Dair Ghaelach Irish Whiskey aged in Irish Oak
Have you ever wondered why most Scotch and Irish Whiskey is aged in old Oak Bourbon barrels from Kentucky or oak sherry casks from Spain? There must be a good reason why the barrels used to mature Irish whiskey could not be made from native Irish oak trees?
In fact there are several reasons. 500 years ago, Ireland was covered in ancient oak forests. The oldest of these is believed to be at Rindoon on the West Shore of Lough Ree on the river Shannon. In Elizabethan times, there was an insatiable need for oak to build ships for the English Navy opposing the Spanish Armada. England turned to their new plantations in Ireland and stripped their dominion of most of the available oak forests to build warships. As someone whose passion for maritime history rivals their interest in whiskey history, I can reliably inform you that the average Elizabethan Galleon with a serviceable life of just ten years, was built from over 4,000 mature oak trees aged between 80 and 150 years. A royal edict was issued by Queen Elizabeth the First to strip Ireland of forestry in order to deprive the local Irish insurgents of shelter while at the same time providing oak for new warships. These are just some of the reasons why there has never been enough Irish Oak to make enough native oak Irish whiskey barrels for the Irish Whiskey industry. American whiskey regulations dictate that bourbon must only be matured in virgin oak casks which can not be reused. As no such rules exist with regard to Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey, we provided an ideal market for these well seasoned, once-only used casks.
Happily, Rindoon Forest still survives today on the western shore of Lough Ree on the river Shannon.
Midleton Distillery’s reputation for innovation is growing by the year led by Irish Distillers’ Innovation Master Brendan Buckley. One of their latest projects is a Midleton single pot still whiskey finished in Irish Oak barrels. Dair Ghaelach (Pronounced Dar Gay Lock) meaning Irish Oak in the Irish Language is a marriage of traditional pot still distillates which have been aged between 15 and 22 years old in ex-Bourbon casks before being left to mature for a year in new Irish Oak Hogshead casks to give it a uniquely Irish oak wood finish.
Sustainable Irish Oak trees for Sustainable Irish Whiskey
The oak trees used were carefully selected by Midleton’s Master Blender Billy Leighton, Master Cooper Ger Buckley and Master of Maturation Kevin O’Gorman. Taking lessons from Elizabethan times, a key element of the project was the sustainability of the Irish Oak used.
Kevin and Billy selected Grinsell’s Wood on Ballaghtobin Estate in Co. Kilkenny to provide the oak to be used in the first of a series of virgin Irish Oak releases over the next few years. Ten 130 year old Irish Oak trees were carefully selected and felled in April 2012.
The felled oak logs were shipped to Irish Distillers Sherry cask partners in Spain where they were quarter sawed into staves under the supervision of the Irish Whiskey Masters. The staves were then sent to the Antonio Páez Lobato Sherry Cooperage in Jerez who have long supplied the Sherry casks used by Irish Distillers. An audience member at last week’s Irish Whiskey Hangout in Google HQ Dublin asked why was the wood cut and seasoned in Spain rather than Ireland?
Dair Ghaelach Whiskey & The Spanish Connection
Master Cooper Ger Buckley explained that they chose to stay with their long term Spanish Cask partners as they have the experience and quality assurance not yet available in Irish lumber yards. However, he did not discount the possibility of Irish oak casks being produced from tree to cask in Ireland in future years.
After drying for 15 months, the staves were formed into 48 by 250 litre Hogshead Casks. Each cask can be traced back to an individual Irish oak tree and this is recorded on each bottle.
After filling, Leighton and O’Gorman nosed and tasted the whiskey each month and after almost one year, judged it to be beautifully balanced with just the perfect contribution of Irish oak.
Analysis shows that the Irish oak contains higher levels of some lignin derivative compounds, such as vanillin and vanillic acid, and furfural, in comparison to American and Spanish oak. These compounds further enhance the whiskey with vanilla, caramel and chocolate flavours, which are detectable on the nose of Midleton Dair Ghaelach and perfectly balance the classically rich, spicy Single Pot Still taste profile.
What the Masters Think About Irish Oak for Irish Whiskey
According to Billy Leighton, the Master Blender at the Midleton Distillery,
“The process of maturing in native Irish oak has enabled us to showcase our Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey style in a new and innovative way; the casks impart much more generous toasted wood, vanilla and caramel flavours than what we expect from American bourbon and Spanish oak, which we hope whiskey lovers will appreciate and enjoy.”
And Billy’s fellow Irish Whiskey Master of Maturation Kevin O’Gorman said:
“With the recent resurgence in plantation, only now has it been viable for us to consider Irish Oak in the maturation of our whiskeys while ensuring that the oak reserves can be enjoyed by generations to come. After six years in the making, Midleton Dair Ghaelach has been a journey of exploration into the craft of Irish whiskey maturation and we are equally delighted with and excited by the newest member of our Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey family.”
Brendan Buckley, Global Innovation and Prestige Whiskeys Director at Irish Distillers, added:
“For more than 30 years, Midleton Irish Whiskey has been admired for its distillers’ dedication to excellence in Irish craftsmanship and the release of Midleton Dair Ghaelach continues this rich tradition. By working closely with our partnership estates such as Ballaghtobin, we are able to trace each bottle back to an individual tree. This provides a unique whiskey experience that we find very exciting and hope other whiskey aficionados will too, as we see no reason why Irish oak cannot play a significant role in the maturation of our Irish Whiskey in the medium- to long-term.”
Exciting news indeed as I think that we can expect to see Irish whiskey wholly matured in Irish Oak in coming years. Perhaps an Irish Oak Green Spot in 2020?
Midleton Dair Ghaelach Cask Strength – Available Now!
Bottled at cask strength between 58.1% and 58.5% ABV without the use of chill filtration, Midleton Dair Ghaelach is available from April 2015 in five markets, including Ireland, France and South Africa, at the recommended selling price of about €250 per 70cl bottle.
I haven’t been lucky enough to taste it yet but will add it to our Irish whiskey guide when I have.