Featured

Suntory Yamazaki Distillery, Japan

Suntory Yamazaki in Shimamoto

Overlooking the small town of Shimamoto, Osaka, the Suntory Yamazaki distillery was started in 1923 by one of the 2 fathers of Japanese whisky, Shinjiro Torii. The other Father of Whisky was Masataka Taketsuru who went on to found Nikka whisky. Taketsuru was originally trained in Glasgow and studied whisky distilling under Scottish masters. He worked for Torii under the Suntory brand for over 10 years before starting out with his own distillery.

Shinjiro started creating his own wine and whisky for Japanese palates back in 1899. Before then, all wines and whiskies were imported (or distilled in small scale facilities). The favoured drink of the time was Sake and Umeshu or plum wine. Shinjiro not only had to create liquor to please his country’s palate, he also educated them on how to appreciate the products. His first whisky offering was called Suntory Shirofuda (White Label) but was unsuccessful because it didn’t appeal to the Japanese palate. His next effort, Suntory Kakubin was a hit and continues to be Japans number one selling whisky.

Currently, Suntory owns several distilleries and a few breweries (as well as non-alcoholic drinks and vitamins). Their Yamazaki Single malt sherry cask was voted best whisky in the world in 2014 and their Yamazaki Single malts 12 and 18 are delicious expressions of Japanese whisky. Whether the difference is the Mizunara oak casks, time in plum or sake casks or the effect of terriors, the Yamazaki and Hibiki whiskies enjoy a huge popularity around the world. Yamazaki Single malt and The Chita are two of my personal favourite whiskies.

The town of Shimamoto, an unnervingly adorable Japanese town, is a 35 minute train ride from down town Osaka. Since we have family in Osaka that we try to visit regularly, we were able to make the journey a couple of times. The town is on a hill with the distillery at the top, the walk from the train station to the distillery is a scant 15 minutes.

A Tanuki good fortune statue in town
Arriving to Suntory through Shimamoto

The distillery itself has retained much of its historical feel, yet there have been ample upgrades to accommodate tourists. This is one highly successful distillery and Suntory knows how to market.

There are several tour options, since our Japanese is pretty poor, we went with headphones on a self guided tour. Japan caters to English speaking tourists. The tour starts with a small museum dedicated to its founder. Suntory is proud of its history and their ground breaking products (for the time these were unique and exotic products). Then we viewed the distillery process. Unlike Irish or Scottish distillery tours, we were able to see some production but only behind glass. One felt this was a show room distillery.

Some of Suntory’s most famous products in their museum
Early whisky bottles

The tasting room is a whisky lovers dream. Each whisky has a number and you are able to taste not just the finished products (ie the Yamazaki single malt 18) but each individual cask that helps to create the finished product. So one has the ability to taste cask No. 21, the 15 year old sherry cask whisky that is used to create other finished products. They also offer tastes of whiskies that can no longer be purchased. One can request up to 4 different whiskies to taste at one time out of a list of hundreds. At the time I don’t remember there being a limit to how many tastings of 4 whiskies one could request. I do remember absorbing one heck of an education in one day and the walk back to the train station was a bit of a blur.

One wall of the tasting room
A history of Suntory whisky on the shelves
One of the original pot stills

It was at Suntory I discovered Summer Whisky such as The Chita. Unlike many northern whiskies, which do a wonderful job of warming one up from the inside out, The Chita is a smooth and light whisky yet with a deeply rich and satisfying flavour and is perfect for sipping during the warm summer. I highly recommend trying to purchase a bottle, they run anywhere from 40-75 euro. One thing I noticed at Suntory was the number of women who were there to taste. Whisky is not a gendered product in Japan as it is in the US so women tend to make up the majority of visitors to distilleries.

Suntory is definitely worth the pilgrimage.

