If a tree falls in an Irish forest and its wood is used to craft barrels, does it make the whiskey more special? While no one will ever be capable to answer the original thought experiment that inspired this riddle, the answer to the question was revealed to us on December the 1st, when we visited the Ballydowling Wood in Glenealy, Co. Wicklow.
The occasion saw us among a group of journalists and personalities in the Irish whiskey scene who gathered to behold the felling of a 140 year old tree destined to be transformed into a few of the many oak barrels that will be used for seasoning future editions of Midleton Dair Ghaelach (Irish Oak), the first single pot still Irish whiskey from the Midleton Distillery finished in virgin Irish Oak casks.
As we walked through the green land, managed by Coillte -the semi-state forestry company certified under the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification- we learned about the laborious and long term effort involved into obtaining sustainable wood of enough quality to be used for barrels (several details that might seem innocuous might in fact make a tree unsuitable for this end, although fit for other purposes such as furniture).
For example, knots in the wood or thick branches low in the trunk might be reasons for a tree to get rejected and, as the oaks grow, special care is put into nurturing those with the most potential to become barrels.
Once the tree hits the ground its adventure begins
That day a tree was cut and a total of 17 would see the same fate for this batch. After that, the wood is sent to Spain where expert craftsmen create the barrels. First the wood would reach Galicia, where barrels staves would be obtained by quarter-sawing the material under the supervision of Midleton Distillery’s Master of Maturation Kevin O’Gorman and Master Cooper Ger Buckley.
After that, the parts are sent to Jerez, where they’re laid out to dry naturally under the sun and 15 months later, the barrels are finally crafted and toasted, to then return to the Emerald Island to be filled with single pot still Irish whiskey under the experienced guidance of master blender Billy Leighton.
Each bottle of Midleton Dair Ghaelach can be traced back to the Irish tree that was used to create the barrel its content was seasoned in.
— Dick Mack’s Pub (@DickMacksPub) December 1, 2016
After the instructional forest walk, it was time to taste some whiskey.
We begun with Middleton Barry Crockett Legacy -46% ABV- created to commemorate the namesake master distiller who worked for the company for 47 years and until 2013. Most of the spirit was matured in 1st fill Bourbon casks with some into virgin American oak.
Pale gold, complex, with generous flavours of ripe citrus fruit, caramel, honey and a gingery spice kick.
Then, we tasted Midleton Dair Ghaelach Grinsell’s Wood Tree 7 -57.9% ABV- the first ever edition seasoned in virgin Irish oak hogsheads. An intense single pot still matured for between 15 to 22 years in Bourbon casks. The Irish wood used for this edition came from Grinsell’s Wood, Ballaghtobin Estate in Co. Kilkenny.
Bright and golden with reddish gleams, its a powerful one with sweet spices such as cinnamon, clove and ginger blending in the palate with toffee, coffee and a hint of ripe tropical fruit.
Finally, we had the privilege of being the first ones -besides its makers- to taste Midleton Dair Ghaelach Edition 2. Lighter coloured than its prequel and more mellow as well, it offers a delightful contrast between vanilla, toasted sugar and citrus peel with a warming depth and a smooth texture.
Gabriela’s passion for writing is only matched by her love for food and wine. Journalist, confectioner and sommelier, she fell in love with Ireland years ago and moved from Venezuela to Dublin in 2014.
Since then, she has written about and worked in the local food scene, and she’s determined to discover and share the different traditions, flavours and places that have led Irish food and drink to fascinate her.