Cork’s adventurous artisan distillers are doing wild things with apples, honey and milk to create drinks with a difference. Joe O’Shea meets the makers.
Discerning drinkers will know all about Ireland’s craft beer boom and the recent craze for artisan gins, whiskeys and vodkas.
But beyond the glut of IPAs and Oyster Stouts, the dizzying array of top-shelf, small-batch spirits, there are still truly one-off Irish beverages out there to tickle even the most jaded of palates.
And for Father’s Day, if you are looking for a spirit to tempt the man who thinks he has tried everything, the place to look is in the deep south.
Cork’s most adventurous artisan distillers are doing wild things with apples, honey and milk, reviving ancient traditions, putting a new spin on old reliables or looking abroad for inspiration of the alcoholic kind.
They may be part of a much bigger trend, away from the corporate, big label brands which have dominated our supermarkets, pubs and restaurants since the demise of the local and regional brewers and distillers that once thrived in every town on this island.
There’s been talk of the “Gintrification” of Irish pubs and off-licences. And whiskey connoisseurs would now almost need an hour of silent contemplation before calling for a drop in many hostelries, such has been the explosion in small-batch brands.
However, with the craft beer and boutique spirit market now approaching saturation point (there are now over 70 craft breweries in operation in Ireland, up 500% in five years) the next big trend will be towards ever more niche products and quirky tastes.
And that’s where three small-but-mighty Cork producers, the Kinsale Mead Co. Bertha’s Revenge and Killahora Orchards are finding their market.
They may be embryonic, family-run operations. But they are already punching well above their weight on the national and international scene.
It’s now a case of Wild Spirits along the Wild Atlantic Way. And the ones to watch (and sample) are:
There hasn’t been a commercial meadery in Ireland since the demise of the last, O’Donahue’s Distillery on South Earl Street in Dublin, sometime around the 1850s.
Even back then, mead was a drink far out of time, associated with the monasteries and great halls of medieval Ireland. In Ireland, mead distilling could date back to the fifth century.
In late 2016, Kate and Denis Dempsey took early retirement from their careers in the tech industry (Kate worked in IT, Denis in the semi-conductor industry) to begin experimenting with water, yeast and honey in Kinsale.
— Kinsale Mead Co (@KinsaleMeadCo) June 12, 2018
The result is two drinks, Wild Red Mead and Atlantic Dry Mead, which are not quite what you would expect from a honey-based spirit.
“People who haven’t tried mead, or think they tried it years ago, expect it to be really sweet, cloying, just like a jar of honey,” says Kate.
“And you can get meads which are like that. But our distilling process turns almost all the sugar to alcohol, so what we have is a really dry spirit, with really distinctive citrus and fruit tastes.”
Their base ingredient comes from the orange groves of Spain, where the bees make honey that almost comes out as marmalade.
“We would love to use Irish honey, but it comes by the jar and we need it by the barrel. And Irish honey bees are really under pressure these days,” explains Kate.
“Our Wild Red Mead has blackberries from Wicklow that give it a distinctive tartness that really works well with the sweetness of the honey.”
It’s low in alcohol, just 12% ABV, which means the mead works great as a mix for cocktails (the Wild Red Mead makes a great base for a Celtic Sangria) or can compliment anything from cheese boards to game or a range of deserts.
“There’s been a trend towards lower-strength cocktails, it’s been called Mindfull Drinking, our mead fits very well with that,” says Kate.
Kinsale Mead Co bottles are now popping up in speciality stockists all over the country and they are about to move into the UK market.
Kate and Denis are finding fans amongst those looking for something a little different, an all-natural drink from the bee to the bottle.
Cousins Dave Watson and Barry Walsh have taken a family orchard with a history going back two centuries and gone wild with apples and pears.
At their Killahora Orchards in the North Cork hills, they grow over 100 rare pear and apple varieties (with intriguing names such as Hendre Huffcap) to make their premium ciders, apple ports and their signature drink, Killahora Rare Apple Ice Wine.
