Sunday, 29 January 2012

Irish whiskey shorts

Coming events in Dublin

There is quite a lot going on in February. All of these events sound good to me.

Thursday, Feb 9, 7:30pm
An Introduction to Whiskey. Michael Lawlor, from the Celtic Whiskey Shop, will present 3 Irish, 3 Scotch, 1 American and 1 Japanese whiskey. This is the first in a series. Subsequent evenings will focus on Irish Whiskey (March 15), Scottish Whisky (April 12), Emerging Nations (May 10), Hidden Gems (June 14) and finally Islay Single Malts (July 12). Tickets €20 in advance at the shop.
Wednesday, Feb 22, 7pm
Whiskey Fireside Chat at The Merrion Hotel. Midleton Master Distiller, Barry Crockett, will host a tasting of the Jameson Reserve range. €29 per person. Contact the hotel at (01) 603 0660 to reserve.
Thursday, Feb 23, 8pm
Whiskey & Chocolate. The Irish Whiskey Society's monthly tasting, this time in association with Cocoa Atelier on Drury Street. €15 for members, €25 for non-members. Book here.
Also, McLean Scotland are offering a week of events, trips, tastings around WhiskyLive in Dublin later this year.

Whiskey as ingredient

Neven Maguire is one of Ireland's most highly regarded chefs/restaurateurs. He has a series on RTÉ television at the moment called Home Chef where he visits the makers of some of Ireland's best known brands then whips up some dishes. On the last episode (Jan 26), he visited Midleton distillery and met David Quinn who is one of the top production guys there and knows all the secrets. You can rewatch that online (if you are in Ireland, that is; outside, I don't know) until Feb 16.

After his visit, he cooks three dishes using whiskey. The recipes are online: Smoked salmon tagliatelle with whiskeySeared rib-eye with mushrooms and roasted garlic mash, and French Apple Tart (Neven puts whiskey in the filling but it's not mentioned in the recipe).

Speaking of appley treats laced with whiskey, how about a slice of this delicious looking (and spud-free) Whiskey Apple Pudding on The Daily Spud.

Another blog!

Tomás Clancy is the wine correspondent for the Sunday Business Post but sometimes devotes his column (and his blog) to Irish whiskey. Knows his stuff and is a real cheerleader for excellence in Irish whiskey production. He also mentioned the last IWS tasting in his column and we sold out crazy early. Not a coincidence, I suspect.

More podcasts!

My worlds of technology and whiskey collided when John Cashman of Cooley Distillery sat down with Nathan Mattise for this week's Wired magazine Storyboard Podcast. Over nearly 40 minutes we learn a little about John and a lot about Cooley and Irish whiskey. It finishes with a live tasting of the new Concannon Irish whiskey.

John Cashman is all over the internet this week. He's also on WhiskyCast 353 talking about Connemara Bog Oak (which he covers in the Wired podcast too; what are these Smiley Bars, John? :), the whiskey shop in Dublin Airport and the Beam takeover.

And some tunes...

Let's visit Portugal, shall we? These tracks are from a young, Fado-influenced group called Deolinda.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Green Spot Irish whiskey

We had a Green Spot night at the society this week. We have heard a lot about the Single Pot Still (SPS) style over the last year: it's both the proud past and a good chunk of the future of Irish whiskey. You could easily make the case that SPS was saved for future generations by Green Spot which puttered along for years as other brands disappeared or converted to a lighter, blended composition. During those lean years, Green Spot was rediscovered by the whiskey writers (Jim Murray foremost among them). The resulting groundswell of public interest encouraged the distillers to revive the style. Green Spot today finds itself very much back in fashion.

The Green Spot tale is bound up with that of Mitchell & Son, Dublin wine importers. On Thursday night, Peter Dunne, a director of Mitchell's, recapped the story of the company and uncorked a few bottles for us to sample.

The story of the company's founder, William Mitchell, has an interesting echo of John Jameson's. Both men originally came from Scotland and both founded their businesses in Dublin at about the same time. Mitchell's didn't get into the whiskey business until much later, though. Instead it began as a restaurant and confectioner in Grafton Street in 1805 (where McDonald's is now). Its reputation was such that it received a royal appointment and would ship cakes off to London for Queen Victoria's table.

