Sunday, March 8, 2015

Review - Midleton Dair Ghaelach 'Grinsell's Wood'

This is the newest addition to the premium Irish pot still whiskey range of Midleton.  With this release Irish Distillers, the owners of the Midleton distillery and part of the larger Pernod Ricard group, have decided to take the brand in a different direction.  This involves the use of Irish oak (or Dair Ghaelach in Gaelic) in the maturation of whiskey for the first time since Prohibition in the 1920s and 30s.  The launch event was held in Ireland last week and Whisky For Everyone was invited to find out about the project and enjoy some good old Irish hospitality ...

The Midleton distillery was founded in 1825 by the Murphy Brothers.  It is located in the south of Ireland near the village of Midleton in Co. Cork.  The modern incarnation of Midleton was opened in 1975 and is located next to the old distillery, which has now been converted to a visitor centre and whiskey academy.  It was built following the merger of three famous Irish whiskey companies - John Jameson & Son, John Power & Son and the Cork Distillery Company - to form the Irish Distillers Group.

The new pot still facility at Midleton. Image © Irish Distillers

The recently expanded distillery makes both single grain and single pot still whiskeys and the combined capacity is 64 million litres per year.  The whiskey is used to produce popular brands such as Green Spot, Jameson, Midleton, Paddy, Powers and Redbreast.  The Midleton brand is seen as the most premium of the Irish Distillers single pot still whiskeys (this term refers to a whiskey made using a mix of un-malted and malted barley to an approximate ratio of 3:2) and the range currently consists of the Very Rare and Barry Crockett's Legacy, which is named after the recently retired Master Distiller.

The Dair Ghaelach project was conceived almost seven years ago by Billy Leighton, the Master Blender for Irish Distillers, and Kevin O'Gorman, the Master of Maturation.  It has evolved in to a wider vision for Irish oak to take a larger role in the Irish whiskey industry.  The pair undertook a lengthy period of research and experimentation with the help of Ger Buckley, the Master Cooper at Midleton.  The initial stage was to locate oak suitable for the production of whiskey casks and this was done with the help of Paddy Purser, the project's consultant forester. 

Left to right - Billy Leighton, Kevin O'Gorman & Ger Buckley.  Images © Irish Distillers

This proved trickier than expected as much of the native Irish oak had been cleared throughout history and trees of the correct size and quality for coopering need to be 120+ years old.  A survey in 2012* showed there to be just 16,850 hectares of oak woodland in Ireland, although this is shown to be growing by 2.4% per year thanks to a sustainability planting scheme supported by the Irish Government.  Eventually a location was found that had the best quality Irish oak required for the project - the Ballaghtobin Estate in Co.Kilkenny.

Ten trees from Grinsell's Wood, an area of the estate planted with oak in the 1850s, were felled in April 2012 and transported to the family-owned Maderbar sawmill, which is located about 100km east of Santiago de Compostela in the north Spanish region of Galicia.  The cask staves were cut by the owner Alejandro Fernández Rodríguez and his team before being transferred to Jerez to be dried naturally under the southern Spanish sun for 15 months.

One of the Irish oak hogshead casks

The casks were then constructed from these staves at the Antonio Páez Lobato cooperage in Jerez.  The ten trees yielded a total of 48 hogshead casks.  These were transferred back to Midleton and filled with single pot still whiskeys ranging from 15 to 22 years of age that had been previously maturing in second and third fill American oak casks.  At this stage the real experimentation began as Leighton and O'Gorman attempted to harness the power of the fresh wood by checking the progress on a weekly basis.

After ten months of maturing in the Irish oak, the whiskey was deemed to be at its prime and it was bottled.  The packaging for Dair Ghaelach shows an Irish oak tree and contains the information of the woodland that the casks originated.  The label also shows the exact tree number that the whiskey's cask was constructed from.  The Dair Ghaelach 'Grinsell's Wood' has just 12,000 bottles and will cost €320 each.  It will be released in just five markets - France, Germany, Ireland, South Africa and the UK.  The whiskey that was presented at the launch was from Tree No.9.

The Dair Ghaelach label

Our tasting notes
The colour is a dark golden yellow and the nose is a heady mix of intense woody, spicy and fruity aromas.  There is an immediate tropical fruitiness (think of pineapple, mango and peach especially) and this combines with vanilla, golden syrup and dusty wood spices.  There is an increasingly heavy oak aroma with plenty of cinnamon and coconut.

On the palate the whisky is immediately woody, spicy and warming.  The high alcohol strength exaggerates this with notes of fresh sawdust, cinnamon and clove prominent.  As these soften the sweeter and fruitier elements from the nose become stronger and create a creamy full bodied and gripping mouth feel.  There are plenty of concentrated tropical fruit notes, especially pineapple and over ripe banana (someone mentioned tinned mandarins also), honeycomb and lots of vanilla.  The combination of spice, sweet and fruit notes is superb.  Late hints of red fruit (cherry is possibly the nearest thing), nutmeg, star anise and white chocolate add further depth.

The finish is long, spicy and drying.  The sweet and fruit characteristics slowly fade to leave the woody oak spices to shine.  There is plenty of cinnamon and liquorice present, along with a late warming hit of ginger.

What's the verdict?
The whiskey is very good and mixes sweet, fruity and spicy notes superbly.  The sweetness and fruit, particularly the tropical notes, have a real sumptuous and luxurious juiciness to them.  The intense woody spiciness adds a warmth and complexity.  The feeling is that this is something special but also something close to the edge.  Another month in the casks may have been too much and the expertise of those involved shines through ...

However, the story of Dair Ghaelach does not stop here.  This is the just the first batch.  There are already three other batches in the pipeline - the wood for Batch #2 has undergone the same process as that from Grinsell's Wood and is back at Midleton and waiting to be filled,  Batch #3 is currently air drying in Jerez and Batch #4 has just been felled.  The woodland for the second and third batches remain secret, but we were taken to the location of the fourth batch - Ballykilcavan Forest in Co. Laois - to witness one of the trees being felled.

Tree #9 at Ballykilcavan Forest - before and after

With that much native Irish oak in the system with Irish Distillers and the funding that they have supplied at locations such as Ballykilcavan, there must be plans for the casks once they have been used for maturing the Dair Ghaelach series.  Nothing was revealed during the trip but it will be interesting to see what further developments are made.  Watch this space ...


For the full photo album of pictures from Midleton Dair Ghaelach launch in Ireland - please visit our Facebook page.

* Figures taken from the 2012 National Forest Inventory.
All images are copyright of Whisky For Everyone, except those marked.

No comments: