskey (containing both malted and unmalted barley), some of which was aged entirely in ruby port casks (with the rest matured in second fill bourbon casks). They told me today that the grain whiskey is 23-24 years old, with the pot still component being slightly younger. The whiskey is bottled at 46% and is not chill-filtered!
There is no doubt, given the expertise of The Four Masters, that this is a very fine whiskey indeed. The bad news is that a bottle is expected to retail at a spectacular €250 in Ireland (it should be substantially less in other countries however, when Ireland's punitive spirit taxes are factored out).

The price is one indication that Rarest Vintage Reserve is not really aimed at the whiskey connoisseur. It's probably well beyond the pocket of the typical informed whiskey drinker. Nor does it push the buttons that normally excite the afficionado, i.e. it's not a single malt or a pure pot still and it has no age statement. It is also an extension of an existing mass-market brand, i.e. Jameson, the best-selling Irish whiskey.

There is a definite parallel with the most popular Scotch blended whiskey, Johnnie Walker. Johnnie Walker Red Label goes for about €26 in Ireland whereas Blue Label sells at around €180. Blue Label is a luxury product, targeted at the corporate gifts market and the CEO's drinks cabinet. For those who really value exclusivity (and connotations of royalty), there is the just-launched Johnnie Walker Blue Label King George V Edition.

Johnnie Walker is a Diageo brand, as is Bushmills Irish whiskey, which Diageo bought in 2005. For the first time, Irish Distillers Ltd (IDL) (owned by Pernod Ricard) has a strong competitor with global muscle. Diageo has been ramping up production at the Bushmills distillery but the long maturation period gives Irish Distillers a few years to prepare for the inevitable marketing onslaught. IDL can observe what Diageo has already done with its Scotch holdings so it makes a lot of sense to stake out their position in the market for high-end Irish whiskeys now.

There is a marketing experiment that is well-known in psychology circles. A catalogue seller offered a high-end bread maker for $279. Some time later, the catalogue introduced a deluxe version from the same manufacturer for $429. They did not shift many of the newer model but sales of the $279 bread maker almost doubled. The reason is that the most expensive model in a range becomes a reference point for the consumer. Against the $479 reference point, the less expensive model looks like a bargain, so sales rise.

This suggests another reason why IDL might introduce a very expensive version of Jameson even if they don't expect to sell many bottles. The airport duty free shopper will see the complete line up of Jameson products, including 12 year old Special Reserve, 18 year old Limited Reserve and now Rarest Vintage Reserve. If the marketing psychology holds up, sales of the 18 year old should take off.

As welcome as a new Irish whiskey is for its own sake, the advent of Jameson Rarest Vintage Reserve, backed by the marketing might of Pernod Ricard, is also exciting for helping to develop a new market globally for very high-end Irish whiskeys. This can only be good for lesser-known brands, including those of independent distiller Cooley.

Sunday 14 October 2007

Whiskey-Tasting Events

The tenth annual New York WhiskeyFest is happening at the end of this month while the first annual San Francisco WhiskeyFest is next week. By my count, a dozen Irish brands will be represented on the floor (Bushmills, Connemara, Clontarf, Greenore, Jameson, Kilbeggan, Knappogue Castle, Michael Collins, Midleton Very Rare, Redbreast, Tullamore Dew and Tyrconnell).

Chicago is also honoured with a WhiskeyFest, at another time of the year. There are similar events outside the US, for example those organised under the banner Whisky Live. I see that Toronto, Cape Town, Glasgow, Johannesburg and Leiden all have major whiskey shows over the next month.

I wonder why this doesn't happen in Dublin. It's not that we Irish have no taste for foreign whiskeys. According to an article in The Irish Mail on Sunday today, we drink more Scotch in this country than Irish whiskey (4.1m bottles of Scotch, 3.8m bottles of Irish). Which is, frankly, disgraceful. But there should at least be interest in a whiskey-tasting event similar to those that happen elsewhere in the world.

