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Friday, October 20, 2017
Great to see the Powers John’s Lane, one of my favourite whiskeys coming out on top at the Irish Whiskey Awards last night. Thanks to the Celtic Whiskey Shop, you can see all the winners below....
Thursday, October 19, 2017
Holy Smoke On The Mardyke
Temple of Fire and Smoke
If you visit Holy Smoke, and you should, you’ll be visiting a kingdom of fire and smoke. And your royal guides will be John Relihan and Deccie Walsh.
John welcomed us to their tasty palace on the Mardyke last Tuesday night for a rather special evening: six courses of pit smoked BBQ paired with either Irish Craft Beer or Irish Whiskey. Caroline Hennessy, of Eight Degrees and author of Slainte, introduced the beers while Killian O’Mahony, a recently qualified cooper at Midleton Distillery, told us about the whiskey.
Did you know that Holy Smoke is housed in the original Woodford Bourne cellars (1875), that stored at one time over 50,000 gallons of choice whiskies, Cognac, rum and casks of wine, sherries and ports?
John told us they cook here “with fire”, using a Japanese Robata grill and a large smoker. They use sustainable charcoal (supplied by an Oxford firm). Ribs take four hours while brisket and pork can take 14 to 16 hours. He stressed the importance of using the right charcoal and the right wood.
He has trained with some of the best, including Jamie Oliver, and in many cuisines including BBQ, Italian, Spanish, Japanese. “It’s been quite a journey,” said the man from Duagh in Co, Kerry. They have just introduced steak to the menu - “you can expect lots of different cuts and do check out our Jazz event on October 25th.” Link is here.
Six courses seems like a lot. But the Holy Smoke team judged this to perfection. It was quality all the way but the quantity was spot-on too, not too much and certainly not too little.
After a welcome drink of Prosecco and a bowl of pickles and pork scratchings, Caroline introduced the first of the beers. “The Franciscan Well were among the first of our craft brewers and their traditional red ale, the Rebel Red, is great with pork.” And our first dish was Gubbeen Hot Links Sausages. These spicy sausages, commonly used in southern US barbecues, got the taste buds up and running.
More pork now but of a very different kind: Wet Rubbed Baby Back Ribs (marinaded overnight and smoked for four hours over oak). Caroline praised the quality of Irish Malt and said Eight Degrees were proud to use it. And certainly the Howling Gale Pale Ale had a good solid base of malt, a lovely aroma and not too hoppy and proved a good match for the ribs and the cornbread.
And next came one of the highlights of the night: Pulled Pork Slider (shoulder smoked low and slow for 14 hours). Amazingly succulent and delicious and the Stonewell cider, that Caroline had been keeping in reserve, proved an ideal match.
Head Chef Deccie Walsh managed to take a few minutes away from the kitchen and told us of his love for slow cooking and nose to tail cooking. He really enjoys this type of event. After last night, we all do!
Another highlight next: Pit Smoked BBQ Chicken Wings (marinaded, smoked for 4 hours and char-grilled). Accompanied by pickled celery and a blue cheese dip, this was a superb mid-menu course, fingers in action again. And the beer? Another from Eight Degrees: the Barefoot Bohemian Pilsner, a nice light beer in the traditional Czech style and excellent with the wings.
Brisket Burnt End Sliders were now arriving on the table, another highlight for me, all the more appreciated when we heard that their journey to our plates had started during the storm of the day before.
We had a two drinks to go with this one. The first was a can of the Franciscan Well Irish Pale Ale, a favourite of mine. “Don't drink from the can,” Caroline advised. “Pour it into the glass, the better to appreciate its lovely amber colour, the citrus aromas. As you drink, you’ll note the citrus bite.”
Killian told us about the importance of the casks as he introduced the Green Spot whiskey made at Midleton from pot still whiskey aged between seven and nine years, with 25% coming from sherry casks.
Time then for dessert: Chocolate, banana and caramel brownie, with a whiskey sauce. Obviously, if you had whiskey remaining (I didn’t), you could have tried a drop with this.
The final beer was the award-winning Amber Ella from Eight Degrees. As Caroline said, it has a lovely malty flavour to go with the brownie and the sauce. First brewed in 2014, this American style amber surprised the home brewers by taking a bronze in the World Beer Cup in the US. “It was a big surprise,” recalled Caroline. “ It was a boost for Eight Degrees but also a boost for Irish craft.”
Killian had ended his whiskey intro with a toast to friendship and the lovely evening finished in that kind of spirit, old friends met and new friends made. Thanks for the invite and Slainte to all at Holy Smoke.
Thursday, April 27, 2017
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?
See also: Whiskey. What's Wood Got To Do With It?
Thursday, April 20, 2017
What’s Wood Got To Do With It?
|Cooper Ger Buckley with a stave secure in his "horse"|
“You can take whiskey out of wood but you can never take the wood out of whiskey.” This was a quote in the sales literature when, a year or two back, Irish Distillers launched their Cooper’s Croze (one of a trio that also included the Distiller’s Safe and the Blender’s Dog).The influence of oak can be seen in the Croze through it’s vanilla sweetness, rich fruit flavours, floral and spice notes.