The Grafton Street business lasted until the late 1950s but in 1887 Mitchell's opened a wine importation branch in Kildare Street. That shop was familiar to many of us as the city centre home of the company until 2008, when it moved to the Docklands. Throughout these changes, the involvement of the Mitchell family remained, and has reached the 7th generation today.

Mitchell & Son's Kildare Street shop

At some point after 1887 - certainly by early in the 20th century (Peter quoted from a 1907 price list) -Mitchell's began buying "loose" whiskey from the Jameson distillery and maturing it in empty sherry casks they had from their importing business. According to Peter, the records show that Mitchell's would send 100 hogsheads per year to the Smithfield distillery to be filled with new spirit, then take them back at 3 years old to finish the maturation in their own bonded cellars. (Peter also noted that the correct term for these sherry casks is "butts" not "hogsheads".)

The earliest reference to "Green Spot" I have seen comes from an ad in The Irish Times in October 1925. where it's already listed as 10 years old. I have also seen a 1924 Mitchell's ad for 7 year old "Blue Seal" whiskey and this hints at the origin of the "spot" name. The casks would be sampled in the cellar and daubed with coloured paint to indicate at what age they would be ready to bottle. These colours eventually made their way onto the bottle labels. There were a range of spots: Blue (7 years), Green (10), Yellow (12) and Red (15). All except Green eventually fell by the wayside, however. (We hope for their return.)

Peter Dunne joined Mitchell's in 1970 and so just remembers the period before Irish Distillers (IDL, the merged entity incorporating Jameson) insisted on taking maturation and bottling back in house. It would have been difficult to continue anyway since wines were no longer being imported by the cask and distillation was about to move out of Dublin entirely. But Mitchell's persuaded IDL to maintain the brand and the pot still recipe, and continued to hold the exclusive licence to sell Green Spot. As part of the deal, IDL took ownership of the brand.

Mitchell's kept Green Spot ticking over, selling to the likes of yacht clubs, gentlemen's clubs and the King's Inns (a legal society), ie establishments that valued tradition. Until the revival of SPS, it used to be said that 6,000 bottles a year were produced but Peter cast some doubt on that, saying it was never precisely 6,000. They also achieved some distribution success in France and Canada.

Today, Mitchell's retains sole distribution rights in Ireland, north and south, but IDL (or rather its parent, Pernod Ricard) has taken on the task everywhere else. Expect, therefore, to see a lot more of Green Spot in its new livery as part of IDL's SPS line-up.

Here's what we tasted on Thursday night:

Green Spot (old label) v Green Spot (new label)

In theory, these should have been exactly the same. IDL swears it's the same whiskey in the bottle, it's just the label and bottle shape that changed. There is some scepticism about this, however. Rich Nagle on his Sláinte: Irish Whiskey Blog, for example, has maintained they are different. So who is right?

Most obviously, they are different colours. The new one is deeper. We might put that down to the move from a green bottle to a clear one and IDL upping the caramel to compensate.

I generally need large samples and plenty of time to figure out the descriptors for a whiskey so this is going to be vague. Having only one tasting glass also hampered the comparison. Nevertheless, it was apparent to everyone in the room that both the nose and taste were substantially different.

We tried them blind and the room voted 2:1 in favour of the older version. I'm quite reluctant to express a preference myself. I've always like the old one but I've tried the new one a couple of times in the new SPS line-up where, in my opinion, it comes second only to the superb Powers John's Lane.

I think Green Spot, being produced in small batches, tended to vary from year to year anyway. It could also have something to do with blending duties for this whiskey transferring from Barry Crockett to Billy Leighton down in the distillery.

According to Peter, this whiskey is 7-9 or 7-10 years old.

Green Spot 10 year old

In 2005, for the 200th anniversary of Mitchell's, two very limited edition whiskeys were produced. One was this 10yo, appropriate because Green Spot was traditionally a 10yo before it dropped the age statement.

This was not an attempt to recreate the original Green Spot, however. Green Spot was all sherry-matured back in the day whereas this is all bourbon-matured.

Three casks were used and exactly 1,000 numbered and signed bottles filled at 40%.

The vanilla was very apparent on the nose and taste here. That's a characteristic of the bourbon casks. I thought the nose pleasantly musty too.

The audience for this tasting included Heidi Donelon of the excellent Ireland Whiskey Trail. Heidi hosts many private tastings and has found that women generally prefer the sweetness that comes from sherry maturation. Someone else then commented that this Green Spot had a different kind of sweetness. I think the key here is that vanilla is used as a flavouring in sweet products like ice cream so we associate it with sweetness, even though it is not itself sweet.

