Without barrels there would be no whiskey,’ says Ger Buckley, cooper at Midleton distillery. Until relatively recently, all alcoholic drinks were transported around the world in wooden barrels. It was the cheapest and most efficient method of moving it from maker to seller. Bespoke wine merchants such as Mitchell & Son, Findlaters, Morgans or Woodford Bourne would take delivery of claret, madeira, sherry and port, and mature the wines in cask until they were judged ready for bottling here. You can still find the odd bottle of Chateau This or Chateau That, bearing the label, “bottled by Mitchell & Son, Dublin”.
The same importers also bought freshly distilled spirit from our whiskey producers, which they added to their redundant wine casks. Left to gently mature for a few years, the spirit became smoother and took on a lovely amber colour. It also developed all of those familiar, highly desirable flavours of wood, nuts and caramel. Then, in the 1960s and 1970s, wine producers began to bottle their wine at source. In many regions, they were legally obliged to do so. Back in Ireland the distilleries were now ageing and bottling their own whiskey. But they were finding it increasingly difficult to find used oak, a problem they solved by going directly to the wine and spirit producers in Spain, Portugal and the US.
Nowadays most distilleries pay big money for used oak barrels that have been used to store wines and bourbon whisky. As sherry, madeira and port producers don’t change their casks very often, these are more expensive – €700-€800 each. Bourbon casks are less expensive (about $100 but the barrels are smaller) as, by law, all bourbon must be aged in new oak casks. At some stage, distillers here and in Scotland realised specific wines added different flavours to the whiskey, and began to “finish” their whiskies for a short period in cask of a single origin. Typically a whiskey is aged in bourbon casks, before six months to two years in sherry or madeira barrels. This week, there are three new whiskies, each finished in a very different kind of oak barrel.
Irish Irish Distillers recently released limited quantities of Dair Ghaelach (Irish oak), the first whiskey finished in new native Irish oak barrels. This blend of 15-22-year-old single pot still whiskies was aged first in American bourbon casks before spending its final 10 months in new Kilkenny oak casks. A mere 12,000 numbered bottles were produced. As part of the project, each of the nine 130-year-old trees felled was processed into separate barrels, so that every bottle can be linked to a specific tree. The forest is Grinsell’s Wood on Ballaghtobin Estate that has belonged to the Gabbets for 350 years. The trees were transported to Galicia to be quarter-sawn, before moving to Jerez, where cooper Antonio Paez Lobato seasoned the wood for 16 months, made 40 hogsheads and gave them a medium toast. Transported to Ireland, they were filled with the whiskey.
Mitchell & Son were one of the merchants that imported wine and then aged whiskey in the same barrels. Green Spot and Yellow Spot whiskies are descendants of these. They have teamed up with the Barton family in Bordeaux to create Green Spot Ch. Léoville-Barton. Initially aged in sherry and bourbon casks, this is finished in oak barrels first used to mature Ch. Léoville-Barton, one of the great grands crus classés of St Julien. The casks were then shipped to Ireland, and filled with Green Spot. Tullamore has released a whiskey finished in barrels used to ferment cider. The freshly squeezed apple juice was added to bourbon casks and left to ferment and mature for three months, before being replaced by Tullamore DEW Orginal for three further months. The result is quite intriguing.
Tullamore D.E.W. Cider Cask Finish Irish Whiskey
€54 for a 1 litre bottle
Honeyed, toasty, spicy and rich with attractive subtle notes of red apple.
Stockists: Duty-free shops and the Tullamore D.E.W. visitor centre
Green Spot Ch. Léoville-Barton Single Pot Still Whiskey
Apple and pear fruits with hints of vanilla and blackcurrant. Textured and smooth with a lovely lingering finish.
Stockists: Specialist off-licences.
Midleton Dair Ghaelach Single Pot Still Whiskey
A complex nose of toast, vanilla and dark chocolate, full-bodied on the palate, with forest fruits underpinned by caramel, finishing with a note of coffee and spice.
Stockists: Specialist off-licences.