A well attended tasting saw a nice mix of regulars and first timers. Most attendees seemed to be there in order to explore the Irish category as they seemed fairly unfamiliar with the brands, history and flavours.
We started with a malt 'Copper Alley' from Liberties a new distillery based in Dublin although the contents of our bottle were outsourced from one of the three Irish distilleries with aged stock. Next we had a Dubliner blend from the same company. Perhaps the most interesting dram of the night was the Roe & Co. blend from Diageo. A company that recently bought in too Irish whiskey with the purchase of Bushmills before off loading the brand to a Tequila producer. Again outsourced the plan is to build a relatively small distillery in the grounds of the Guinness brewery. The blend is quite subtle and is to an extent aimed at the cocktail make. Next was the more substantial Glendalough 13yo single malt at 46% with a good mouth feel and a pleasant sweet note. The small distillery in the south of Ireland also produces gin in its single still. Plans are foot to shift production from the rather uninspiring commercial site to a more aesthetically rewarding location of an old farm. Finally the easily most popular dram of the night was a new extension to the Redbreast range - the Lusaut sherry cask finished 46% expression. The mildest of the range but no less of a whiskey for that.
Tonight's tasting features new releases and will be a blind tasting in order that the drams are judged on their merits rather than expectations. Future tastings include a Glenrothes evening with no less an industry illuminary than Ronnie Cox. there will also be another new distillery profiled where we have a good look at Eden Mill. RMW events
Below is a half hearted attempt at an overview of the Irish industry, apologies for the many shortcomings in the 'piece' please feel free to criticise and correct!
I started writing this last year and feared it would still be unfinished next year so have decided to upload it now - worts and all, so If you actually read it you'll notice some mistakes (IDG/UDI/etc) and maybe even some typos - sorry but I'm sure a better version will emerge next year or the year after:-
IRISH Whiskey; Uisce Beatha
Scottish whisky enthusiasts are doubtless familiar with the ups and downs of the Scottish trade, the almost cyclic boom and bust pattern having been repeated through history. The Irish industry in comparison seems to have experienced much less of a constant state of flux but rather tells a tale of the national pour being promoted out of fiscal suppression to the spirit of choice from bar to dinner table, a slide of popularity thanks to an almost stubborn decision to stick to traditional methods when a lighter blended style became an option to the present when new distilleries and brands are emerging to greet the rekindled interest in whisk(e)y in general with Irish enjoying a big share of the attention. A quick statistic however can put some things in perspective: in 2013 the Scots sold 93M cases to the Irish 6M. However this has to be seen as an improvement on another pair of figures from 1952 when Irish exports amounted to £0.5M against Scotch’s £32.5M.
There now follows a brief sketch of the Irish industry with some milestones along the journey punctuated by occasional descriptions of companies and their distilleries.
If we consider that the Moors brought the skill of distillation, albeit for the creation of perfumes, to Spain from the East in the middle ages it is accepted that Irish missionaries present in the Mediterranean from 500/600AD brought the practice back with them on their return. Fast forward to 1405 and there is the first citing of ‘aqua viral’ although no use of cereal is mentioned. On to 1556 and an act of parliament includes grain in connection to spirit. Come 1661 the taxman places his first stake in production. Further still we see production must be so well established that as much as 60,000 gallons of Irish whiskey is exported to Portugal for the fortification of port and in 1757 George Roe’s Thomas Street distillery is the largest in the United Kingdom. The decline of illicit production followed a reform in land ownership which meant more people were able to turn to crop growing for income. Further the 1779 Distilling Act took a minimum charge per still based upon still capacity and coupled this with an assumed minimum number of times the still could be used in a 28 day period. Inevitably this led to a hurrying of the distillation process in order to minimise the tax paid on each gallon produced, This model however does not result in a quality product. Subsequently the legal number of Irish stills fell from around 1000 to a quarter of this figure in eleven years. New legislation in 1823 resulted in a charge on both actual quantity as well as strength of spirit produced alongside a simple £10 licence fee. This was adequate to ensure quality affordable legal production was viable and as in Scotland illicit distillation gradually declined.