This whiskey sells for €250 a pop.

Green Spot 12yo

Mitchell's also released a very limited 200-bottle 12yo whiskey for their 200th anniversary. Just one ex-bourbon cask this time and bottled at cask strength (58%).

It's a real mouthful, this whiskey. Great nose, too. Again, I'm not going to shoot for proper tasting notes on the basis of a small sample but it's in the Whiskey Bible if you want Jim Murray's take.

I'll say this though: it's the best single cask from Midleton that I've tried, by a comfortable margin. I thought the asking price of €850 was outlandish but having tried it, and if money was no object for me, I'd buy it and drink it. It does sell slowly at that price so you don't need to rush to grab a bottle. Still 48 left, apparently.

Cask samples

We then shifted gears somewhat. IDL very kindly supplied cask samples of various pot stills: 1st fill bourbon, 2nd fill bourbon and 1st fill sherry. All of these were 8 years old at cask strength of 58-60%.

Trying them separately, my first observation was how nice the 2nd fill bourbon was. I feel that could be released as is. It was also the room favourite, by a small margin over the 1st fill bourbon.

I've tried straight sherry Midleton samples a few times now and always found them overpowering and too much like drinking sherry. I couldn't see a single cask sherry release from Midleton but five people in the room nominated this sample as their favourite so clearly it has its fans.

We were invited to try blending our own SPS whiskey. Since I liked the 2nd fill bourbon best, I started there and added a touch of sherry. The sherry turned out to be very potent in the blend so I dialled it back with the 1st fill bourbon. After a few more sips, adjustments and a bit of water,  I eventually had a blend I liked. Was it like Green Spot? I have no idea! It probably tended more towards the bourbon than the Green Spot, given my preferences.

I feel I gained a new insight into whiskey with this blending experiment. A whiskey like Jameson is exceptionally well-blended and it's hard to appreciate its construction. When I tweak the blending dials myself, I get to feel out the extremities and understand the contribution each variable makes to the final mix. It's invaluable.

I'm very grateful to both Peter Dunne of Mitchell & Son, and IDL for the opportunity to examine this icon of Irish whiskey in depth.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Irish whiskey shorts

Beamed up

Beam has completed it's acquisition of Cooley Distillery. Onwards and upwards now. I'll be interested to see what happens with Cooley's many collaborations and private label bottlings. The other two distillers (Bushmills and Irish Distillers) have been far less approachable in this regard and now Cooley has deep enough pockets to ease out of the low end and low volume markets, if it chooses to.

When Bushmills was hived off from Irish Distillers in 2005 I expected some robust, global competition that would further energise the Irish whiskey category but Bushmills has been very withdrawn ever since. Perhaps Beam will square up to Jameson and we'll finally see some sparks fly.

Save the date

The date for Whisky Live Dublin has been announced: Saturday 26th May. I enjoyed it very much in 2011, particularly the masterclasses. If you are a member of the Irish Whiskey Society (IWS), don't buy a ticket yet, because there will likely be a special deal.

It's hardly worth mentioning the January society tasting, because it's all sold out. February's will be Whiskey & Chocolate (Thursday, 23rd Feb); booking for that should open towards the end of this month.

Speaking of the society, IWS president, Leo Phelan, was the special guest on episode 351 of WhiskyCast for a wide-ranging discussion of Irish whiskey history, development and future trends.

On the perfectly-shaped rocks

The Irish Whiskey Public House in Washington DC looks like a grand new spot for a whiskey and a plate of food. The bit that caught my eye on their website was this:
To maximize the delicacy and experience of each whiskey, the venue carries an ice machine shipped directly from Ireland that creates the perfectly shaped ice cube for opening up and revealing each whiskey’s full character.
Are we known for our world-class ice-shaping technology? And what shape is the perfect shape? Is it the cube with a deep indented base? I never really thought about it but those cubes do sit very well within the liquid. (I wouldn't use ice to reveal a whiskey's character though. Best stick with neat for that.)

Anyway, the bar opens with 50 different Irish whiskeys. In a photo I can see Redbreast 12yo & 15yo, Greenore 18yo, Locke's 8yo, all the Bushmills, all the Jamesons (except the Rarest Vintage, I think) and many more. A very respectable line-up, better than most Irish pubs.

