Whether you’re a fan or not, it’s undeniable that no other Irish whiskey garners as much anticipation, excitement and frenzy as the annual release of Midleton Very Rare. Mention premium Irish whiskey and inevitably the discussion will include Midleton Very Rare. This year’s release is certainly no exception. It’s this enthusiasm that has made Midleton the most sought after and collectible of all Irish whiskeys, commanding a premium as can be seen by visiting any whiskey auction site. The iconic series has now been with us for forty years having being introduced by Irish Distillers under the watchful eyes of Master Distiller emeritus Barry Crockett.
We had the opportunity to chat with Kevin O’Gorman, Master Distiller at Irish Distillers and the man behind this years vintage as well as the unique single bottle release of the Midleton Very Rare Pinnacle Vintage.
Irish Whiskey Magazine: Let’s talk about this year’s release, your third since you took over the helm as Master Distiller in 2021. How does it differ from previous years?
We try to keep them different from year to year but they fall within the typical DNA of Midleton Very Rare.
This year we started working on it in July last year and we narrowed it down to four prototypes. In late November we made a final call to go with prototype one which is what we have here. This has components with age profile ranging from 13 to 36 years old. The grain component was brought down slightly from previous years and for the first time included a few B3’s (third refill casks) and also upped the overall refill concentration. We have peeled back some of the wood influence a bit and let the distillate character come through a little bit more.
Midleton Very Rare 2023 contains our three different styles of Pot Still. We have increased the contribution from trad (heavy) pot and light pot a little bit, and brought down the component of the medium pot style. Some of the trad pot component spent about 11 years in B1 casks which were then recasked into B2’s. That was maybe 3 or 4 years ago. By doing so this allows the trad pot distillate character to shine through. We played alot with wood/distillate balance. We have included more refills this year and introduced the use of B3’s. In summary we have kept a substantial grain component, brought down the medium pot still component, and increased the light and trad pot components hence bringing the distillate more to the fore.
Pouring ourselves a perhaps more than generous glass for the time of day the following are our tasting notes:
Nose: A lovely nose with the trad pot and lighter style bringing alot of ripe summer fruits up front. Nectarine, Ripe melon, apple, apricot. Light pot gives zesty citrus and cereal notes. Orange peel, a touch of lemon zest. Then the grain whiskey kicks in bringing peeled ginger, crushed peppercorns, then vanilla, honeycomb, coffee beans, cocoa powder. There’s a lot going on here, a complexity without the confusion. A beautifully balanced whiskey that gives like light waves rather than a raging storm.
Taste: Very fruity without being too sweet, succulent, mouth-watering luscious fruits. A little bit herbal, chamomile tea, butterscotch, vanilla, toffee, and then the typical pot still spices kicking in. Beautifully balanced with layers of flavour that just caresses your senses.
Finish: Long warm finish that leaves you longing for more.
Kevin explains the complexity and layers that come from the nine different parcels (components) that went into this release.
IWM: When you have such a large selection of stock, what’s your mindset when you start? Do you look at what you did last year, or do you start from scratch?
I tend not to look at last years initially. but as time goes on you maybe look back a little. There’s a lot of sampling that goes on. We pulled over 300 samples which we looked at over a period of about two months. With the great help from Dave and Deirdre we look at them and pick out the casks we want to go with for the vintage, the idea being to get to a prototype stage. We have great fun playing around with these prototypes making adjustments here and there.
IWM: You selected some of these components from the famous 1860’s warehouse, A2?
For Midleton Very Rare the majority of the stock over the last few years is ending up in A2. I have been keen to convert the A2 warehouse into a Midleton Very Rare warehouse, the traditional old warehouse for Midleton. When doing distillate reviews we come across some parcels of new distillate or old whiskeys that have something exceptional about them. We reserve those parcels and move them to A2. It’s a fabulous warehouse with most casks being for Midleton Very Rare and a number for the Cask Circle.