Featured

Salted Caramel Whiskey Muffins

Ingredients

Muffins

  • 80g Unsalted butter
  • 100g Milk chocolate
  • 160g Caster sugar
  • 60ml Whiskey (I used Bushmills)
  • 3 Eggs
  • Drop of vanilla essence
  • Pinch of salt
  • 80g Plain flour
  • 40g Cocoa powder

Icing

  • 80g Salted Caramel Dark Chocolate (I used this one from Aldi!)
  • 15g Unsalted butter
  • 40ml Whiskey
  • Vanilla essence
  • Icing Sugar

Method

Brownies

  1. Preheat oven to 180° Celsius
  2. Boil a pan of water and pop the butter and chocolate into a pudding bowl and place on the pan – mix together until melted
  3. When melted pop into a mixing bowl
  4. Gently stir in the sugar
  5. Once mixed together, add in the eggs, whiskey, vanilla and salt. 
  6. In a separate bowl sieve the flour and cocoa together
  7. Fold in flour and cocoa into the rest of the ingredients
  8. Mix together until fully combined and smooth
  9. Pour mixture into muffin tin
  10. Cook for 25 mins (pop knife through and if the knife comes out clear remove from the oven)
  11. Once cooked – set aside to cool

Frosting

  1. Melt the dark chocolate and unsalted butter together
  2. Add in a drop of vanilla essence and the whiskey
  3. Mix together
  4. Slowly sieve in the icing sugar (I did this slowly and stopped once I got a good consistency)

Once the muffins completely cool you can add the frosting

The frosting will look a little lumpy, but thats just the salted caramel!

Whiskey Flambé Candied Blood Oranges

I have a thing for fire, as my family and friends already know. The grill is my friend (and it’s always grilling season, even in snow), if a dish can be flambéd, I will do it. Creme Brulee was a dish I learned early in life and my brandy fired sweet potatoes even made it to a NPR Thanksgiving recipe article.

So when a friend posted this recipe for candied oranges I automatically saw them on fire, with whiskey. They did not disappoint.

A surprisingly delicious dessert but maybe not for cats

Sugar Candied Oranges

Ingredients:

6 firm seedless oranges preferably with thin skin. I used Blood oranges from Spain and now can’t imagine using anything else. Must be small, no larger than a baseball.

6 Cups sugar. I used a mix of white granulated and Demerara 4 cups white and 2 Demerara

Parchment paper cut into a circle just a little larger than the diameter of the pot

2 tablespoons whiskey. I made 2 recipes, one with peated whiskey and one Irish whiskey. The peated whiskey went exceptionally well with the oranges.

Wash and dry blood oranges (organic are best. If blood oranges are not available Cara Cara are good). Use a good sharp channeler to channel remove strips of peel from each orange from top to bottom. Goal is to twist the channels so they look like a Russian Onion Dome. Unfortunately my tool wasn’t sharp so my oranges had a less attractive pattern. Keep the peels. Use a large stainless steal pot and fill with water, bring to boil. Add the oranges and peels to the boiling water and reduce to a simmer. Over the oranges, put a lid that is one size too small for the pot to keep oranges under the simmering water. Simmer for approximately 20 minutes to remove any bitterness and blanch. Remove oranges, they should swell and soften but not split or turn to mush.

Drain and keep oranges and peels to one side. In the clean pot add 6 cups water and 6 cups sugar. Bring to boil for approximately 10 minutes or until the liquid takes on a slight syrup quality.

Sugar Syrup

With a slotted spoon, place the oranges and peels into the simmering simple syrup. Cut out the parchment paper into a circle 2 cm or 1 inch larger than the diameter of your pot. Put the parchment over the oranges and cover with the small lid. Reduce the heat until barely bubbling. Keep on this heat for 45 minutes to 1 hour or until the oranges take on a glazed, semi- translucent quality. Remove and place the oranges and peels in a container with the sugar syrup. Cool then store in the fridge. Best eaten after they have cooled for 24 hours. The flavour is hard to describe but is somewhat like marmalade, except better, less bitter and with no gelatine. The entire orange is eaten and is absolutely delicious.

Before simmering

At this point I served the oranges in 2 ways: One way was over a scoop of vanilla ice cream with Slane Irish whiskey. The second was just the orange with Laphroig peated whiskey. I added a few spoonfuls of the sugar syrup before adding the tablespoon of whiskey.

Finished oranges take on a jewel like quality and will keep for well over a week in the fridge

To flambé: Alcohol needs to be gently warmed in order to light. Pour one tablespoon of whiskey over your fruit. Add another tablespoon of whiskey in a pan and gently heat until just slightly warm. Overheating will evaporate your alcohol making it impossible to light. Light the pan on fire (you can see the blue flame) and pour over your dessert. The warmed whiskey will light the rest of the whiskey on top of the oranges. This should definitely be done when the dishes are in front of your guests. It’s dramatic and satisfying. Best yet, the peated whiskey went amazingly well with this dessert. The peat added a smokey quality to the orange and sugar that helped cut the sweet. The Irish whiskey was also delicious but added a caramel flavour to the dish.