Pub of the week

I dropped into The Palace Bar in Dublin to finally try their new house whiskey, a 9 year old single cask single malt, bottled at 46%. It's from Cooley and Cooley malt is just great at that age. I reckon they got a good cask here so it's worth €6.80 for a glass.

If you are visiting Ireland and fancy having one Irish whiskey in one traditional Irish pub, I suggest a shot of Palace Bar whiskey in The Palace Bar. If you want to further explore the whiskey landscape, the bar has a very wide selection of bottles. Ask for their whiskey menu.

Price-wise, The Palace is €4.40/€15 on the Jameson/Midleton index. (I'm trying this out; it needs a catchy name. J/M index?)

Some sounds with that?

Treat yourself to a glass of something from the shelf and spin up some nicely textured modern jazz from the Portico Quartet. This track will be on their new album due out later this month. The guy who looks like he's banging away on a couple of barbecues is actually playing the hang.

Concannon Irish Whiskey

I spent a couple of years in Silicon Valley once, oblivious to "California's first Irish-American winery" practically on my doorstep (or at least closer than Napa, which I did visit). It has taken the launch of a new Irish whiskey to finally clue me in to the Concannon Vineyard.

It's run by John Concannon, great-grandson of James Concannon, who emigrated from the Aran Islands in 1865 at the age of 18 and who, remarkably, established himself and a winery in California.

Yesterday, Concannon Irish Whiskey was launched at a party in San Francisco, involving 300 people and a "traditional Irish boxing match".

It's a four year old Cooley blend and, ordinarily, such a young whiskey wouldn't attract much attention. But this one is special. According to Noel Sweeney in the video below, there is quite a high proportion of malt in this blend and some of that malt is finished in Concannon's own Petite Sirah red wine casks for four months. In the finished whiskey, says Noel, you get a berry flavour on top of the usual characteristics of honey, vanilla, etc.

(That video is a rather nice vignette of Cooley's operation. You can spot the cooper, John Neilly, master blender, Noel Sweeney and global brand ambassador, John Cashman. The casks on their sides behind Noel Sweeney look like wine casks; I wonder if they are Concannon's.)

I haven't tried the new whiskey yet but someone who has reports:
I am happy to say that Concannon Whiskey is very nice! The Petite Sirah has given the whiskey a light berry finish that is amazing. I know for some people a wine finished whiskey is not their cup of tea. This is one that works very well.
It will go on sale in February at a recommended price of $24.99 for 750ml. There is no plan yet to release it in Ireland. If I hear more, I'll update this post.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Inish Turk Beg

Update 13 Jan 2011

A commenter below who sounds familiar with the situation remarks:
The island of Inishturkbeg is in receivership, which just covers the hospitality business. The brand business, of which whiskey is the principal part, has always been run independently and is not in receivership. Plans continue for the development of whiskey, branded Inish Turk Beg (and Eternal Voyage is the follow up to Maiden Voyage as a product) and other iterations from Clew Bay, more generally.
Reassuring news!

The Sunday Times last weekend reported that receivers have been appointed to the company that owns Inish Turk Beg, an island off the west of Ireland. For the moment, it's business as usual but the receivers will want to generate cash for the creditors that appointed them so it's likely that the island will go on the block in the near future.

The entrepreneur who owned the island, Nadim Sadek, an Irish-Egyptian, spawned all sorts of ventures from his Inish Turk Beg base. The one that interests us here is whiskey.

Plenty of companies have tapped Cooley Distillery for whiskey they can label as their own. Inish Turk Beg could have done just that and left it there but, with admirable integrity, they put their own twist on the whiskey in various creative ways.

They ensured a good base to begin with: roughly 10-year old Cooley malt (very fine stuff indeed, in my opinion). They took thirteen expired ex-bourbon barrels, filled them with "poitín" for a year (Cooley new make spirit, I presume), emptied them and then left them to weather on the island (for how long, I don't know). The Cooley malt was then finished in these seasoned barrels (again, I don't know how long for). 

Another touch was to use rainwater, fresh off the Atlantic, to water down the cask-strength spirit to bottling strength of 44%. The final presentation was also unusual: a spherical, tilted, hand-blown bottle. 2,888 of these one-litre bottles were produced.

I've been calling this "Inish Turk Beg" whiskey ever since it was released in late 2010 but I've just realised it's actually called Maiden Voyage. The intention was to release a follow-up called Eternal Voyage but we haven't seen that yet.

