Not so serious reflections on the trip to Ireland

Midleton Warehouse

Since I’m going away to Roseisle and Chris is stuck back in Edinburgh I promissed I would at least do some blog work on the train. So here I am, working. On the train.

A few weeks ago now, Chris and I had an absolute pleasure of visiting County Cork in Ireland, touring the Midleton Distillery and polishing off a couple of bottles with some key members of the Jameson/Midleton/Redbreast team, otherwise known as Irish Distillers*. In short, it was an eye-opener. I’ll tell you why but first things first.

If you are reading this from an English-speaking country there is no way you don’t know an Irish person. If you are reading this from Germany, Scandinavia, Israel or… Samoa, there is still a very good chance you do know a Paddy or two. But if you are in fact reading this from a cellar of your father’s house somewhere in Austria, where you were imprisoned at a tender age of five, then there actually is a chance you may never have shared a pint or five with one of them green-clad, fair-skinned, ginger-bearded fellas. And to cater for you, poor soul, I will draw a simple portrait of the Irish people and Irish whiskey, as observed by Chris and myself in County Cork not long ago.

The Irish just don’t give up

Ha, you thought I would write about how much they drink first, didn’t ya! Well, no. First I want to pass on one thing I was made aware of when talking to chaps at Midleton. In the 20th century the Irish whiskey industry suffered two world wars, a civil war, two major and one minor recession, some further political turmoil and more. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that since Midleton distillery wasn’t killed by those events, it was in fact made bigger and stronger. The Old Midleton distillery is now converted into a visitor centre, as written about by Chris, and all the production activity takes place at the ‘new’ plant right next to it, built in the 1970s and due to be extended next year. And it was the operating distillery, rather than the heritage site, that I had been most excited about. Until recently the place was completely off bounds for most mortals and the plant is still very rarely seen by anyone from the outside.

The new distillery hosts multiple pot stills and patent stills under one roof and is a large-scale utilitarian plant with a strong industrial feel to it. Right next to the main distillery building there is a pre-fill cask store, a filling plant where they fill 1,000 casks a day and a city of warehouses. A city, no kidding. They have in the region of 850,000 cask maturing on site, all stacked 7-high (in upright position) in palletised warehouses holding around 34,000 casks each. Surely, you’re getting the picture. Masses over masses of casks, millions over millions of litres of spirit. All in one place, all eggs in one basket. As you can imagine the fire safety systems are pretty advanced there but a high-up figure in the Scotch whisky industry didn’t fail to throw ‘very Irish’ when I recently mentioned this at a dinner table. Well, how very Scottish of him to say that.

Chris and I were under impression that Irish Distillers built themselves a castle at Midleton, a keep that would help Irish whiskey weather any storm the world may throw its way. They just refuse to give up them Paddies and it is inspirational.

The Irish don’t keep it simple

Let’s start with the pot still spirit. First of all, we can’t call it single malt because it’s not 100% malted barley. Unmalted barley is added to the grain mix and mashed together with malt. What exactly does it do to the spirit? Well, according to David Quinn (Master of Maturation) and Billy Leighton (Master Blender) it gives their whiskey its signature silky mouthfeel, makes it coat your mouth and helps to deliver a more subtle finish. If you have tried Jameson against Scottish equivalents you probably more or less know what I’m talking about. But try Redbreast 15yo (if you can get some) or Green Spot (you almost certainly won’t be able to get one), which are 100% pot still, and you will be amazed at just how silky spirit can get. They feel on the tongue like they are really oily but in fact they aren’t. Pot still Irish whiskey is simply, however cliché it may sound, smooth. It’s not all down to the unmalted barley though, oh no. Spirit at Midleton is triple distilled as opposed to most Scottish spirit which is distilled twice. A well executed triple distillation creates spirit that is usually perceived as slightly purer or lighter in taste.

And this is where it gets really geeky. I spent some time chatting to David Quinn about the ways in which Midleton spirit is ‘cut’. You see, Scottish spirit is cut twice, first at the end of the foreshots run and then at the beginning of the feints run. Two variables. Now traditional Irish pot still spirit goes through one more distillation which means there are 4 cuts/variables which, as you are probably quickly calculating, leads to many different combinations and Irish distillers, being Irish, take full advantage of that and produce many different pot still spirit styles under one roof. At Midleton they make three basic styles – light, medium and heavy – as well as several others made with specific expressions in mind. The process is quite mind boggling but I was made to listen to all of that stone sober for which, frankly, I was quite grateful.

Pure pot still Irish whiskey (equivalent of single malt) looked for a while like a nearly extinct species and rivers of tears were cried over it. But now, with Redbreast and Midleton brands from Midleton distillery resurrected in style , other single pot stills from remaining Irish distilleries and little gems like Green Spot (also made at Midleton but for someone else) still kicking about, the future is bright for this noblest of Irish spirits.

But the bulk of what comes out of Midleton is obviously Jameson. It’s a blend of pot still whiskeys and grain whiskeys made under the same roof. There are three column stills at Midleton and their grain is, similarly to pot still, distilled three times – first time to separate light compounds from beer (wash), second time to get rid of heavier fusel alcohols (it’s cut down with water first to make them relatively lighter) and for the third time to finish and purify it.

Why bother? Why make so many different styles of spirit instead of just focusing on one or two? The answer is simple. While Scottish blenders have the wealth of around 100 malt distilleries to choose from, a handful of operating Irish distilleries can’t deliver the constant flow of diverse but consistent spirits a blending operation requires. So making different styles under one roof is an answer to the environment the distillery operates in, a carefully designed strategy. They are not just ‘being Irish’.

They’re simply the best

One of the most important things I observed while in County Cork was a fabulous link between the people, the land and the spirit. Whiskey made at Midleton, tasted straight from the cask, poured generously and enjoyed for what it is encapsulates the character of the place. A sip or two and the world seems a much better place, everything suddenly makes perfect sense.

You may think I’m saying all these nice things because they put me up in a nice hotel and got me drunk on some of the best spirits money can buy and, in fact, some spirits money can’t buy. But I mean it. Quite simply and from the bottom of my heart I long for the place and the people. I am already planning my next visit to Ireland and I suggest you do the same. No whisky lover can afford not to visit Irish distilleries and no whisky education is complete without learning about Irish spirit in Ireland.

The train is slowing down, we’re nearing Aberdeen. But I’m struggling to get excited about another trip to Speyside, my thoughts are on another island. Them cunning Paddies must have stolen my heart while I was asleep under the table.


P.S. I have interesting photos from this trip but because we have recently moved servers I can’t upload them for some reason. I will speak to my host when I get back to Edinburgh and will sort it out asap.

*Irish Distillers (with capital ‘D’) is a company that owns Jameson, they are part of Pernod Ricard. I also use ‘Irish distillers’ by which I simply mean people who distill stuff in Ireland.

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