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.