With the attractive presentation and the various unique touches it should fly off the shelves. Maybe it does, for all I know, but I suspect the price gives buyers pause: €155 in Ireland. That's a lot for 10-year old Cooley malt. It's a lot for any Irish whiskey. While it's nice (though a little softer than I anticipated) it's more than I could spend on a whiskey for drinking. As I write, for example, I'm enjoying a Grand Crew 9yo Cooley malt that I absolutely love but only cost me €60. A 10-year old port finish Tyrconnell would set me back the same.

I hope this isn't the end of the story for Inish Turk Beg whiskey. I imagine that Nadim Sadek is the kind of guy who wouldn't have been happy until he had his own distillery on the island. I wish him luck in whatever he does next. I hope it involves whiskey.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Irish whiskey shorts

Let's try something fresh for 2012. There are lots of scraps of news and info about Irish whiskey that I think are interesting but that might never make it into a longer article. Instead of sitting on them - or worse, forgetting them - I'm just going to push them out there, in a big heap. With the optimism of all new year resolutions, this will happen regularly. Like clockwork! Here, then, is some stuff I noticed recently.

Around the blogs

A reflection on the year in whiskey would have seen off 2011 nicely but I never got around to it. Luckily, another blogger was not so slack and banged out his own review. From Boston, home of the Irish Whiskey Society America, this is Rich Nagle's summing up of 2011.

From the man known only as Irish Whiskey Chaser, came this very practical discussion of glassware. Choose your glass carefully and you won't waste a single aroma molecule of that expensive hooch. It's a bit late to mention it now, but seeing IWC's Christmas shopping guide has got me thinking about Powers John's Lane. Hang on a minute...

... and we're back, with a Powers, in a rather magnificent glass that I'm sure Mr Chaser would approve of.

From Twitter

Cooley sold over 250 bottles of its new Poitín in December in just two outlets (the Celtic Whiskey Shop and Dublin airport). So tweeted John Cashman. Impressive! Novelty must be a factor here. Poitín is a fabled drink in Ireland but not much drunk these days so we have to figure out all over again how to drink it, or even if we like it. I want to know how many people buy a second bottle, to see if the category has any legs.

I now know...

... that Redbreast 12yo is 77% first fill bourbon and 23% first fill sherry casks. That snippet is from Tim F's description of the launch of Irish Distillers (IDL) single pot still collection earlier in the year. It's worth reading all of it (including part 2) but those percentages leapt out at me. For some reason, IDL is as cagey about its recipes as Coca Cola. I'm not sure why because, even if you know the makeup of a whiskey, you can't recreate it without the same stills, casks, warehouses, etc. So they might as well be open about it. Whiskey nuts love that kind of detail.

... Redbreast and IDLs other "specialist" whiskeys are bottled at The House of Donohoe in Waterford City. That comes from IDL's own Single Pot Still site which had a very festive picture before Christmas of a Robin Redbreast beside its namesake whiskey, taken at said bottling facility.

... that there will be six new pot stills at Midleton after the distillery expansion. I'm very curious about this. They currently have four pot stills and intend to produce exactly the same spirit on the new line (essentially doubling capacity for Jameson production), so what are the other two pot stills for? If you know, please drop me a line or comment below.

Other news

It was reported in December that William Grant (the new owners of Tullamore Dew) have been making serious enquiries in Tullamore about setting up a new distillery. I've always thought that would make sense. They have a bottling plant in Clonmel already but there is no particular reason to site the distillery nearby. IDL distils in Cork and bottles in Dublin and Antrim (and Waterford, I now know) so separating these functions can't be a big deal.

I hope it happens. The big question is the pots. The original stills from the old Tullamore Dew distillery are now at Cooley's (ie Beam's) Kilbeggan distillery. I doubt they are for sale, since they are the same pattern as the long lost Kilbeggan originals. But Grants could have them remade to the same size and shape. If Beam fire up the Kilbeggan stills, could there be two distilleries making spirit in identical stills? We'll see.

I'd like to finish with a song

This Powers John's Lane is going down a treat. How about we spin up a few tracks? Something Polish, I think, for no particular reason. Here's Poland's entry from the 1995 Eurovision Song Contest. It deserves to be remembered.

And if that piques your interest, here's what the Poles were listening to behind the iron curtain (many thanks to Dr John Kearns for the recommendations):