The thing I love best about this dish is it looks quite complex but isn’t. It can also be made ahead of time and the oranges in syrup will keep in your fridge for well over a week (I’m going on 2 weeks now). Assembling takes seconds and the end result makes you look like an experienced chef. One could easily put half an orange over thick custard, a panna cotta or ice cream then lighting the entire dish on fire with a tasty whiskey. The perfect end to a fancy dinner. That is if you can keep from eating them all yourself.

Pouring whiskey over dessert

I want to thank Tomese Sieminskie Buthod for alerting me to this candied orange recipe from the New York Times.

BONUS

An Old Fashioned to end a perfect evening

Any of the left over orange simple syrup may be used as the base for a top notch Old Fashioned. The candied orange peels, soaked in whiskey, are decorative and addictive. Sláinte!

Whiskey Gifts

Not all gifts for a birthday, Christmas or special occasion need to be a bottle of whiskey but can be something just as nice for that whiskey lover in your life (or if you’re like me, a treat to yourself!)

We’ve gathered up some cool whiskey related gift ideas we hope will help you pick the perfect whiskey related present.

We will continue to keep this list updated as we find more whiskey related items!


Under €30

PYFU are an Irish based candle company that has a wonderful whiskey scented candle (€15) and also whiskey scented reed diffuser (€27.50).

Another Irish candle company is Soilse who also stock a whiskey scented candle (€18.50).

From Barley to Blarney (€27) is lovely coffee table book on whiskey in Ireland, with some fantastic local pub recommendations.

Etsy have a selection of some interesting whiskey posters for all price ranges.

Avoca Irish Whiskey Marmalade (€ 4.95) I have become rather addicted to whiskey marmalade. A great small gift for those who love marmalade and whiskey.

The Curious Bartender: An Odyssey of Malt, Bourbon & Rye Whiskies – an interesting coffee table book on different whiskies – including some interesting cocktails!


Under €50

At €50, the Jameson Cocktail Kit looks pretty cool and would be a great help in preparing any whiskey cocktails.

A hip flask is always a welcome gift to any whiskey (or spirit) lover!

A Glass Apart by Fionnan O’Connor (€38.80) A fantastic book that was recently Written and published by renowned whiskey expert Fionnan O’Connor. It charts the enthralling history of pot still whiskey in Ireland as well as its exciting future.

Cocktail set (€38.18) Insulated cocktail shaker bartender kit. With stainless steel cocktail shaker, mixer, 350ml bar tool set with bamboo stand. Perfect for home bartending

I’ve always been a fan of the Jameson Holdall bag (€50) which can be picked up online.

Membership to the Irish Whiskey Society (€50) – A great site for the whiskey lover, novice or aficionado, the Irish Whiskey Society has locations in Dublin, Cork and Galway. Membership gives one access to tastings for 15 Euro, no matter how expensive the whiskey. One can also avail of the specially selected bottling of their own whiskey chosen each year by the committee. The society meets once a month to showcase a minimum of six whiskies each time.


Under €100

Oak Whiskey Barrel (€51+)- An amazing gift for anyone who loves to experiment, we have made our own barrel aged Old Fashioned

Dingle Crystal have stunning Old Fashioned Tumblers (€75)

Whiskey Craft have a huge selection of whiskey related items, one being the stunning Platinum flask decanter (€70)


Over €100 or recurring

Three Drams is a new whiskey subscription costing €27.95 for either monthly or bi-monthly subscription. This is a great way for the whiskey lover in your life (or you!) to try some new Irish whiskeys.

Whiskey Apple Tarts – with a bonus of Whiskey Apple Snow

Whiskey Apple Tarts were one of the first things I thought of when I thought of adding Whiskey to food. Irish, Speyside or an American Tennessee Whiskey goes so well with apples.

I tried 3 different styles of whiskey in the apple tarts: Grace O’Malley, Glenmorangie Signet and Slane. I also experimented with Brandy as I thought that combination would be good. Turns out the whiskey tasted better.

I make my own apple butter but understand not everyone has the time or inclination so apple sauce can be used as long as the apple sauce is not too sweet. If you want to make your own apple butter it’s easy, but time consuming. I’ll include my recipe below.