IWM: What is it that makes Midleton Very Rare so iconic, so collectable, what captures peoples imagination?
Well I suppose the fact that it has being going since 1984 with every year being different. It has a big reputation because its a very very good whiskey. People see it as a great gifting bottle, be it a birthday, birth or marriage. I tend to give a bottle as gift as it includes the year. It has this aura, this reputation and increible quality. People really do see it as the pinnacle of Irish whiskey.
The most obvious change of course with this years vintage is the packaging. As well as being sustainable, it’s tactile, elegant and premium.
IWM: Of course, the first thing that will stand out about this year’s release is the packaging. Please tell us about that.
I know people will be asking why did we change the box. In terms of of packaging we’ve been looking at it for the last year and a half but I suppose if you go back further to put the whole thing in context, if you look at Midleton since 2010 up to last year, we are on a sustainability journey. We have Invested €100m in the last 12 years in efficiencies, water usage, carbon footprint and reduced our energy usage by 30% and reduced water usage. Our existing distillery will become a carbon neutral operation by 2026. Our new distillery which we are working on now will also be a carbon neutral operation. In terms of barley and wood I am big into sustainability. The one area we really had to look at was packaging. Last week we announced that by 2025 all secondary packaging will be recyclable, reusable or basically eliminated altogether. Last year we had Jameson 18 for which we did repackaging where we reduced the weight and it’s fully recyclable. The big one this year is MVR 2023 and we will keep working on our other products in the portfolio.
The quality of the packaging had to be there to match the liquid. It was a great learning experience to be involved in this all the way. GPA Global who have produced this box have done a lifecycle analysis and a comparison between this and the old box. There has been a 50% reduction in weight which drives alot of the other savings in fossil fuels, carbon and greenhouse gases emissions, and also water reductions.
Every decision we make now be it new plant, new equipment, travel, everything we do, it’s sustainability that is the one word that keeps popping up. Every trip has to be fully justified, but there are certain things you have to do and some can be done over zoom. Zero waste to landfill, very little is printed now, everybody is asking how can we do it more sustainably. We have a sponsored spring barley scheme where we work with farmers on biodiversity and sustainability and have over 300 farmers signed up. All these farmers look at hedgerows, soil nutrition, everything that can help in making produce sustainably.
We have done a huge amount on oak and sustainability. Our Redbreast Kentucky Oak edition for example, where we use certified barleys and PEFC (Program of endorsement of forest certification) barrels which are fully traceable all along the chain.
On the production side we are looking at a carbon neutral operation, investing in new technology such as multi fuel boilers, MVR (mechanical vapour recompression) and anaerobic digesters. If we put a new piece of equipment we’re asking is there a better more efficient way of doing it.
These are expensive technologies but it’s the right thing to do. Times have changed, people are more in tune with sustainability and recyclability.
IMW: Can you please tell us about the release of the Pinnacle Vintage?
This is the first Irish whiskey to use NFT with Blockbar who are a Direct To Consumer NFT marketplace The genesis of the idea came from an event held at a tasting of all forty whiskeys from the Midleton Very Rare series. A portion of each vintage has been combined into a single bottle that encapsulates the forty years of Midleton Very Rare. Barry Crockett started the whole series back in 1984 and as a tribute to Barry we have also included some trad pot whiskey from that year. The whiskey is held within a stunning cut glass decanter.
The Pinnacle Vintage bottle goes on sale on 28th February through the Blockbar marketplace priced at $130,000 of which $30,000 will go to charity.
Proceeds from the sale will go to a group that we’ve being working with over the last few years called Forest Genetics Resource Trust. Effectively they work on the conservation and support of producing the finest oak trees possible. They select sites around the country and they plant seed orchards. Our hope is that we collaborate with them to planting a seed orchard at a location to be unveiled. This feeds into what we are trying to do with our Dar Ghaelach series where we use Irish oak in a sustainable manner. If you plant the right oak that is less susceptible to disease and that’s more robust then we have a better chance in 100 years of having great oak trees. So this all ties in nicely with our sustainability initiatives.
