Whiskey: A local flavour but a global taste

THE only people under 50 who drink whiskey are prats.

Whiskey: A local flavour but a global taste

So sayeth a gourmand friend of mine. When I named another friend who drinks whiskey and isn’t a prat at all, he said “Yes, but he’s an alcoholic, so that’s different”. And so it is with whiskey — you’re either a self-important bombast, or a pickled old soak. Since my recent and enthusiastic conversion to whiskey, I like to think I’m a mix of the two.

I grew up on the hills overlooking Midleton Distillery in a house with whiskey barrels used as flower pots on the front steps. I swam and fished in the river they make Jameson from, went to secondary school over the wall from the plant, and now live about a half mile from it. Jameson has always been in the background to my life.

My dad was a big whiskey drinker — he always said good company and a few whiskeys were his idea of a quality evening. It meant a lot to him. Almost 30 years ago when I was eight my mum was rushed to hospital with a brain haemorrhage and given a 50/50 chance of survival. My dad went to the hospital chapel and pledged if she pulled through, he’d never touch another drop of his beloved whiskey. She did survive, and he stayed true to his word — and even though my mum passed away six years ago from brain cancer, he still won’t touch a drop, because, as he says, “a deal is a deal”. I may technically be breaching that deal by tipping a few on the weekends, but sure didn’t the monks invent the stuff, so it can’t be that evil.

Former master distiller Barry Crockett reminds me somewhat of my dad. He is a softly spoken gent, a history enthusiast whose passion for whiskey is matched only by his knowledge of it. He has lived an extraordinary life. His father started work in Watercourse Distillery in Blackpool in Cork city after leaving school, before being lured to Midleton in 1945. He rose to the highest rank, that of master distiller, and lived in the distiller’s cottage in the middle of Midleton Distillery, and that was where Barry was born and reared.

Crockett says his career was never set in stone, but growing up in a distillery where your father is master distiller, it seems hard to imagine him choosing another. His career represents the transition of Jameson from a moderate operation — his earliest memory is of the horses pulling cart-loads of whiskey barrels — to a global juggernaut, from respected local brand to world icon, from hundreds of years of culture and heritage to the brave new world of super-lean production. He retired earlier this year, handing over the reins to Brian Nation — who as a young boy dreamed of being an astronaut but instead of NASA went on to achieve the Worshipful Distillers Award for the highest diploma in the world in 2006. So Crockett — the first Irishman to receive Whiskey Advocate’s Lifetime Achievement Award — is leaving the job in good hands.

As part of the Midleton Food and Drink Festival recently, Crockett gave what was billed as the last public discussion of some of the premium whiskeys he developed over his career. Held in the auditorium of Midleton’s Jameson Experience, the event was packed — even for an occasion that was offering free samples of some of the world’s finest whiskeys. Crockett is only the second person to have a Jameson brand named after him — the other being John Jameson himself.

He talked us though the textures, aromas and sensations of the four whiskeys, what made them different from each other, how the distilling process affects the flavours, the craft of distilling, the art of getting the right bourbon and sherry barrels, and how important locally-sourced barley and the clean waters of the Dungourney River are to the process. Because this is very much a local success story.

My conversion to whiskey hasn’t just been about the drink itself — it’s about seeing McNulty on The Wire ordering a Jameson, seeing Amanda Seyfried telling David Letterman that she drinks Midleton after Russell Crowe gave her a bottle of it during Les Miserables, witnessing the dozens of tour buses arriving from cruise liners at the Jameson Experience throughout the summer, seeing Irish-Americans in tweed caps on the train from Cork to Midleton all year round, all heading to east Cork to visit the home of Jameson.

Incidentally, with a growth rate of 15% per annum, Jameson is the fastest growing whiskey brand in the world, and number 25 in the global alcohol brand rankings.