Sweet Italian Pie Dough

  • 262 grams (1 and ¾ cup) white cake flour or Spelt Flour (plain flour, not cream or self rising).
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 112 grams (½ cup) sugar

Mix dry ingredients then add

  • 1 egg
  • 1 egg yolk (save the white to brush the tops of your tart)
  • 120 grams (½ cup) room temp butter
  1. Mix in a bowl OR pulse in a food processor until ball forms.
  2. Take out and work until smooth. Wrap tightly in plastic and place in fridge for 60 minutes.
  3. Once cooled. Roll out a piece of the dough onto a lightly floured board. Place into the tart pan and trim edges.

Mini Tart

One to 2 cooking apples peeled and thinly sliced. You may slice right before adding to the top of the tart to avoid browning. If you want to keep the slices from browning you may soak them in whiskey. I did this and it doesn’t really add to the taste but is better than using citric acid or lemon juice which can detract from the over all flavour unless washed off.


The Caramel
  • 1 table spoon dark brown sugar Or 1 tablespoon light brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon water or a smidge more to make into a sandy paste
  • Boil for 1 min until caramelized

Add

  • 80 grams (1/3 cup) apple butter or apple sauce (best to use unsweetened or lightly sweetened) Enough to almost fill the crust leaving just enough room for a topping of sliced apples.
  • Sprinkle of cinnamon
  • Pinch of allspice
  • Stir in the apple butter and heat until firm. Simmer if needed.
  • Set aside and cool briefly. Add 1 tablespoon whiskey and mix

  • Add the caramel apple sauce to the raw tart crust
  • Add thinly sliced apples on top to form a pattern. Brush with egg white and sprinkle with sugar.
  • Bake in a 200 C oven for 25 min. Reduce heat to 150 and cook for another 5-10 min or until brown and bubbling.
  • Add thinly sliced apples on top to form a pattern. Brush with egg white and sprinkle with sugar.
  • May serve with a dollop of whiskey whipped cream because I will gild that lily

Amounts for a 20 cm pie pan

Same amount of dough. Dough can be wrapped tightly and kept in the fridge for up to 3 days, frozen for several weeks.

  • 454 grams (2 cups) apple butter or unsweetened apple sauce
  • 55 grams (¼ cup) dark brown sugar
  • 55 grams (¼ cup) light brown sugar
  • Pinch of salt
  • 2 tablespoon water (or more to create a watery sandy paste)
  • 60 grams (1/3 cup) whiskey. I chose a none peated whiskey here. So either a Speyside, Irish or American. Preferably a strong rich tasting whiskey on the sweeter side, Grace O’Malley, Slane, Glenmorangie, Jack Daniels are suggestions. If anyone uses a peated whiskey, let me know. I do plan to experiment with a peated whiskey at some point.
  • 1 teaspoon corn starch (corn flour)
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • Pinch of allspice
  • 1-2 apples cored peeled and thinly sliced
  • Egg white for wash
Method
  1. Place the brown sugar and water in a pot and bring to a boil. Boil on medium heat for 2-3 minutes until sugar begins to caramelize. Remove from stove and add the apple butter, stir to remove any lumps.
  2. Add 1 teaspoon corn starch (corn flour) to the whiskey and stir until mixed. When apple mixture has cooled add the whiskey and spices, mix thoroughly.
  3. Roll out the Italian sweet dough and place in a prepared pie tin (one may coat the inside of the pie plate with butter and flour or a round of parchment paper). Add the apple filling leaving room for sliced apples. Arrange sliced apples in a pattern on the filling. Brush the sliced apples with egg whites and sprinkle with sugar (I used Demerara but any sugar will work).
  4. Place in preheated oven.
  5. Bake for 30 min at 190 C Then reduce heat and bake for another 5-10 min at 150 until bubbling and brown on top
Apple Butter
  • 5-10 large apples of at least 2 different varieties
  • 224 – 448 grams (1-2 cups) sugar (either raw sugar or brown)
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Use a variety of apples (sweet and cooking apples) core but leave the skin on half the apples (preferably the sweet apples or whatever apple has the thinnest skin). Simmer with enough sugar to taste (1 cup of sugar to 3 cups apples) feel free to add water if the sauce is too thick. Once the apples have simmered cool and put into a food mill or blender to make a smooth sauce. At this point taste to see if the sauce is as sweet as you want, if not add more sugar. Put on stove again and simmer until your sauce is thick enough to spread like butter. Need to stir frequently so the bottom doesn’t burn. When consistency is where you want it, add a tablespoon of vanilla extract. At this point you may preserve the sauce using a water bath or place in containers and freeze.