Blockbar have been running for a little over a year founded by cousins Dov Falic and Sam Falic whose family have been in the wine and spirits business for almost fifty years. Their knowledge in the sector is extensive as they are owners and operators of Duty Free Americas which is the largest duty free operation in the western hemisphere. They are also one of the largest liquor distributors in the Latin Americas. Additionally, they have an ecommerce solution for wine and spirits in Singapore and Israel and are expanding in Latin America.
We had the opportunity to learn more about Blockbar marketplace and the NFT technology by speaking with Co-Founder Sam Falic.
IWM: The main aim with this blockchain technology is to ensure the traceability of the bottles are maintained. When it comes to digital assets that’s a bit easier but when it comes to physical products it’s a very different proposition. Can you please explain some of the issues and how they are solved?
Blockchain technology is actually a very simple technology, it’s just a very efficient means of proving authenticity and proving ownership because of that traceability aspect of it. Because the technology is so new some people are very intimidated by it and also some people misunderstand the use of the technology. Just because its so new and exciting I think there’s been a rush of a bunch of different industries and companies that have tried to implement blockchain technology. Some use cases make more sense than others. For example, when NFTs first came out, everyone’s mind instantly jumped to the art space. Yes, I think its going to be an amazing thing for the arts industry, I think it will solve some not all problems for the art industry. So as the dust settles, I think it’s going to touch a lot of different industries. Wine and Spirits is such an amazing collectible, each bottle and each collection is so unique, but it’s very susceptible to counterfeit and it’s also such a fragile liquid in a fragile casing. Because of all of those hurdles I think that blockchain technology made a lot of sense in solving issues with provenance.
The issues Blockbar solved with this technology are access, correct storage conditions, insurance, authenticity, global shipping and customer relationships. We only work directly with the brands. We only want to take new stock that is traceable back to the brand itself because I think that’s the real value of blockchain. Everyone talks about the creator economy, and for these wines and spirits the creator is the brand. So for us the main value is that everything is sourced directly from the brand. We remove most of the barriers within the logistics. The brand send us the product, we store it in our secure bonded facility in Singapore and then we issue a digital version to the buyer. The buyer then owns that physical bottle. They can gift it or resell it or they can change the digital version which is the proof of purchase for the physical bottle. It gives transparency not only for the secondary buyer but also for the brand itself.
It allows for the bottle to transfer ownership an infinite number of times without the physical bottle having to move. With Blockbar you never have to worry if the bottle is fake or the integrity of the bottle due to its storage conditions.
The main differences between us and our competitors is that firstly we only deal directly with the supplier, we won’t take any secondary product because that’s our way of proving authenticity. Secondly, our experience in this industry and we know how to deal and to deliver to the end consumer and we have the relationship with the brands. Lastly, we try to make it as straight forward as possible. When you see a digital version of your bottle you want that bottle to be that bottle that’s being redeemed. We aren’t selling art pieces that don’t correspond to a physical bottle. On our website if you see a bottle that’s the bottle you’re getting so everything is asset backed. You can explain the value proposition of Blockbar without saying anything about the technology that underlies it. Really, we are just selling exclusive products directly from the best brands in the world and authenticity is just proven through blockchain because that is an efficient way of proving authenticity. The storage and insurance are additional value add propositions.
We’ve been keeping a very close eye on the exciting Irish whiskey market. For us we have been trying to work with the right Irish whiskey brand for a long time. It wasn’t just about getting any brand. We were looking for a brand with the right offering for the right reason.
I was thinking about it this morning, you have the Midleton distillery from 1825, you have the Midleton Very Rare going back to 1984, forty vintages, three Master Distillers and entering its fifth decade, and then you have this incredible technology with Blockbar of blockchain and NFTs, it’s a great coming of tradition and something completely new.
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