Last week I had the privilege of seeing Ger Buckley, the master working cooper at Irish Distillers HQ in Midleton, in action, a bottle of the Croze he produced in the background and a croze in his hands. A croze? Ger has used a croze all his working life. He uses it to cut the grove along the top of the staves to hold the head (the circular cover) in place.
It is an old and simple tool, just like his other key implements, the hammer and the driver (both heavy), the carving axe (bevelled on just one side) and the adze (a shaping axe). The hammer, the axe and the adze are ancient tools, sacred tools in some cultures around the world.
|Ger with croze in hand|
Remember, there is no measuring in the cooperage, all done by eye, but each barrel or cask has a related compass. Other tools include the dog (used to insert the reed that makes a seal between upright and horizontal) and the horse and a stationery plane.
Our opening sentence indicates the importance of wood in the whiskey making process. Ger will say that it accounts for more than fifty per cent of the input to the final bottle and many distillers will agree with him.
Ger, a 5th generation cooper, had (up to a month ago) only ever used white oak. Very recently though, in Irish Distillers’ new innovative series Method and Madness, one of the whiskeys was finished in a Sweet Chestnut Cask.
|The three basic tools: adze, hammer, and axe|
Both the American bourbon barrels and the Spanish Sherry butts are made from white oak but each performs very differently. Vanilla and caramel are among the flavours that the American version contributes while dark fruits (such as plum) and sherry flavours come from the European cask.
Recently, for the Midleton Dair Ghaelach whiskey, Irish oak, from ten trees, was used. The cooper told us that it is very sweet (there is sugar in oak!), chocolate too and vanilla, closer to the US than Spain.
“Did you know that we once supplied staves to Spain?” said Ger. “Up to the 17th century, Ireland was covered in oak forests… the English, who took a lot for their naval forces, are often blamed for the decline..but we ourselves didn’t renew.”
|Ger collapses cask and re-assembles it, all in a few minutes, talking all the time!|
Oak coverage here “is on the up again”. And the hope is to get it up to about 17% which is the European normal. “Not just oak though,” warned Ger. “We need bio diversity.”
And this diversity within the forest is good not just for the wood and its creatures but also for the distilleries, and anyone else who needs good timber. “We are looking for a large beam of oak.” And that is achieved by planting other species, beech for instance, close to the oak which then is forced to expand straight up and grow as a beam!
Oak for the cooperage is the most expensive. There must be no defects. The method of sawing, called quarter sawing, also leads to waste but it doubles the strength of the wood.
|Ciaran O’Donovan makes a point about oak in the Whiskey Academy.|
Good and all as the oak is, it is not perfect. Leaks do arise and most of these can be repaired quickly and without too much loss. But no one had yet found a solution to evaporation. It is about 2% in Ireland, about 30,000 bottles of Jameson a day! That is not too bad, compared to hot climates. In Tennessee it can reach 7%. All around the world, whether the distillery is producing brandy, whiskey or rum, the angels get their share!
Ciaran O’Donovan. of the Irish Whiskey Academy, who led our group in the 2-day immersion in all things whiskey, also filled us in on the importance of the wood (of oak in particular) saying 60% of the flavour comes from it. Did you know that Irish Distillers bring in about 140,000 barrels (with their internal surfaces charred) from America each year, swamping the few thousand Sherry butts (toasted internal surfaces) that come from Spain each November.
|Just one corner of one warehouse|
By the way, these butts belong to IDL from the very start. They buy them in the north of Spain; they are then taken down to the south, to Jerez and filled with sherry; after a few years they arrive in Midleton. Interestingly, when they come they will have up to five litres of sherry inside! Ciaran called the sherry barrel a "work of art" compared to the bourbon equivalent which, by comparison, has a lot of mechanisation in its production.
The butts (500l) add colour and tannin and flavours of dried fruit, nut, fig, even Christmas cake. The once-used bourbon barrels (200l) are empty! They have been especially sourced by three companies in the US and must be top class. Key flavours here are toasted wood, sweetness and vanilla.
IDL also source casks from other countries: Port pipes from Portugal, drums from Madeira, casks from Malaga (Green Spot 12 yo), casks from Marsala in Sicily, and wine barriques from Bordeaux (Green Spot Leoville Barton).
|This comes with a disc of oak in the gift box|
And the Irish oak? Well, we did get a chance to taste the Midleton Dair Ghaelach, matured in Bourbon casks and finished in Irish oak, a “project at its beginning”. It has a lovely nose, unique colours, vanilla and sweetness are prominent.
IDL also import a small amount of Virgin oak from America’s Ozark Mountains and it is used, for example, in Jameson Gold Reserve, very sparingly in Barry Crockett Legacy. We came across it also when tasting a Pot Still 8 year old (where it was the only wood used). Ciaran indicated that while it may not be used on its own “it will improve a blend. Lots of uses for it here.”
In the cask, the young spirits will have a strong distillate character. The longer it spends in the cask, the greater the influence of the wood, and the more complex it becomes. The task for the distiller is to strike a balance between the two. I reckon they get it spot (excuse the pun) on most of the time in Midleton.