This is the final part of Eric Ryan's story of Irish oak. Eric's full bio is available on Part I of this article. Eric will also host an Irish Whiskey Society tasting in Cork on Wednesday examining the influence of oak on Midleton's pot still whiskeys.
We finished the last episode on a hopeful note, with the Irish government encouraging tree planting. From a low of 1% forestry cover, the country now boasts a cover of 11% and growing.
Our reward for all that oak planting was the most spectacular Irish whiskey of 2015: Midleton Dair Ghaelach, a single pot still whiskey finished in virgin Irish oak...
Irish Oak & Midleton Dair Ghaelach - Part III
by Eric Ryan
From Tree to Cask
Considering the contemporary growth in Irish oak forestry reserves, Kevin O’Gorman, Master of Maturation in Midleton, sparked the initial idea of using native oak to mature Irish whiskey. More than six years ago, the Midleton Masters, with the advice of professional foresters Purser, Tarleton and Russell, began the process of sourcing sustainable, mature Irish oaks for the purpose of cask manufacture.
After careful research by the Midleton Master of Science, David Quinn, and his extended team, the project was given the go-ahead to have its auspicious beginnings on the Ballaghtobin Estate near Callan, Co. Kilkenny.
Amazingly, the process for producing this special whiskey started back in the mid 1800’s when Irish oaks were first planted on the Estate, the same Irish oaks that would be selected for the first batch of Midleton Dair Ghaelach.
The 114 acres of woodland at Ballaghtobin were first mapped in 1655 and continue to this day to be managed, down through the generations, by the Gabbett family. The Estate is carefully managed in a sustainable way, which is integral to the Midleton Dair Ghaelach story.
Ten trees of 130 years of age were selected from Grinsell’s Wood on the estate. For every mature tree harvested, five saplings were planted in their place to hopefully be available, about 130 years in the future, to once again produce Irish oak whiskey casks.
After harvest, they were shipped to the north-western Spanish region of Galicia and onward to the Madebar Sawmills in Baralla, where for more than 50 years the same family has been working the wood. Here the staves are produced, under the watchful eyes of Midleton’s Master of Maturation, Kevin O’Gorman and Master Cooper, Ger Buckley, by means of the time-honoured, traditional quarter-sawing method.
The precisely shaped and honed staves then made the 10-hour journey from the Madebar sawmills to the Antonio Paez Lobato cooperage in Jerez, where they were laid out to dry naturally in the glowing warmth of the Spanish sun. Fifteen long months later, the Ballaghtobin oak staves were ready to work, coopered into 48 Irish Oak Hogshead casks of 250ltrs capacity and given a toast of medium intensity.
To Embrace Once Again - Single Pot Still & Irish Oak
The Irish Oak casks then completed their journey back to Ireland where they were filled with a range of light, medium and heavy Single Pot Still styles that had been matured for between 15 and 22 years in ex-bourbon (2nd & 3rd fill) American casks.
Each of these whiskeys had been crafted in the classical Single Pot Still Irish whiskey style; a mixed cereal base of malted and unmalted barley, triple distilled in the bulbous copper pot stills of Midleton and given the personal seal of approval by Midleton Master Distiller, Brian Nation.
After an initial vatting of two days, the casks were again allowed to sleep in the maturation warehouse. On this occasion, considering that this would be the first time since probably the early 19th century that Irish whiskey would be matured in virgin Irish Oak Hogsheads, it was imperative that caution be the order of the day with regard to that final peaceful slumber.
Midleton’s Master of Maturation, Kevin O’Gorman and Master Blender, Billy Leighton patiently nosed and tasted Midleton Dair Ghaelach each and every month, so as to monitor closely the range of flavours that were coming through.
After almost a year this unique whiskey was judged to be beautifully balanced and flavoured to subtle perfection by the Irish oak that gives it its name.
The initial experiments in Midleton confirmed what everyone was hoping for: Irish oak is unique in the manner of wood extractives or taste compounds that it contributes to the maturing spirit.
The mild, wet Irish climate results in a longer growing season and faster growing rates than in the USA, Spain or indeed any other part of Europe. A faster growth rate causes Irish oak hardwood to be less dense and more porous.
The wider, more open grain structure means a greater oak contribution from the cask when ageing spirits. This results in greater levels of lignin breakdown products, including Vanillin, Vanillic acid and Furfural.
You should expect a greater degree of Vanilla, Caramel, Chocolate and Toasted Wood flavours as a result of the levels of these compounds in Irish oak.
To preserve this wonderfully rich contribution from the Irish oak, Midleton Dair Ghaelach is non-chill filtered and bottled at cask strength.
To reflect the incredible sustainability and traceability efforts made with Dair Ghaelach, each and every bottle is labelled with the name of the Irish Forestry Estate where the oak was sourced, the batch number, the individual tree number and the bottle number.
The bottle I sampled was:
- Grinsell’s Wood
- Ballaghtobin Estate
- Batch 1
- Tree No. 09
- Bottle No. 3416
Caramel, light mahogany, woodland fragrances, blossom honey, vanilla, mocha, coffee, and hazelnut...develops with air to a more fragrant, citrus-laced nuttiness
Spicy, nutty, oily, buttered toast, cloves, cinnamon...with a long peppery, toasty oak finish
Nose with Water
A more refined nose: crème Brule, apple-drops, pear, mango, peach, vanilla, milk chocolate, floral, and even a touch of mint
Palate with Water
Silky, oily palate and an understated toasty honey- nut with just a touch of cloves and a long, lingering mouth warming finish that showcases all of the above
“Grinsell’s Wood” Edition is just the first Dair Ghaelach batch with three more batches already in the pipeline:
- Batch 2 of Dair Ghaelach is maturing in Midleton right now and should be ready, once Kevin and Billy are happy with the quality, sometime next year.
- Batch 3 oak is currently air drying in Jerez.
- Batch 4 oak was recently felled and is probably in Spain right now.
“With the recent resurgence in plantation, only now has it been viable for us to consider Irish Oak in the maturation of our whiskeys while ensuring that the oak reserves can be enjoyed by generations to come.”
- Kevin O’Gorman, Master of Maturation
“The process of maturing in native oak has enabled us to showcase our Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey style in a new and innovative way; the casks impart much more generous toasted wood, vanilla and caramel flavours than what we expect from American bourbon and Spanish oak, which we hope whiskey lovers will appreciate and enjoy.”
- Billy Leighton, Master Blender
- “Nature in Ireland, A Scientific and Cultural History” by Eoin Neeson, edited by John Wilson Foster (1997)
- Teagasc website accessed on 1st Dec 2015: http://www.teagasc.ie/forestry/advice/forestry_history.asp
- “Malting The Barley, John H Bennett, The Man and his Firm” by Trevor West (2006)