Bonus Dessert! Whiskey Apple Snow

At the end of the larger tart recipe, I had whiskey apple butter left over so with the remaining egg white (from the egg wash) I made whiskey Apple Snow. Now this dessert may benefit from using a peated whiskey. I’ll have to make this again on purpose (and not as an afterthought) to see if a peated whiskey goes well with the rest of the ingredients.

Whiskey Apple Snow
  • 240 grams (1 cup) apple butter
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • Pinch of allspice
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar (or more to taste if a sweeter dessert is desired)
  • 1 tablespoon whiskey
  • 1 egg white
  • Pinch of salt.

Add apple butter, sugar, whiskey and spices together OR use any remaining apple tart filling. Make sure apple butter mixture is cool. Whip the egg white with a pinch of salt until stiff peaks form. Fold in the egg whites to the apple butter until mixed. Serve. May keep in the fridge for several hours.

Whiskey Caesar Salad

Well, the whiskey recipe challenge has begun. In all my years as an amateur chef and whiskey aficionado, I had never thought to marry the two together. Sure I have glanced at the Bourbon BBQ sauces on the selves and I had a generous hand adding wine, sherry, port and brandy to various dishes  (OK there were those lemoncello and ouzo palate cleansers I did once) but I had only seen whiskey as a sipping drink. Thanks to Avril and Sinead for providing the inspiration to create new and exciting recipes with whiskey.

Although we, Avril, Sinead and myself, have plenty of dessert recipe ideas, we thought it might be fun to try to incorporate whiskey into something a little lighter (after the holidays and all). Someone suggested a Salad and we realized, why that might be a fun and interesting place to start. Thus was born the idea of a Whiskey Caesar! Hopefully the first of more recipes featuring whiskey in a salad, for those of us trying to eat more veggies this January.

An Islay Caesar Salad

Islay Caesar with grated parmesan and Moroccan olives.

Of course I immediate thought of adding a heavily peated whiskey to Caesar salad dressing. The smoke and iodine of an Islay would, I hoped, lend itself to the rich anchovies and egg of a Caesar. Since not everyone likes peated whiskey, I also created a Caesar using an Irish Whiskey. For the peated I used Ardbeg. I also have Laphroaig, but found Ardbeg to mesh more pleasingly with the ingredients. Maybe it’s just my particular palate, I encourage experimentation. For the Irish I chose Grace O’Malley because of its good mix of citrus, caramel and spice notes. Plus it has a rich oily finish, so hopefully it would not get lost in the mix of egg and fish. I did try another Irish whiskey, but that was a bit too light didn’t add much flavour. Grace O’Malley does lend itself to being mixed.

To my palate, I felt the Ardbeg made a slightly better Caesar dressing. The smoky peat and iodine complimented the anchovies more than anticipated. Topped with grated parmesan, the dressing held a base of rich and creamy egg and fish oil, while the whiskey added a delightful top note of smoky peat that paired well with lettuce. I could taste the peat, so I would recommend this for those who enjoy a peated whiskey. Although I’ll be curious to know if others like the smoky quality as well.

The Irish whiskey was not as successful, but with a few drops of orange and topped with grated orange peel, the Irish Whiskey Caesar came into its own and was rather good. It was sweeter and more subtle but added a distinct tangy flavour to the Caesar which helped to cut the richness.

Here is the recipe for a proper Caesar Salad dressing. Please don’t use a recipe that calls for mayonnaise and Worcestershire sauce as the mixture of egg and oil is a home made mayonnaise that is much better than anything store bought. Or if you want to take the path of least resistance, just grab a bottle of ‘Original Caesar’ and add a teaspoon of whiskey (4 grams) to 76 grams (1/3 cup) of dressing.

