Every school year when I was a child, we had to learn about trees. Tree rings. Tree growth. Tree types. Tree management. I remember declaring at about the age of eight that I couldn’t take any more lessons on trees for being thoroughly bored of the subject.
I find it ironic now that all these years later, trees form such a key part of the subject I love so much. Growing up in the Canadian countryside where – if you haven’t guessed yet – forestry was the driving industry, I was surrounded by giants, beasts of trees of all ages and types. Evergreens like pine, balsam and spruce formed the massive forests on our lands, while spindly white barked birch trees leaked sap and leaves throughout the year.
And so, as I stood in the chilly February weather in a large forest in Ireland, I could only think to myself: I wish I would have paid more attention to my tree lessons as a primary student.
I was in that most poetic of countries to learn more about the influence of Irish oak, which had gone into making the casks in which Midleton’s latest release – Dair Ghaelach – had spent some of its life making friends with.
With the sun shining sharp late winter rays through the trees, we witnessed a tree being felled in an old growth forest (most of the oaks are around 200 years of age) which will go on for the next batch of this whiskey. Each bottle that has been released thus far will have a note of which tree and forest the Irish oak cask was made from, something that lends a bit of extra traceability and provenance than one might normally find in whiskey releases.
The use of Irish oak was, according to master blender Billy Leighton, a new experiment for Irish Distillers and Irish whiskey (so far as he could find) for at least 130 years. For this project’s initial phase, the team took 10 trees from Grinsell’s Wood on Ballaghtobin Estate, which ended up being made into 48 casks.
These were air-dried for 15 months and coopered in Spain, given a medium toast and filled with single pot still Irish whiskey (made at Midleton, in County Cork) that had initially been matured for between 15- and 22-years in American oak, ex-bourbon casks and married together. Billy and Kevin O’Gorman, master of maturation, monitored the impact of the virgin Irish oak and decided after 10 months to remove it for bottling.
According to Billy: “I remember Kevin saying: ‘I don’t want to do this unless we do it right.'”
Well, they certainly put their time in. From the initial concept through to bottling took seven years of research, relationship building (with forest owners, the Spanish coopers) and experimentation.
It’s resulted in something distinct, something that I believe we will be seeing more of from Ireland’s growing raft of whiskey distillers (Tullamore DEW is now running; Teeling is about to come on-board; and the Belfast Distillery Company is in building stage) who are wanting to show the world it is a strong force to be reckoned with when it comes to quality spirit, even if there aren’t many producers out there.
When finally we tasted the whiskey, it was with a feeling of connection to the Irish forests, the land owners and the final spirit. And a reminder that if I ever have children, I will be sure to make them study those subjects they think are the most boring even harder, on the off-chance it comes in handy one day.
(c): Bright Butterscotch
(n): Marzipan, almond, honey, nice bit of tannin and a good rich sweetness. A hint of that Midleton fruity sweetness rolls underneath (candied pineapple and something red – raspberry or strawberry), alongside vanilla orange peel, nutmeg and leather.
(p): Exotic fruit, milk chocolate, gooseberry, bubblegum, grapefruit, blackcurrant, cloves, cinnamon hearts, just a hint of tannic kick at the back, along with orange peel and black peppercorns.
(f): Cinnamon gum
With water: becomes very spicy and more tannic, with a slight menthol kick at the back of the palate.