The day after the night before and I’m still in recovery, not as you may suspect from the generous amount of fine whiskey that was flowing, but from what I would consider to be some of the most compelling and industry disruptive news to be announced for a very long time. But more on that later.
The Method and Madness range was introduced by Irish Distillers on 22nd February in Dublin last year. The release then of 4 distinctive and innovative whiskeys and the development of the new brand have been met with both critical and commercial success. No surprise then that this years release would be so eagerly anticipated.
Roll on 15 months; the venue, Drury Buildings, Dublin city; the time 6:30pm. What madness could we be in store for and how could last years launch be topped. Enter the building up the steps and … no photographers, no big screens, no strobes, no slick grooves and beats; instead, a friendly welcome and a refreshing whiskey cocktail. There can’t be more than twenty in attendance. We meet and greet and we’re off.
Kevin O’Gorman, Head of Maturation starts proceedings. After an introduction to the team from Midleton distillery, Billy Leighton (Master Blender), Katherine Condon (Apprentice Distiller to Brian Nation) and Dave McCabe (Apprentice Distiller to Billy Leighton). “All very nice guys”, according to Kevin.
As Kevin explained and how we have discovered, the Method and Madness range gives them the opportunity to innovate and create experimental whiskey, to “do something different and think outside the box.”
So on to the first tasting,
A Single Pot Still Irish whiskey finished in Hungarian oak. Very much a first.
Hungarian Oak finished Single Pot Still
Through his travels to the Napa Valley in the US, Kevin came across many wineries in the region using Hungarian oak and decided to explore the possibilities. As a result they partnered with Kadar cooperage in the North East of Hungary. The oak itself is from the Zemplén Mountains. Growing conditions are harsh; altitude (1,200 to 2,500 feet), the severe winters, lack of moisture and shallow volcanic soil base. 98% of the oak in the region is of the Quercus Patraea variety. The harsh conditions lead to a very tight grain structure and this oak variety gives an aromatic flavour profile. The Kadar sawmills pride themselves on the seasoning process in which the staves are stored alongside the forest, the theory being that the fungi and bacteria that are important in the seasoning process grow much better in these conditions.
The staves are air dried for 2 years and the casks then manufactured and sent to Midleton. A 6 to 8 year old light pot still (matured in Bourbon first fill barrels) is finished for 11 months in the virgin Hungarian casks. Due to the tightness of the grain, the maturation process is slower than other oak casks.
Hungary has some of the oldest forestry laws in Europe with regulations dating back to 1769. Forest coverage is high at 23%.
The less robust contribution from the Hungarian oak gives more aromatics, and the elegance and finesse of slower maturation are a perfect match with the lighter style Single Pot Still. Bottled at a generous 46% ABV.
An exceptionally well balanced whiskey with tasting notes including overripe banana, toasted wood, coconut, fresh mint notes, vanilla, treacle and toffee.
And so tastings 2 and 3. Well no, let’s hold off on those, at least for now!
Tasting 4, the second of the new releases, introduced by Billy Leighton. This is certainly more exclusive with just 486 bottles from the single cask. A world first for Irish whiskey, a Single Pot Still Irish whiskey aged for a minimum of 28 years; 6 years in Bourbon barrels and then re-casked for a further 22 years in first fill Ruby Port cask.
28 year old Single Pot Still
The specially commissioned Port casks came from Vila Nova de Gaia. Initially seasoned in white then red wine to remove heavier compounds and then left to season with Ruby Port for 2 years. The emptied casks were returned to Midleton and filled with the 6 year old single pot still vatting where they were left to mature for a further 22 years. As Billy said, “innovation takes a long time.”
The port certainly delivers: succulent, ripe fleshy stone fruits, cherry, plumb. The wood contribution is more in the background with most of the flavour driven by Ruby Port. The colour? You guessed it, Ruby red!
This stunning whiskey is bottled at 59.1% ABV and will retail at €1,900, there again the finish goes on forever!
These on their own would have been fantastic, but let’s step back a moment. To me this is the meat between those succulent slices. Tastings 2 and 3!
These aren’t even whiskey yet, rather they are 2 year old new make spirit, so what’s the big deal?
Tasting 2 introduced by Dave McCabe and Katherine Condon.
Tasting 2 is a distillate composed of 40% malted barley and 60% unmalted oats. Yes oats. Not a token amount either. This isn’t a typo and I wasn’t mishearing. 60% Oats! Casked on 9th June 2016, tasting 2 is triple distilled to 64%, now in cask currently at 63.5%. Light and soft with a creamy delicate texture and almost a marshmallow note. Maturing in 2nd fill ex-Bourbon barrels so as not to overpower the delicate distillate.
Tasting 3. Traditional pot still at 62.7% ABV. This is 40% malted barley, and 60% unmalted Rye. Not a typo again. 60% Rye! More body, spice and bolder. Maturing in 1st and 2nd fill Bourbon barrels.
What’s the Big deal? Irish Distillers are synonymous with producing Pot Still Irish whiskey, and until very lately were the only producer of this style of whiskey. We’ve come across historic mash bills of even Jameson Pot Still with contributions of oats, rye and wheat, a fact that has led us to challenge the Technical file which limits Irish Pot Still to use no more than 5% other (non barley) grains. Now we have the World’s biggest producer of Pot Still going truly mad. Even historically we’ve never come across a mash bill having more than 30% of those other grains!
Irish Distillers have taken the dial and turned it way past 10! This is an incredibly bold and courageous move. In the Irish whiskey world it is no exaggeration to describe these distillates as completely ground-breaking. It’s taking boundaries and moving them to places never attempted before. It’s a sense of adventure, of innovation and courage that sets the standard and challenge down not only to other Irish whiskey producers, but to whiskey producers world wide. Irish whiskey is alive and well, the will to develop and reinvent is very much alive. The future of Irish whiskey is going to take us in exciting directions we have never dreamt of.
Irish Distillers have made the boldest statement in the most understated way. I have to pinch myself, really I’m elated! What a night!
Kevin O'Gorman, Katherine Condon, Billy Leighton, Dave McCabe