Jameson’s local contribution is huge: Grain farms within a 50km radius are sources for the 35,000 tonnes of barley and malt that are needed each year — such a vast quantity that they no longer go direct to the farmers but use merchants to assemble the massive harvest for them. The feed industry also benefits — each year 46,000 tonnes of wet and dry distillers grain by-products are sold from Midleton. While other towns have struggled through various recessions, Midleton has weathered the storms well, due in no small part to the input of the salaries of Irish Distillers’ staff. And while other areas have lost industry to overseas markets where labour may be cheaper, Irish whiskey has to be, by its very definition, made in Ireland.

To have such a homegrown success story on your doorstep has passed a lot of the locals by. Earlier this month the plant held its Housewarming event, with the Taoiseach opening the new facility at the site, and then a gathering of more than 1,000 people for a selection of classes and tastings, tours and live music.I felt proud at having travelled the least distance of all the delegates.

This was my hometown, part of a global success story, a product celebrated the world over that is made by guys I grew up with, went to school with. Most of the town’s residents had little awareness of the occasion.

The distillery has been there so long — 200 years since Murphy brothers opened operations there — that it has become part of the furniture. Despite being the backdrop to my entire life, I took no notice of it until I started falling in love with its products. Now I gaze wistfully at its bright lights during my morning run like a young Charlie Bucket in Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory.

I’m no whiskey connoisseur just yet. I’m definitely a long way off the achievement of my grandfather, who was renowned in his local pub in West Cork for his ability to identify any whiskey by taste. But I have learned a few things about how to enjoy whiskey. It is not a shot. It’s to be savoured. It may come in small quantities, but it packs a big flavoursome punch — let those flavours live, and don’t rush it.

Use mixers sparingly. Jameson, ginger and lime is the mix of the moment but if you want to be serious about your whiskey, you don’t use a mixer.

The exception to this is water. I always thought the drop of water was just a cop-out for those who couldn’t handle the heat. Not so. The experts say a little water expands the flavours, and help you pick out new notes and nuances you otherwise might have missed. Don’t drown it, just a dash will do.

On the rocks: Ice is great with whiskey, especially in a crowded, overheated pub, but it can have the side effect of freezing some of your ability to savour the taste. Ice may be fine with a normal Jameson, but with the more luxurious (translation: expensive) brands like Redbreast or Legacy, you’ll want to experience every drop to the fullest, so just a drop of water will do. As always, enjoy it responsibly. Whiskey isn’t a session drink. Too much work has gone into producing it for you to get blitzed on the stuff. A friend of my grandfather’s used always have one or two at the start of a night, calling them ‘the foundation stones’. No point in ordering them at the end of an evening when your tastebuds are clinically dead.

Scotch: The main differences between whiskey and our Celtic brethren’s version of it — besides the different spelling — is that ours is triple distilled, whereas whisky is distilled twice, and also they use smoke to dry the grains, giving it that smokey flavour.

Scots are fiercely proud of their drink, and are often more than willing to pour scorn on Irish whiskey. It’s important that you get horribly defensive in this situation, and tell them that their half-made liquor tastes like someone dropped a cigarette in your glass. Then run very fast before it turns into a scene from Braveheart. Whisky tourism is worth stg£30 million to Scotland, with 1.3 million

visits to 52 premises. We may have fewer distilleries, but that is changing. Cork is already a well-established destination for food tourism, domestically and internationally, so there is no reason that we can’t compete with our Celtic neighbours for fans of the uisce beatha. It’s high time we break the stereotypes of what a whiskey drinker is, bracketing it instead with wine as a drink to savour and enjoy — you never know, east Cork could be the next Napa Valley. My friends tell me my conversion to whiskey is a sign I’m getting old — I tell them it’s a sign of maturity — but really it’s about celebrating what’s in your own backyard: Even if it takes decades for you to notice it.

This weekend Youghal Celebrates History are hosting their annual conference in the east Cork town, and this year’s topic is whiskey and its place in Irish culture and history. In the afternoon there is a field trip to Midleton Distillery. See youghalcelebrateshistory.com

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