EVERY Christmas I watch Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory with the same sense of wonder I had when I was a kid. As someone cursed with a relentlessly sweet tooth, I still like to imagine that the inside of any factory that produces my favourite things would be as magical.
Obviously, tastes change and people grow and, after careful consultation with my cholesterol levels, I switched my allegiances to a more mature indulgence — whiskey. So, to get access to a distillery is a treat indeed.
The distillery is a mysterious thing. Access to any modern production facilities is a rare event; for members of the public it is almost impossible to get a glimpse of the inner workings of any plant; health and safety laws, lean production and a wariness about transparency meant that unless you have Bosco’s Magic Door, you aren’t getting inside. But one of the greatest distilleries in the world is changing all that.
Midleton Distillery’s Irish Whiskey Academy opened in 2013 and, since then, it has educated and entertained hundreds of drinks professionals, writers, bartenders, and sales people. The scope of the academy is now being widened to include ‘amateur enthusiasts’— or ‘lushes’, as we are better known — like myself.
The academy building fittingly sits between the historic distillery building — now home to the heritage centre — and the newer plant, which is one of the largest, most efficient in the world, it’s just tweaked its processes to see a reduction in energy requirements per litre of pure alcohol by a whopping 20%.
The academy itself is a converted grain manager’s office, and our tutor was Dave McCabe, whose youth belies his incredible breadth of knowledge. I was on the course with whiskey bloggers, writers and industry insiders, and no matter how obscure or scientific the question, he knew the answer.
With beautifully-illustrated chalkboards in the classroom section of the facility, he brought us through the history of whiskey — nationally, locally and globally — as well as a providing a refreshingly straightforward breakdown of the production of whiskey in east Cork.
We started with a walkthrough of the old distillery, learning how whiskey was produced on that site for 200 years.
We passed the distiller’s cottage, where Master Distiller Emeritus Barry Crockett was born and raised, through the courtyard where former distillery manager Sandy Ross landed after an exploding pot still blew him out a window, leaving him flat on his back on the cobbles.
He was given the rest of the day off, but showed up for work the next day. It takes hard men to make the hard stuff.
Back in the classroom, we covered the raw materials, as well as the brewing and fermentation process, then it was on with the high-vis vests, phones into the lockers and off to the new plant, where we visited the grains depot, brewhouse, fermentation facility, and even had a stillhouse meeting with current Master Distiller Brian Nation.
Brian is a busy man, who switches between the scientific demands of running one of the biggest distilleries in the world and the promotional aspect of the job, sharing his knowledge and passion for whiskey around the globe.
He isn’t the only whiskey guru on hand; we also met Kevin O’Gorman, a man who has so much energy and enthusiasm for his work that it’s hard to imagine him having the patience to watch a kettle boil. But patience he has.
As Irish Distiller's’s head of maturation, Kevin is charged with keeping watch over the thousands of barrels of alcohol as they slowly mature for the legally-required minimum of three years — and often much longer.
Kevin watches over the casks as they sleep through the years, monitoring room temperature as the wood of the staves slowly inhales and exhales the liquid, giving it colour, character and life.
His domain is the warehouses packed with massive bourbon, port and sherry casks from around the world, loaded on pallets in lots of four, and stacked seven high.
He watches on helplessly as a percentage of each cask is lost to evaporation, an amount known as the angel’s share. As long as whiskey has been made, this has been part of the process. There is no way to stop it.
Another frustration comes in the repair of casks. Some simply can’t take the pressure of their sleeping brethren above, and begin to split. If the damage is small, and accessible to the master cooper, then it may be repaired. But if the split is bad, and the cask is behind or beneath many others, they simply have to let the pressure take its toll, and watch on as thousands of euro worth of whiskey seeps out.
We had a tasting with Kevin in one of the warehouses, number 42 to be precise, cracking open a port pipe, a sherry butt, and a bourbon cask. It’s hard to describe how special it was.
There, in that vast, modern cathedral, we filled glasses straight from the barrel, and stood silently sipping, the only noise a sporadic beep from the security system in the distance. The flavours of the whiskey were almost enough to make your ears pop.
A thousand years ago, Irish monks copied the design of Moorish alembic stills to distil their ale, which they then casked to create whiskey. Not much has changed; the ingredient used by the epicurean alchemists in Midleton are the same — water, grain, wood and time.
In a world obsessed with speeding up production, there is much to celebrate here. The race to the bottom in our demand for faster food and cheaper products has led to standards falling.
Not so here —this may be a massive operation, but there is the same respect for the craft, the product and the consumer as there ever was.
The academy is part of this celebration of tradition and technique, it has a level of openness and honesty that you will almost never encounter in large companies.
We rounded out the day with pot still tastings, then it was back to our hotel to prepare for dinner. Our lodgings were the aristocratic surrounds of the Castlemartyr Resort, a building whose history, like that of whiskey, is another rare blend of science and religion, having previously been home to Robert Boyle, of Boyle’s Law fame, and in later years becoming a Carmelite Monastery.
Another part of the academy package is dinner in a premium restaurant; for us it was the renowned Ballymaloe.
The following day we started with a demonstration by master cooper Ger Buckley. Ger is a fifth generation cooper, and can take apart a barrel and reassemble it in moments. He talked us through the craft and history of coopering, reinforcing the sense that little has changed in either the tools or the barrels, in centuries.
Afterwards. we met archivist Carol Quinn, who introduced us to some of the incredible characters, stories and history of Irish Distillers. She spoke about Paddy Flaherty, a consummate showman who understood the power of marketing and PR long before anyone else in the industry, to the point where the whiskey he sold took on his name.
We even got to see the contract that allowed the company to use his name as a trademark. Carol is also recording an oral history of the former workers at the Midleton plant.
Then it was on to more tastings, site visits — including the spiritstore and casking facility— and lunch in the heritage centre, complete with ice cream cones served in Midleton Rare boxes.
Our last module was blending, where we were broken into teams of four and given four different types of spirits with which to make a single blend.
After much nose work, and even more tasting, my team came up with a blend of half sherry cask-aged pot still and half bourbon pot still. We even gave it a name, The Kurgan, which you will know as the Russian bad guy in Highlander. It even came with a tagline: ‘There can be only one.” Well, it was either that or “it will take your head off”.
We got samples of our blends to take home and, while I have yet to find the right occasion to enjoy mine, I have no doubt that the memories of an extraordinary few days in Midleton will last a lot longer.
The lessons taken from the academy aren’t simply the science and the history of whiskey, it’s an appreciation of the drink itself, and what it means to the Irish people.
Whiskey is liquid history. It records our highs and lows, our struggles and success, our innovation, creativity and strength of spirit. Its story is one of collision and union between science and religion, alcohol and wood, empire and freedom, grain and water.
The academy, nestled as it is between the past and future of Irish Distillers, teaches you how these elements blend together to make this most Irish of libations, its significance to our identity, and what is yet to come.
A range of courses are available depending on the individual’s level of knowledge. The first ‘Enthusiasts’ course took place earlier this month.
The package allows participant the opportunity to meet some of the distillery team, learn about brewing, fermentation, distillation and blending, watch a cooperage demonstration and enjoy a tutored whiskey tasting with one of the production masters.
As part of the package, participants will stay in five-star accommodation, visit one of the area’s finest restaurants and, at the end of the course, they will receive a personalised bottle of whiskey.
One-day ‘Discoverer’ courses, for those who have minimal knowledge about Irish whiskeys but want to learn more, are available from February, while four-hour afternoon courses are also available.
See http://www.irishwhiskeyacademy.com/ for full details.