As a young child living near Midleton in Ireland, my dad loved Scammel trucks! And now, as I stand right next to a vintage John Jameson liveried Scammel in the old Midleton distillery, I can see what he where he was coming from.
In the rural Ireland of the 1950’s, Scammels were a sign of all that was best in a developing nation. They were the giant trucks which brought modern technology to Ireland and were symbols of power and progress for companies such as Jameson which even then had already been at the cutting end of Irish innovation and industrial development for over one hundred years. Scammels and the innovative new Ireland they represented, inspired young children like my Dad to become the engineers and scientists of the 60’s who built modern Ireland over the next 50 years replacing steam, steel, boilerplate and copper stills with electronics and silicon.
For make no mistake, the Whiskey industry was considered to be every bit as innovative and progressive then as Silicon Valley is today. The Whiskey industry leapt forward hand in hand with the Steam Age. Improvements in boiler and pipe making led to better more efficient copper pot stills, Column stills and distillery engineering. Steam engines could step in when dry summers halted the millstones waterwheels and it was the advent of steam locomotives and steam boats that brought whiskey to a wider audience in Europe and America making it an important export asset for the UK and Ireland.
Today, Whiskey creation encompasses, science, art, engineering, heritage, agriculture, craftsmanship, innovation, business and most of all a passionate appreciation of the product and pride in strong links to the past. Irish whiskey, unlike Scotch whisky is still crafted today in much the same way as it was over 200 years ago, with technology never allowed to compromise the preservation of heritage, taste and quality.
I join a dozen fellow Whiskey journalists from the UK, Ireland and the Netherlands who have all been invited to spend a few days as the guests of Irish Distillers at their brand new Irish Whiskey Academy attached to the Jameson Irish Whiskey Experience at their Midelton Distillery near Cork. Our hotel for the duration of the visit is the lovely Castlemartyr Resort which is just a few kms from the Distillery.
After an icebreaker of Redbreast 15, we join the Irish Whiskey Academy staff for lunch at the Malt House Restaurant in the Jameson Visitor Centre. Here, we meet David McCabe who would be our lead tutor for the course and Kelly O’Mahony who is the Customer Experience Manager. Even over lunch it was obvious that we were dealing with people who are just passionate about their work.
Kelly describes how even such a large facility such as Midleton, with its mix of complex industrial outputs and tourism services is really a village. A Village in spirit? I venture. At the end of this trip I would realise just how right we both were..
We start after lunch with a quick orientation tour of the old distillery including a look at the old perforated tile malting floors, waterwheel, steam engine and what is believed to be the largest pot still in the world. It was still distilling spirit in Midleton until recently after over 100 years of service, only to be replaced by a brand new modern replica a few years ago. Whiskey making has not really changed that much in over 200 years so if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
After the obligatory class photo at the sign outside the Academy, we entered the state of the art academy building which houses ultra-modern audio visual technology, its own distillation and blending science lab and of course a beautifully decorated tasting lounge reminiscent of some of the posher clubs in Dublin and London. And the Teacher? Our tutor Dave McCabe is clearly a man who lives, breathes and loves his whiskey! They say the best teachers emphasize the fun in life and learning and Dave is clearly one of those teachers. Already I know that the next few days are going to be great fun as well as being informative!
Kelly had earlier told us we would be following the making of whiskey from grain to glass, so naturally we started with the farmer who grows that grain. They don’t actually talk about Farmers in the academy but rather about the 140 Farming Families scattered around Munster who supply 60 tons a day of barley to Midleton.
From there, we went through Barley quality, explored malted barley and worked our way up to milling, mashing and brewing the 10% ABV Weiss beer like “Wort” which will eventually be distilled into whiskey spirit in batches of 116,000 litres a time.
We then moved to a detailed study of distillation, covering the intricacies of triple pot still distillation including the art and science of distillation feints and cuts before moving on to the Coffey Still or Column Still Distillation associated with the lighter single grain spirit which is added to pot still to make the lighter and sweeter blended whiskeys.
We then moved to a study of Maturation which is the art of aging whiskey in wooden Casks or barrels. Not just any old barrel, but specially imported single use Bourbon Casks from Kentucky at $120 each and specially selected Sherry and Malaga Wine casks from the south of Spain costing over €700 each with 5,000 used per year.
Again the word “Family” was used, as almost all of the precious Spanish Sherry Casks are sourced from a single family business near Jerez. Don Antonio Paez Lobato is well over 80 and still actively manages the family cooperage. His relationship with the Midleton Family is strong and enduring. So much so that Midleton Master Cooper Ger Buckley sends his apprentices over to Spain for work experience and Don Antonio’s Grandchildren have come to Ireland for work experience in Midleton.
It was time for a break from Class work so we were invited downstairs to the tasting lounge to taste 4 very different Pot Still whiskeys from Midleton.
- The wonderful Green Spot which has long been my own personal favourite Irish whiskey.
- Redbreast 12 year old with its wonderful sherry barrel Christmassy flavours.
- Powers Johns Lane non chill filtered with its Spicy dry finish.
- Barry Crockett Legacy No need to say more than it bears the Master’s Name!
From there, it was time to reinforce our learning with a visit to the modern production plant. Here, we saw at first hand the delivery and quality checking of barley and the mashing, brewing and filtering process. We walked past the massive, externally cooled outdoor column stills which distill single grain whiskey spirit for blending on our way to visit the highlight of the day, the great Pot Still hall. There to tell us about the huge copper wonder machines, was none other but Midleton’s very own Master Distiller Brian Nation who took over from retiring Master, Barry Crockett in 2013. This audience alone would have made the trip for us as this is the man whose name will replace Barry’s on every single bottle of Midleton Very Rare Whiskey produced during his reign. It was interesting to note as we toured the vast Pot Still hall, that space has been left for a second team of three copper pot stills to join the team in the near future. This will double pot still whiskey production at the Midleton plant.
That night, over dinner at nearby Ballymaloe house with Midleton’s Master of Maturation Kevin O’Gorman, our tutor David and Midleton’s senior marketing team, I again got a real sense that this huge Pernod Ricard owned Midleton organisation is still at heart, a very Irish operation and even more importantly, I left that evening feeling that I had been at dinner with a small Irish Family business rather than a branch of a huge multinational industry. Someone very high up in Pernod Ricard has wisely decided that when it comes to excellence in Irish whiskey teams, if it ain’t broke, then don’t fix it!
The next morning we were up bright and early to spend an hour with Midleton’s Ger Buckley who is a 5th generation Master Cooper. As we already knew from David, Midleton imports all their barrels from Kentucky and Spain. Each barrel however is quality inspected on arrival by Ger or one of his small team of coopers who can the repair errant barrels using tools and techniques which have remain unchanged for thousands of years, handed down from father to son. I don’t have space in this blog piece to do justice to the wonderful hour we spent in Ger’s class, but a point that really came home to me is that a Master Cooper is not just an excellent Cooper, He or she must also an excellent teacher or “Professor” with an ability to pass on a standard of craftsmanship to not just new coopers, but a new generation of coopers. Ger’s own natural flair for teaching is a perfect match for his artistic and technical prowess and this has been recognised in Midleton’s series of YouTube video talks featuring the Master in action.
A meeting in the Tasting Lounge with Midleton’s own professional archivist Carol Quinn followed and again the message I took from her talk to us was of the connection between heritage, business and family that was then and still is now the very essence of the Midleton distillery. We were given unique access to primary source documentation including the deed marking the permission given to the distillery by Midleton’s famous travelling salesman and all round “character” Paddy O’Flaherty to trade mark his name for Paddy Whiskey 101 years ago.
After a more detailed classroom session on column distillation used to make single grain whiskey used in Midleton’s blended whiskeys, we were invited to a tasting of Jameson’s Premium blends.
- Jameson Standard of which 5 Million cases are made each year for worldwide distribution. A blend of pot still and single grain whiskey matured in bourbon and sherry casks.
- Jameson Select Reserve Black Barrel Small Batch matured in selected casks which have been extra charred by Ger Buckley’s team after arrival in Midleton. The Grain component is unusual in that its first distillation is by pot still followed by the normal two column still distillations associated with triple distilled single grain whiskey.
- Jameson Gold is a blend of three Single grain and pot still whiskeys from 14 to 25 years old, one of which has been aged in virgin oak lending vanilla sweetness to the pot still spicy and peppery nose and softer oloroso fruitiness.
- Jameson 18 Year Old Limited Reserve is a blend of the Master Distillers handpicked sherry and bourbon aged casks none of which are less than 18 years old. The final blend is then aged for a further period in first fill bourbon barrels before being filled in a limited run of serial numbered bottles. The finished product is wonderfully mellow and complex with a lovely long and lingering finish.
Before lunch, we had a one hour workshop on maturation or the aging of whiskey in casks. After seeing how casks arrive from Kentucky and Spain, we watched the inspection, repair and filling process before joining Midleton’s Master of Maturation Kevin O’Gorman for a very special visit to Warehouse 42 where I was allowed to crack open a sealed cask of 15 year old whiskey to check its progress 3 years from bottling by using a valinch or big copper whiskey pipette to fill my classmates glasses for a unique warehouse cask strength tasting. Later, over lunch, Ger Buckley signed the bung I extracted from the barrel as a very special memento of the visit.
After lunch it was time to put all we had learnt in the last two days into practice with a class and science lab practical in the art of whiskey blending. We had access to a variety of different aged Pot Still and Single Grain Whiskeys matured in a variety of different casks. And the result? The rarest Irish whiskey ever produced. A small batch (70 Ml) blend by Midleton’s latest apprentice Whiskey Blender Stuart McNamara!
It was time to end the course and say au revoir to our new friends in Midleton. But before we departed Midleton as the Irish Whiskey Academy’s latest graduates, we were each issued with a superbly produced Irish Whiskey Academy manual each of which had been individually serial numbered and personalised with our name.
I was amazed at how much I learnt during this intensive but highly enjoyable visit. There is not enough space or time in this short blog to go into the finer detail of the classes but I will follow up in coming weeks with more detailed individual articles.
I have no doubt that the knowledge, memories and experience gained and the friendships forged with my fellow students and the Midleton “Family” will stay with me for the rest of my Whiskey writing career. It was a unique insight into all that is best about the Irish Whiskey World.
As someone with a professional background in training and education in my non Whiskey life, I was extremely impressed with the superb facilities and training standards in the academy. But most of all I was impressed with the Irish Whiskey Academy staff. It is people like David, Ger, Kelly, Carol and Kevin who really power this Distillery and its brands. With people of such talent, commitment and passion, the future of the Irish whiskey industry is in very safe hands for many generations to come.
If you would like to sample the wonders of the Irish Whiskey Academy for yourself, check out www.IrishWhiskeyAcademy.com . They have a range of 4 courses ranging from a 2 hours Irish Whiskey Academy Experience for €59, an afternoon at the Irish Whiskey Academy for €175, a full day Irish Whiskey Academy Discoverer Package for €325 and the two day Irish Whiskey Academy experience for €1,199 including 5* Hotel accommodation and a hosted dinner evening in a local premium restaurant.
Stuart McNamara is an Irish Whiskey Writer and Director of IrishWhiskey.com and IrishWhiskey.fr.