Monday 7 December 2015

Irish Oak & Midleton Dair Ghaelach - Part I

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One of the highlights of 2015 was the release of Midleton Dair Ghaelach, a single pot still whiskey finished in Irish oak casks. Just today, Whisky Advocate magazine declared it their Irish Whiskey of the Year.

It's also the topic of the very first guest post on Liquid Irish! The author, Eric Ryan, works in Midleton as a distillery operative - currently as a Still-man - and also as a production ambassador for Irish Distillers. He completed brewing & distilling studies with the Institute of Brewing & Distilling and with Heriot-Watt university in Edinburgh (where his thesis was "Intrinsic Whiskey Character: the influence of Oak Wood").

He serves on the committee of the Irish Whiskey Society and helps to run its Cork Chapter (usually meeting on the last Wednesday of each month).

He attends University College Cork on occasion as an evening lecture, presenting on the subject of Irish whiskey and Irish distilling history.

The following exploration of the story of Irish oak and its influence on the new Midleton whiskey will be published in several instalments.

If reading about the whiskey makes you thirsty, you have the opportunity to taste Midleton Dair Ghaelach in Cork with Eric Ryan himself on December 16th.

Over to Eric...

Irish Oak & Midleton Dair Ghaelach - Part I

by Eric Ryan

Midleton “Dair Ghaelach” Grinsell's Wood Edition is a recent addition to the ever-expanding Single Pot Stills of Midleton Range. This is the Irish whiskey that was judged as one of the top three whiskeys in the world by whiskey writer Jim Murray in the 2016 edition of his well respected Whiskey Bible, the world's leading whiskey guide.

“Dair Ghaelach” translates as “Irish Oak”, and it is our native oak, and the lamentable story behind it, that results in a whiskey that makes such a distinguished and lasting impression. The ancient legends of this land and the history of Irish forestry provide a fascinating backdrop to the story of Midleton “Dair Ghaelach”.

The Oak Tree and the Celts

Said to have fallen sometime before 600AD, Eo Mugna was one of the five legendary trees of Ireland and was reputedly a majestic oak that bore apples, acorns and hazelnuts.

With the arrival of Christianity, Celtic veneration for this oak transferred into Irish folklore with Eo Mugna now said to have been descended from the Tree of Knowledge, found in the Garden of Eden.

With oral traditions like this, it is no surprise to learn that the ancient Celts believed oak trees to be very sacred. Within the Gaelic tribes, respect for trees was practically universal.
“Out of 16,000 town lands in Ireland, 13,000 were named in one way or another after trees.” 1
Mayo, Roscommon, Derry, Newry, Trim, Roscrea, Adare, Kildare, Kilcullen, Cratloe, Youghal, and Clonakilty are examples of Irish place names derived from the name of a tree or a wood. Root words expressive of woods, forests and trees include coil/coillte (wood); daire/daur (oak); coll (hazel); cuileann (holly); sail (willow); iúir/eo (yew), trom (elder) and beithe (birch).

Bretha na Comaithchesca (Law of the Neighbourhood) was an eight century Celtic document that served to protect woodland and regulate wood use. Under Brehon Law, strict fines were imposed if trees of certain value were cut down or damaged without permission.

Legal protection for trees was documented in a poem of the same century, Ma be rí rofesser, from the law tract Críth Gablach which reads: “A danger from which there is no escape is the penalty for felling a sacred tree” (translation D. A. Binchy).

The Celts had four sets of classification for trees:

  1. Airig Fedo (Nobles of the Wood): oak, hazel, holly, yew, ash, apple

  2. Aithig Fedo (Commoners of the Wood): alder, willow, hawthorn, birch, elm, wild cherry

  3. Fodla Fedo (Lower Divisions of the Wood): blackthorn, elder, juniper, spindle, whitebeam

  4. Iosa Fedo (Bushes of the Wood): bracken, gorse, bramble, heather, wild rose
Of all the Airig Fedo, the oak tree was considered the "King of the Forest" and a symbol of knowledge. The Celts believed that oak trees provided a door to the Otherworld and that doors made of oak would ward off evil spirits. In Irish mythology the oak was the sacred tree of An Dagda, the Father God and protector of the tribe, which gave shelter to all of pure heart.

As a symbol of this Celtic veneration, many place names in Ireland are called after the oak tree, or Dair, as it is called in Irish. Examples include; Kildare or Cill Dara: translating loosely to 'Church of the Oak', Adare or Ath-Dara: the ford of the oak tree, Derrynane or Doire-Fhionan: the oak grove of St. Finan, Portumna or Portomna: the landing place of the oak, and Durrow or Dearmhagh: the field of the oaks.

Columcille was said to have built a church on the site where Derry is situated today.
“He supposedly built a church there in the middle of the sixth century. However he was so attached to the forest of oak trees that stood on the site that he would not allow even one to be felled to make room for his buildings.” 2
These adored trees gave the place its name. Doire or Daire, meaning an oak wood or an island covered by oak trees, later became anglicised to Derry.