Saturday 6 October 2007

Whiskey and Climate Change

We have long been speculating on whether Ireland will become a wine-producing country once global warming kicks in. But what will happen to whiskey production? Is there a danger that we won't be able to grow the necessary cereals in decades to come?

A conference in Kilkenny this weekend has been debating that very question, according to an article (subscription required) in today's Irish Times. Dr John Sweeney of the Irish Climate Analysis and Research Unit at NUI Maynooth reported that:
Other crops, though, will thrive as Ireland becomes hotter and wetter. Barley and wheat will thrive west of the Shannon in the moist conditions. Maize will prosper throughout the country.
So that's alright then. For comparison, the map shows the prime malting barley growing regions of Ireland as they are now. I adapted this from Greencore's website. As you can see, barley now grows east and south of the Shannon river so the changes forecast are very significant.

As I noted in the previous post anyway, Irish whiskey can be legally made without Irish cereals, if that ever becomes necessary.

Wednesday 3 October 2007

What is Irish Whiskey?

There are many definitions of Irish whiskey on the internet, often inaccurate or incomplete. There is, in fact, a legal definition contained in the Irish Whiskey Act, 1980.

The language is a little convoluted so I have reworded it below:
Irish whiskey must have been distilled on the island of Ireland from a mash of cereals which has been-
  1. saccharified by the diastase of malt contained therein, with or without other natural diastases,
  2. fermented by the action of yeast, and
  3. distilled at an alcoholic strength of less than 94.8% by volume in such a way that the distillate has an aroma and flavour derived from the materials used.
Also, the spirits shall have been matured in wooden casks in warehouses on the island of Ireland for at least three years.
The Act also defines a blended Irish Whiskey as a combination of two or more distillates, each of which meets the definition of Irish whiskey above.

Some comments:
  • "saccharified by the diastase of malt" means that the starch in the grain is turned to sugar by the action of enzymes contributed by the malt component of the mash (see the earlier article on malting for more details).
  • The 94.8% alcohol by volume figure sounds odd. After all, whiskey is sold at a strength far less than this. Since the traditional pot still process cannot produce such a high concentration of alcohol, this requirement refers only to the patent still process that produces grain whiskey. I assume that the upper limit on alcoholic strength contributes to the retention of some "aroma and flavour" of the raw materials. After all, a little higher and we would just have flavourless industrial alcohol which might as well be made from potatoes or apples.
  • Since the island of Ireland comprises two distinct legal jurisdictions, this legislation was mirrored in the UK.
It is interesting to note what is not included in this definition of whiskey:
  • The number of distillations. It is commonly averred that Irish whiskey is distilled three times, while scotch is distilled twice. But Cooley distillery delights in confounding conventional wisdom and part of their trademark style is a double distillation process. It's also possible to find scotch that has been triple distilled (eg Auchentoshan).
  • The use of peated malt. Scotch whiskey is often said to use peat-dried malt, which imparts a distinctive flavour to the finished whiskey, whereas Irish whiskey does not. Again, Cooley proves otherwise by producing several peated whiskies and Scotland complements this by producing the odd unpeated malt (eg Glengoyne).
  • A definition of pot still whiskey. The 1980 act replaced the Irish Whiskey Act of 1950. This earlier act defined an Irish pot still whiskey as one solely composed of distillates from pot stills (ie no contribution from the far lighter output of a patent still, known as grain whiskey). The pure pot still style probably best represents the traditional Irish whiskey but it lost out in the financial squeeze that almost killed the industry in Ireland in the 20th century. It is cheaper to produce a blend of pot still and grain whiskey so that is the bulk of what we drink today. There are still examples of the pure pot still style available, eg Redbreast and Green Spot, but they are harder to come by and represent a tiny portion of whiskey sales. The fashion for high-end whiskies these days is "single malt" but I believe there is an opportunity for the pure pot still to make a comeback.
  • The grain used to produce Irish whiskey is not required by law to be grown in Ireland. In fact, it probably is, but I assume the distillers (who instigated the legislation) wanted to ensure they could still procure malt and grain if there was a bad harvest in Ireland. It is the same in Scotland - there is no geographical requirement on the source of the grain used to make scotch whisky.
Whiskey and the European Union