It’s a unique tipple – an Irish dessert wine – only on the market since early 2017 and inspired by similar drinks made in the colder reaches of Europe and North America.
“We wanted to make a unique drink that reflected the heritage and the richness of the land around us, using apples from a family orchard that’s been there since the early 1800s,” explains Barry.
The juice of carefully selected apples from over 100 varieties grown at Killahora is slowly frozen, then thawed and partially fermented to give a balance between sweet and bitter at just 11% ABV.
The result is intriguing, an Irish, apple-y take on classic dessert wines such as Sauternes, but complex enough to be paired with anything from pork or game mains to cheeses and desserts.
“It goes really well with goat’s cheese, particularly with our own local cheeses like Ardsallagh,” says Justin.
The lads also make an Irish Apple Port or Pommeau, a mix of fresh, unfermented apple juice mixed with Eau de Vie, similar to the famous Calvados of Normandy.
“We mature it in old Irish oak whiskey barrels, that gives it a very distinctive flavour and it makes sense as we’re just up the road from the most famous whiskey distillery in Ireland,” says Justin.
Their Apple Ice Wine is already stocked in a number of celebrated restaurants, such as Sage in Midleton and the Dairy in London (where Irish chef Robin Gill has invented a Cork cocktail featuring Killahora ice wine and Bertha’s Revenge Gin).
Such is the demand for their Pommeau and Apple Ice Wine, stocks are currently low.
Such has been the explosive pace of “Gintrification”, you could be forgiven for going gin-blind every time you peruse the top shelf of our best-stocked bars.
A recent report from the Alcohol Beverage Federation of Ireland (ABFI) listed over 30 new gin brands, with exports of Irish gin trebling since 2016. The export market for Irish drinks is now worth over €1.5bn and rose by 8% in 2017.
Whiskeys and gins are leading the way, with Irish brands like Gunpowder, Dingle and Blackwater No. 5 predicted to mount a serious challenge to global names such as Tanqueray, Hendricks and Bombay Sapphire.
One small distillery, based at Ballyvolane House in North Cork, stands out in an ever-more crowded field, thanks to their unique use of local dairy by-products as a base for their Bertha’s Revenge Gin.
Partners Justin Green and Antony Jackson looked to Ireland for their raw material, the alcohol base for the gin is distilled from the whey by-products from West Cork’s dairy farms, making this a rare beast indeed, an Irish Milk Gin.
They are unique in using a dairy base rather than grain as their base, and the result is a very distinctive taste.
“We do all the distilling, bottling and labelling ourselves, we are not buying in from a third-party, factory distillery, which is what a lot of people will do, they come up with a nice story, a good label, and all they are doing is selling gin, not making it, unlike us,” says Justin Green.
“We found that a lot of Irish and British distillers were using French grain alcohol.
“We wanted to make an Irish gin using an Irish alcohol.
“The water comes from our own well here on the farm, so that’s something that makes us unique as well.”
Gin brands take their distinct flavours from “botanicals” – the juniper berries that give it the pine-y gin taste, as well as the various other herbs, spices and whatever the distiller decides to add in.
“Our juniper berries come from the Aegean and the Mediterranean, but we forage for our own Alexander seeds, elderflower and other botanicals in the countryside ourselves.” Bertha’s Revenge has been winning awards and fans in Ireland and beyond in what has become a super-competitive market.
There has been talk of the artisan drinks market reaching saturation point or of the craze for the spirit dying out.
Justin is more of a glass-half-full guy when it comes to the future for his beloved tipple.
“People were telling us we were approaching peak gin three years ago when we were getting going,” he says.
“Back then we had five distilleries in Ireland, now it’s around 30.
“We are selling all over the world now and hearing from new markets every day.
“The gin craze is only just starting, it’s got a long way to go.”