Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Water in your Whiskey

The Water in your Whiskey
The Dungourney River. (Pic via Irish Distillers)

Time and time again, during our recent two day “immersion” at the Irish Whiskey Academy in Midleton, a few drops of water worked its magic at various tastings. Even when we were privileged to taste a 26-year old from a Bourbon cask in one of the warehouses.

“The cask is unique,” emphasised our tutor and guide Ciaran O'Donovan. “Both for its age and for the fact that the whiskey inside has ‘escaped’ been blended since 1991!” 

The bung was extracted and we examined the whiskey in the glass. “It has great legs, more viscous at this age, sweet with fruit flavours.” Then we added a few drops of water to cut the alcohol. Again the old H2O worked its magic, smoothing everything down a little, making it much more approachable without losing any of the essential character.

I know it’s only five or six drops but it always amazes me that this most freely available of liquids (in Ireland anyhow) can be so influential on a more expensive liquids. 
This mill stone, powered by the water wheel, was used to
grind down barley and malt to grist.
And especially so if the ABV is higher than the normal 40%. As it was in the on-site Irish Whiskey Academy, when we came to taste a New Make Pot Still Spirit whose ABV was, wait for it, 94.4%. It was fruity (mainly apple) and again the drop of water did the trick! Old-time whiskey drinkers knew this of course. That's why you see those water jugs in older pubs. 

Modern whiskey experts and masters regularly emphasise the point at tastings and talks. Two years ago, at the Ballymaloe Litfest, whiskey ace Dave Broom has us tasting a whiskey, Tullamore Dew Phoenix, a blend of all three Irish whiskey types:  “The Single Pot Still comes through. It has a rich dark character and you also note the effects of the sherry barrels. At 55%, it needs water. It is lovely, well balanced, with good characters.”
The old wheel, still turning.
And, of course, those few drops at the end of the whiskey’s life are just that. Water has been influential from the very start as it is a key ingredient. And that is why whiskey distilleries are located near a water source. Or more than one water source, which is the case with Midleton.

The most obvious source is the little river (not 20 kilometres long), the short Dungourney that flows through the town and, when you visit the distillery, you'll see the old giant water-wheel. Sometimes the river needed a boost and in 1834, the distillery purchased a stationary beam engine from the UK to aid the water-wheel during periods of low water. That engine was still in use when the ‘old’ distillery closed in 1975.

East Cork is an area rich in limestone and such areas have lots of caves. Just underneath the distillery, there are caverns full of nice cool water! The two other sources are bore-hole and the public supply.
The river was originally the main source of soft clear water supply for the Old Midleton Distillery, hence the big wheel! It is clean but has minerals. Once treated at the water treatment plant, the water is used for various activities including: brewing, distillation, fermentation, feeds recovery and boiler feed water.

The water from the cavern and borehole, located directly beneath the distillery, is ideal for cooling. It is used throughout the various processes: brewhouse cooling, still-house cooling and feeds recovery cooling.
Welcome to Midleton
The town’s water supply is used to reduce the spirit strength (cutting). It undergoes a thorough filtration and demineralisation process in the reverse osmosis treatment plant before it is used in the Vathouse.

The first spirit was distilled in Midleton Distillery in the early 19th century, the river and cool cavern water playing a key role. But so too did the distillery’s access to nearby Ballinacurra (where the Dungourney goes to sea). This easy access meant the the whiskey could be easily transferred by small lighters from Ballinacurra to the nearby port of Cobh and then onwards on salty ocean waters to countries throughout the world.

Distilling continued on the original site for 150 years (with many up and downs) and, in 1975, the new distillery was commissioned just a short stroll away. The original site is now a tourist attraction but whiskey is being made there again in the company's new micro-distillery. The story, including the essential water, continues.

See also: Whiskey. What's Wood Got To Do With It?

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