The European Union likes to standardise product descriptions to ease trade between member nations. It also provides protection to products that traditionally come from a particular geographical area so that "Champagne", for example, cannot be made anywhere in Europe apart from France. Ireland and Scotland are both part of the EU so it's no surprise that whiskey has been legislated for at EU level.

The relevant regulation (pdf) defines whiskey almost identically to the Irish legislation. It also specifies a minimum alcohol strength of 40%. "Irish Whiskey" is further protected as a geographical designation (and, intriguingly, it is stated that the term may be supplemented by the words "Pot Still").

The European Parliament revisited spirits legislation this year and the proposed update passed its first reading on June 19th.

In addition to the existing conditions, it is now permitted to add only water and caramel (for colouring) to the final product. No flavourings, sweeteners or other additives are allowed. This is entirely consistent with current practice though it's a shame the industry can't wean itself off the use of caramel.

The geographical designation remains, though the "Pot Still" qualifier has vanished.

Monday 1 October 2007

Classic Text Republished: Truths About Whisky

During the second half of the nineteenth century, the Irish distilling industry was fighting a losing battle. Irish whiskey was, at the time, held in high regard in its own country as well as in England and the rest of the Empire. Compared to peated, fully malted Highland scotch, Irish whiskey was lighter, smoother and more reliably consistent due to the mix of malted and unmalted grain in the pot still.

The distilling houses sold their product by the cask to middlemen and publicans who bottled it or served their customers straight from the cask. It was impossible for the distillers to ensure that the fine quality whiskey they shipped was the same whiskey the customer drank since unscrupulous dealers may have mixed the premium Irish drink with some cheaper spirit.

Enormous quantities of cheap spirit became available when an Irish excise officer, Aeneas Coffey, invented a continuous process for distilling spirit from grain. Not only was this inherently less expensive than the cumbersome batch process of the traditional pot still distilleries, it also produced a much purer alcohol that largely lacked flavour. Thus the Coffey (or patent) still could be fed with any grain, for example, imported maize, since this would have little effect on the taste of the output.

There was no strict, legal definition of "Irish" or "Scotch" whiskey, or even of "whiskey" itself so the way was open for a cheaper knock-off to come to market. A "blender" would take grain spirit (as the new spirit was called, or "silent spirit", somewhat disparagingly, since it had no voice of its own) and flavour it with a small percentage of genuine pot still whiskey. This would then be sold as Irish or Scotch to the unwitting public.

The powerful Dublin distillers were alarmed by the new trend. Their own whiskey was expensively produced and then sat maturing for years in bonded warehouses. The new grain spirit was not matured at all and was perhaps made in Scotland before being shipped to Ireland to be mixed with pot still whiskey and re-exported to England for sale as "Irish whiskey". These upstarts were trading fraudulently on the reputation that the Irish distillers had built over the past century.

Many representations were made by the industry to the government to impose standards on what could and couldn't be described as whiskey. To bolster their position, the four great Dublin distillers - John Jameson & Sons; William Jameson & Co.; John Power & Sons; and George Roe & Co. issued a book entitled Truths About Whisky in 1878 to plead their case.

Today, this historic book is very hard to come by and I know from my own researches that the National Library of Ireland has lost its own copy. Fortunately, a small Scottish publishing house, Classic Expressions, that specialises in reprinting seminal works on whiskey is producing a facsimile edition.

For the book to hit the presses again, the publisher needs 75 pre-orders. At the time of writing the number of orders stands at 49. So if you have an interest in the history of Irish whiskey you might like to add this to your bookshelf. And the sooner you order, the sooner I get my copy!