It had been a while since I had been down, but last month I attended the Hudson Bar, Belfast to partake in one of their "Whiskey Club" evenings.
The reason for making the extra effort was due to the fact that this evening was being hosted by Glendalough Distillery and more specifically, one of their founders, Gary McLoughlin.
This is a distillery that has been around for a good few years but, at the same time, one I had little experience of.
Labelling themselves as "Ireland's first craft distillery", Glendalough was formed in 2011 and are one of the many new start distilleries that have been popping up across the whole of Ireland in recent times. The Distillery was founded by five gentlemen who, having all previously worked in the drinks industry, decided to finally take the plunge and stop working for others, to start working for themselves.
"Determined to carve their own way", the founders looked towards the medieval monastic settlements, where the craft of distillation was born, for inspiration. Located just south of Dublin, Glendalough, Co. Wicklow, is the site of one such settlement which was first established, in the sixth century, by the Irish monk St. Kevin.
Today St. Kevin is instantly recognisable as the figure on the front of every bottle of Glendalough Whiskey, "serving as a symbol of the independent character and ancestral reverence at the heart of Ireland's first craft distillery."......How's that for some marketing spiel??
Getting back to the night in question though, Gary McLoughlin did offer a lighter note, as to the symbol of St. Kevin, by suggesting that he was to Glendalough what Mr. Jack Daniels, himself, is to the bourbon we all know very well.
Moving onto the drinks side of things we had a nice line up to work through. On show for the evening was the "Double Barrel" Single Grain, 7yo Single Malt, 13yo Single Malt and their brand new Autumn Gin.
Starting off with the "Double Barrel" we are told that this single grain is made from a mash bill containing 90% Corn and 10% Malted Barley. The distilled spirit was then matured for 3 and a half years in a 1st fill ex-bourbon cask, from Wild Turkey, and then given a 6 month finish in an ex-Oloroso cask before being bottled at 42% ABV.
As far as single grains go, it's pretty good. Very smooth with the Oloroso influence very evident and a nice peppery, savoury note. We are also informed that this "Double Barrel" also recently won a double gold at this years "San Francisco World Spirits Competition".
At time of writing Glendalough also have a triple barrelled single grain available on the U.S. market which has had the addition of Madeira maturation. In time it may make it's way to these shores.
It's important to note that, at the moment, Glendalough have no aged stock of their own whiskey, so each whiskey is currently sourced from Cooley in Co. Louth. What is also important though is that it doesn't necessarily matter so much where the spirit is originally from, but how it is handled and released by those who purchase it.
Glendalough have started distilling their own whiskey and only 3 weeks prior to this event they had produced their first pot still whiskey which was casked into ex Maker's Mark barrels.
At this point I'd also like to add that I'm a firm believer that Irish single grain has the opportunity to dominate this particular area of the whiskey market. With the likes of Kilbeggan (formerly Greenore) and Teeling Single Grain already out there, and also having recently tasting a Midleton Single Grain (although admittedly this may never be released as a single grain), I honestly believe that Irish Single Grain knocks the socks off anything coming out of Scotland, where it is mostly used as blend filler.
Moving onto the 7yo Single Malt we are treated to an array of further marketing as to why the number "7" is so important but to move things along I shall just concentrate on the liquid in the bottle. This is a double distilled single malt that has been aged in 1st fill ex-bourbon barrels from Wild Turkey before being bottled at 46% ABV.
On first taste it is, for me, undoubtedly Cooley in origin. An lovely bourbon smoothness is accompanied by green apple, soft banana and soft grain. As far as awards go this also was successful in San Francisco, picking up a silver medal.
Before moving onto the 13yo we get an insight as to what to expect in the near future with explanation that Glendalough currently have 10yo whiskey maturing in 4 different casks: Port, Rum, Madeira and Cabernet Sauvignon.
As for the 13yo the story behind it's origin is pretty unique. Whilst in a bar, in New York City, a certain Irish rugby legend, Brian O'Driscoll, spotted Glendalough's Poitin and happened to get speaking to one of the founders. After hearing their story he loved it so much that he wanted to get involved.
At this time Glendalough were attempting to source 12yo whiskey from Cooley but after getting "B.O.D." on board they wanted to honour this by releasing a 13yo, which as any rugby fan knows was O'Driscoll's shirt number. This resulted in much hurried phone calls to secure the odd numbered spirit but obviously they succeeded.
What they have now is an excellent Irish whiskey. The 13yo is packed full of fresh fruits that range from fruit salad and lemon sherbet to white wine / grappa and more banana. The bourbon influence isn't as noticeable, upon first nosing, but with time the creaminess comes along and rounds off a pretty tasty dram.
In San Francisco this 13yo conquered all by receiving a double gold and also the honour of being crowned "Best Irish Single Malt". I'm not sure what other single malts it was up against but this is still an amazing accolade to have.
Upon speaking with Gary McLoughlin, I quizzed him on how they intend on developing their flavour profile as they move from sourcing outside whiskey to releasing their own, and his answer was honest. They don't intend on trying to carry the specific flavours you find in their current range through into the future.
They understand that it would be near on impossible to replicate this and therefore, there will be a time when we should see a definitive shift from their current ages to a style that has been completely developed by Glendalough and Glendalough alone. It isn't clear when that will be but, when it is on the horizon my advice would be to snap up the current range as they will then soon become collectors items.
To finish off the evening we are treated to a taste of their brand new seasonal Autumn gin.
Each season Glendalough work alongside local forager Geraldine Kavanagh to handpick the very best local botanicals, berries and fruit. They then produce their gin in small batches and keep each season's output to no more than 3,000 bottles. As is obvious, the ever changing Irish climate ensures that each season is completely unique and will also change from year to year.
As for this particular gin some of the fine ingredients used were nettle, rosehip, rosemary, Fraughan berries, crab apple, ground ivy, ginger and bitter almond.
Now, I'm no gin expert but after tasting this I may have to start partaking a little more. This smelt absolutely divine and I can only imagine how much fun you could have with a couple of choice mixers. Truly delicious and one to watch out for.
To finish off this update I'd like to think about this:
As Irish whiskey moves forward it will be interesting to see what works and what doesn't.
It is no doubt exciting that there are so many new distilleries opening up but it has been well documented that it is absolutely imperative that each new distillery understands that the Irish whiskey industry isn't some craze that you jump on the back of to make a "quick buck", but something that should be treasured and respected.
Irish whiskey has been through some tough times, and throughout those times a select few carried the mantle and kept the industry going. They were also the ones to see Irish whiskey through it's dark days whilst managing to maintain the standards and quality that are revered the world over.
This is the challenge facing new distilleries. They have to carry on in the same light as those select few and maintain the standards themselves. If each new distillery can achieve this then Irish whiskey has a very bright future and in the case of Glendalough I am confident that, after this evening with them, they have what it takes to carry Irish whiskey on into the future.
Good luck lads and I look forward to seeing what you have in store for us whiskey lovers in the future.
Many thanks to Gary McLoughlin, and the Hudson Bar, Belfast, for a fantastic evening and if you happen to be in Belfast and would like to find any of the Glendalough bottles then head to "The Vineyard" on the Ormeau Road, they have the full range in stock.
Until next time,