Ironically a Scotsman has been considered the father of the industrial aspect of the trade in Ireland. John Jameson travelled to Dublin in the 1770s with his wife - a member of another great Scottish whisky dynasty - the Haigs. The family had indeed a pioneering gene - one of his grandsons was none other than Guiseppe Marconi. On reaching Ireland he bought a share in the Bow Street distillery and was outright owner come 1800. One of John’s sons ran Marrowbone Lane distillery which was previously owned by another Scotsman from the Stein line of distillers. Another company’s innovations in production further illustrates the significance of the progressive nature of the industry at the beginning of the industrial revolution : Power’s John’s Lane distillery (1791-1976) employed the first steam engine in Ireland as well as the first electric dynamo in Dublin. Future advances from the firm included being the first distiller to bottle their product as well as being the first company to make use of miniature bottles.
Undoubtably the most influential Irishman on the world stage of whisk(e)y was the French born Aeneas Coffey - perfecter of the continuous still. From the point when the Irish chose to rebuff this significant new piece of apparatus whilst the Scottish embraced this revolution in spirit production the tide was set to turn on the fortunes of the respective industries. Upon the approval of mixing grain and malt production in the 1960s the fate of the Irish was sealed with Scotland exploiting the balancing of cost and flavour and the Irish decision to stick with traditional methods.
Other key influences in the decline of the once mighty Irish industry include the first world war, the Irish war of independence (1916), the civil war (1919-21), the ensuing teade war with the UK and empire, prohibition in the USA and the second world war. During and shortly after WW2 Scotland and Ireland had different approaches to how to best use stocks for fiscal gain. Scotland successfully chose to go with exports - primarily to the USA where returning troops took with them the taste for tasty but gentle blends whilst Ireland decided to keep sales at home and generate tax from the population rather than encourage the inward flow of foreign currency from exports. Returning to the pre-war period a move in 1926 to increase the minimum bonding period from 3 to 5 years in an effort to suggest a superior product to the Scottish alternative affected both the cash flow of companies as 2 years of stock was restricted from use as well as increasing the minimum cost of bottled stock. This ruling was eventually overturned in 1969.
By the 1960s it was recognised that to stand a chance against the dominant Scottish trade the Irish producers needed to amalgamate. In 1966 IDG was created, the combined resources of the constituent firms were now able to cohesively promote Irish whiskey in the USA. Come 1973 Bushmills joined the consortium and Irish Distilling Group was formed. A major step forward came in 1975 with the opening of the new Midleton distillery, the first new build in over 100 years. By building on cheaper land in the south the more valuable Dublin properties could be put on the market once production ceased.
Situated a couple of miles inland on the south coast the original Midelton distillery started life as a textile factory in 1796 and was converted to distilling in 1825. Come 1867 Midleton and four other Cork distilleries amalgamated to create Cork Distillers Group (CDG). 2 of the distilleries kept in production in order to save on labour costs. It is thought that Midelton was the last distillery to use oats in the mash with as much as 5-7% being employed. It was the joining of CDG with Dublin’s John Jameson and John Power that created IDG.
The next ‘new’ distillery came in 1987 when an disused state owned industrial alcohol plant was converted for grain distillation with pot stills being added for the supply of malt whiskey. Cooley distillery was to both supply merchants and release blends, grains and malts of their own including peated expressions but no triple distilled or pot still varieties. The company, headed by John Teeling, purchased old brand names as well as the mothballed Kilbeggan distillery which has claims to being the oldest licensed distillery in not just Ireland but possibly the world.
In 1988/9 the growing confidence and prospects of Irish whiskey was acknowledged when Pernod Ricard of France bought IDG. Within 5 years the company’s profits had doubled. Since then Diageo has bought and sold Bushmills distillery (sold to Tequila producer Casa Cuervo) then re-entered the market with another resurrected brand name - Roe & Co.. This current incarnation being a blend designed to be as popular with cocktail makers as a traditional serve. Plans to build a new 3 still distillery next to the company’s Guinness brewery are advanced with completion date set for 2019. Another high profile sale was that of Cooley to the American company Beam. Although a small part of the spirits industry in the US it is estimated sales may realistically triple over the next 12 years. Given that world wide sales of Irish have experienced double digit growth since the mid-1990s with a 300% increase in the last 10 years then this projected growth seems quite possible. A few years after the sale of Cooley Beam itself was taken over by Suntory of Japan, how big a part the Irish element played in the purchase is interesting - are there more divestments to come? With one brand, Jameson, owning an incredible 60% of the Irish whiskey market it will be interesting to see if this lead can be further capitalised on or if new and powerful players can wrestle a slice of the action. I read 18 distilleries are now operational and 10 more planned, exciting times - I hope to return to this thread with more details of these companies when I've more time, ha!