Large areas of Ulster were at that time covered in woods. In north Armagh, there are folk memories of these ancient woods. It was said that "a bird could hop or a man could walk on the top of the trees all the way from Toome to Coleraine".
“The Annals of the Four Masters abound in references to the ancient woods of Ireland, which prove that in a great part of the country a dominant characteristic of the social system of ancient Ireland was the forest life of the people.” 3
As this story unfolds however, we will see that, due in large part to war and rebellion, the tragic fate of the “Protector of the Tribe” is destined to mirror that of the indigenous Celtic people.

Irish Oak – A Turbulent History

For 9,000 years, post-glacial wild woodland covered approximately 80% of Ireland. The authentic landscape of Ireland is western Atlantic temperate rainforest and, without human interference, the country today would still be a dense blanket of ancient forest.

Between five and six thousand years ago, the hunter-gatherer Mesolithic people were joined by Neolithic farmers, and since agricultural living requires land clearing and permanent settlements, the decline of Ireland’s forest cover began.

Nevertheless, Ireland remained largely under ancient forestry around the time of the Norman invasions from 1169. It was under the Normans that this country became a source of timber for the building of castles, roads, bridges and dwellings in England.
“It was from the fair green of Oxmantown, once covered with woods that extended westward over the whole of what is now the Phoenix Park, that William Rufus drew the timber around 1097 for the roof of Westminster Hall, where, as the chronicle of Dr. Hanmer has it, no English spider webbeth or breedeth to this day.” 4
Nevertheless, little attempt was made, for up to three centuries after the arrival of the English in Ireland, to encroach to any serious extent upon the native forest reserves of the Irish inhabitants, though a Statute of Edward I, passed in 1296, did contain a largely ineffective clause which was designed to provide highways through the country.

During the rule of Elizabeth I (1558 – 1603), when bitter rebellion in Ireland was widespread, there was a proverb that ‘the Irish will never be tamed while the leaves are on the trees’ 4, meaning that the winter was the only time in which the woods could be entered by an army with any hope of success.

Elizabeth I, in an effort to deprive Irish insurgents of safety and shelter, whilst at the same time sourcing much needed timber for construction and galley building, ordered the complete destruction of forestry in Ireland.

A report submitted to the Crown in 1608 by Philip Cottingham stated that the country was abounding in timber, mainly ‘noble oaks’ fit for the purposes of shipbuilding. The English sea trading network had begun to widen from the 1550’s and thousands of mature oak trees were required to build each of the Elizabethan Galleon’s and merchant ships required to defend Britain from the marauding Spanish Armada of 1588.

Many of the famous hulking timber battleships, that defended Britain in this hour of need, were built of Irish oak.
“A 74-gun ship consumed about two thousand large trees of about two tons each, the equivalent of clearing about fifty acres of well grown woodland”. 5
Royal ships were by 1600 routinely sailing to the Americas and into the Mediterranean, on voyages of trade or privateering, and the first attempts were being made to break into the valuable spice trade in Asia. The demand for these voyages contributed further to the steady and rapid decline of Irish forestry.

It wasn’t only Crown ships that were being built with Irish oak. “The Irish build very good ships,” said Sir Arthur Chichester, the Lord Deputy of Ireland from 1605 to 1616, who also noted that many English merchants preferred to have their vessels made in this country of Irish oak.

Sir Arthur Chichester was the very man who granted the first licenses to distill in Ireland, one of which was awarded to Sir Thomas Phillips in April 1608 to cover the “countie of Colrane, otherwise called O Cahanes countrey, or within the territorie called the Rowte, in Co. Antrim”.

Sir Thomas Phillips and the well-connected Earl of Salisbury were to hatch a cunning plan to persuade the powerful and prosperous City of London to fund a proper plantation in north western Ireland. With the blessing of the King, the unconvinced City fathers agreed to accompany Sir Thomas Phillips on a visit to the area. Requiring reassurances that their investments would pay off, they were suitably impressed by the vast swathes of valuable oak forestry.

Due largely to the vast resources of oak forests still in Ireland, a consortium of London City merchant companies, in return for certain privileges, duly contracted with the Crown to carry out the plantation of Derry, Coleraine County and the barony of Loughinsholin.

The Ulster plantations began in earnest around 1609 with a steady influx of Scottish and English settlers spreading across the country and proceeding to fell woodland at an incredible rate. So profitable was timber that it was often the case that the amount for which an estate was bought was recovered in full, thus, as a saying of the time went, ‘making the feathers pay for the goose’.

This clearance of large tracts of woodland was to change the landscape of Ireland forever.

  1. Ireland’s Medieval Woodland: An Archaeological Approach to Understanding Long Term Patterns of Wood Use, Management and Exploitation, by Susan Lyons, Department of Archaeology, UCC, The Boolean (2014) 

  2. The Siege of Derry – A History, by Carlo Gebler (2005) 

  3. The Woods of Ireland, by Caesar Litton Falkiner in Illustrations of Irish History and Topography: Mainly of the Seventeenth Century, Green, (1904) 

  4. Ancient Irish Histories, Dr. Meredith Hanmer's and Henry Marleburrough's Chronicles of Ireland (1570), Edited by Sir James Ware in 1633, Reprinted in 1970 

  5. The Critical Review, Or Annals of Literature, Volume the Sixtieth, by A Society of Gentlemen, Printed for A Hamilton (1781) 

Stay tuned for Part II...