Midleton Dair Ghaelach – do it right or not at all

Midleton Dair Ghaelach Irish Oak

Now you see me, now you don’t. Elegant and slender two-hundred-year-old oak tree, which seconds ago seemed an unmovable, permanent feature of these woods, suddenly decided to lean slightly, then a little more, crack and finally fall to the ground with an earth-shuddering thump. A falling tree is a force to be reckoned with.

Fast forward. I’m now hunching ungracefully on a muddy road in another wood, trying to make myself as small a target for the damp and bitterly cold Irish February wind as possible. In front of me stretches a young forest, twenty years ago there was a field here. The sight is effectively putting me off planting an oak in my garden. Twenty years is a long time and these glorified twigs still have some way to go before you could honestly call them trees. But they are the future.

Do it right or don’t do it at all – we’ve all heard this. The rule is quoted by many but applied by few, even in the quality-dependant whisky world. But if there is one thing Irish Distillers have taught us recently is that they live by this simple motto, they’ve made it their mantra. It would have been relatively easy to buy one or two oak trees from forest owners, have casks made from them and a few months later hail a marketing victory to the unsuspecting community. Instead, a team led by Kevin O’Gorman and Billy Leighton looked at the issue of using Irish oak in the process of maturing Irish whiskey from a wide perspective. They took into account sustainability, which I learned about shivering slightly on the said muddy road, they looked at how their spirit fares in this relatively fast-growing type of oak and they drafted in the best craftsmen to help them on the journey and lend their expertise.

On the day the cork flew out of one of the first bottles of Midleton Dair Ghaelach at a low-key ceremony at Ballaghtobin Estate, Co. Kilkenny, the entire chain of supply was in attention. The friendly and flamboyant owners of the Grinsell’s Wood, where the first ten oak trees were felled in April 2012. The sombre but charismatic forestry expert Paddy who will no doubt one day turn into an ent. The silent Spanish giant from the Maderbar sawmills in Baralla, responsible for the process of quarter-sawing the precious wood. An elegant family from the Antonio Páez Lobato cooperage in Jerez, where after drying for 15 months the staves were crafted into forty eight Irish oak hogsheads and finished with a medium toast. The Irish Distillers side too left hardly anyone out of the proceedings. From Ger Buckley – Midleton’s cooper, to Kevin O’Gorman – Master of Maturation, Billy Leighton – Master Blender and Jayne Murphy – the Senior Brand Manager. When you see a line-up like this you know they are taking it seriously. A deep sense of pride filled the air like sawdust.

And for good reason.

The Midleton Dair Ghaelach I tried came from tree number 9 and was bottled at 58.2% ABV.

The whiskey is the colour of over-brewed tea, rich with amber reflexes. On the nose it’s spicy, not in the Oriental I-don’t-even-know-what-it’s-called way but focused with good old crushed black pepper at the front. Not unlike the spiciness you find in an exceptional rye, think Rittenhouse. Underneath the peppery goodness the new Midleton Dair Ghaelach shows a wealth of vanilla. It’s burned and caramelised and while it’s such a cliché descriptor, crème brûlée fits perfectly. Irish oak is really hard at work here. The whiskeys used as a base were pockets of mature Midleton single pot still – light, medium and heavy distillate style – from ex-bourbon casks, aged between 14 and 22 years, then vatted together before being finished in virgin Irish oak for 10 months. And that time was more than enough. The vanilla hit is relentless and right beside is another sweet aroma, honeycomb. It may sound all unicorns and rainbows but the sugary structure is in fact quite dirty, a little angry. Is the Midleton still there, I hear the fans of the Barry Crockett Legacy cry. Don’t worry. The house style comes right up with a drop of water, it swells like the sea and arrives on a tide of pineapple and banana peel as well as red berries and ripe gooseberries. On the palate it’s firm and structured, with heaps of vanilla and tannin, a helping of berries again, melon softness and something elusive… fruity and dark. Perhaps really ripe black cherries, soaked in spirit and sunk in soft black forest cake. Bittersweet finish.

Midleton Dair Ghaelach is a complex and, let’s say it, slightly wild dram. It retains just enough of the signature style to earn a place within the range but it’s definitely right at the edge of vision. There is an intensity and a sense of purpose to it which is quite different from the very elegant and measured approach we’ve seen Midleton adhere to so far. It’s memorable, bold liquid, flawlessly executed and overall, without a doubt, outstanding.

And here the story should end really. Kevin and Billy had an idea and they saw it through. The integrity shown by the team throughout the process and the sheer focus on quality is inspiring, watch and learn Champagne-finishers. But the fact is, this is merely the beginning. Kevin is already saying there is no reason why maturation in Irish oak should not become an important part of whiskey-making there. They are certainly taking steps to ensure they don’t run out of trees – research programmes are under way and there is now good forestation policy in place. So far it’s single-tree (that’s a first, surely!) limited releases for aficionados but one day Irish oak with its big tannin and lignin-derived profile could be a viable alternative to Spanish oak, or at least it could help to drive that side of the flavour spectrum. It all depends on what happens now. There are virgin Irish oak casks at Midleton filled with new make spirit. Nobody has looked at them yet and I, for one, am holding my breath slightly. It’s one thing to successfully finish an already developed whiskey for 10 months and something altogether more tricky to ensure this open-grained wood performs in the medium and long run, both in terms of flavour and spirit retention.

But whatever happens, wherever the research takes them, I’m not concerned. Because at Midleton they do it right or don’t do it at all. And that’s that.

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