Ingredients for Caesar Dressing
  • 6 oil-packed anchovy fillets, drained OR 1 and ½ teaspoon of anchovy paste (1/2 teaspoon equals 2 anchovy fillets)
  • 2 cloves garlic finely chopped or finely grated
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 64 grams (1/2 cup) light olive oil OR 2 tablespoons olive oil and ½ cup vegetable oil
  • 2 tablespoons finely grated Parmesan cheese
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • Romaine Lettuce
  • Croutons
Instructions
  1. Make a paste of the anchovy and garlic. Mince the anchovies and garlic together until smooth, about 3 minutes. Set aside.
  2. Whisk the egg yolks. Place egg yolks in a medium bowl and whisk until smooth
  3. Add the mustard. Slowly whisk in the mustard until just combined
  4. Add the anchovy-garlic paste
  5. Whisk in the lemon juice until smooth
  6. Whisk in the olive oil. Very important to add the oil slowly, one tablespoon at a time, whisking consistently until the mixture is smooth and creates a thick emulsion. Once all the olive oil is added whisk for another minute. If using vegetable oil, add the olive oil first until an emulsion is achieved, then add the vegetable oil in slowly.
  7. Add the finely grated parmesan cheese
  8. Add a teaspoon of Ardbeg Whiskey and whisk until smooth.
  9. Season with cracked pepper
  10. Season with cracked pepper
  11. Put several dollops into a large bowl and add the romaine lettuce. Mix the lettuce in the bowl until entirely coated with dressing then place on a plate or in a wide bowl.
  12. Grate or slice fresh parmesan cheese over the salad along with croutons, bacon bits and crusty bread.
Grace’s Irish Caesar Salad

Irish Caesar with Grace O’Malley whiskey. Freshly grated orange rind on top.

Make the dressing above but cut the lemon juice down to 1 and ½ tablespoons and add ½ tablespoon fresh squeezed orange juice. When the dressing is made, add 1 teaspoon Grace O’Malley whiskey per 76 grams (1/3 cup) and a few drops more of orange juice if needed to taste.

If you are using pre-made Caesar dressing, just add 1 teaspoon of whiskey and ½ teaspoon orange juice.

Serve this Caesar with freshly grated orange rind on top along with croutons. Steamed asparagus goes particularly well with this salad.

As always let me know how you get on with this recipe and if anyone makes tweaks or additions or experiments with different whiskies. Slainte!

Without Wood, There Would be No Whiskey

In the Beginning

Without the marriage of charred wood with Poitín, there would be no whiskey as we know it. Back in the depths of time, the raw material distilled from alembic or pot stills, was most likely stored in whatever barrel happened to be available. Back then, there were not a lot of storage options. One had clay pots, metal (which was expensive) and wooden barrels. In Ireland, one of the earliest distillers of Poitín, barrels would have been made from Irish Oak. Unlike today, with its vibrant green fields, Ireland was covered in native oak forest and many a ships hull and coopers barrel would have been made from that wood. The other options, generally available to Convents and Monasteries, would have been old wine, brandy and sherry casks shipped over to appease the nuns and brothers. What to do with those empty barrels that once held Spanish Sherry or French Brandy? Why reuse them to store that Poitín Brother Willibald insists on making. Store some raw Poitínin a sherry cask, and suddenly that raw alcohol takes on a delightful colour and flavour. Viola! Whiskey.This is an important point, Whiskey comes out as a clear liquid and is called Poitín(pronounced pooch een, it’s Irish, don’t ask) Moonshine, Mountain Dew, the Devils Spittle and a variety of other quaint names. What provides that distinctive colour and flavour is the wood of the barrel and whatever was previously inside that barrel before Poitínwas added. I know, there are many distilleries that use Caramel Colouring (or E150a) as a way to deepen the colour of their product but we won’t go into that right now. If you are interested read Emily Bell’s informative article on the subject.

First, heat the wood until charred

American Bourbon is traditionally stored in in virgin American Oak casks (Quercus alba) and those casks may only be used once. Sherry and Brandy are traditionally aged in European oak (Quercus robur). Originally, early vintners and distillers used whatever barrels were available, whether it be made of chestnut, pine or oak but the tight grain and durability of oak became the coopers wood of choice. Now in order to construct a barrel, the staves of wood must be heated to be bent. Traditionally staves were heated over a fire and when that happened wood became ‘toasted’. This toasting allows multiple different chemical reactions to occur. Oak contains cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin. The first gives oak its strength, the second two, when heated, begin to break down and create flavour compounds which are soluble in ethanol that slowly leach out adding delicious flavours to the spirits.The Hemicellulose in oak wood contains sugars which caramelise during toasting, giving flavours of nuts (walnut, almond, hazelnut, marzipan) as well as sweet notes of caramel, liquorice and on occasion butter.Lignin is transformed into a wide range of flavours which are slowly released into the spirit throughout maturation, adding in floral elements, spice (cinnamon and clove especially), vanilla, chocolate, fruity elements, and green notes.The oak also contains tannin which helps to carry colour and two types of lactone (commonly known as ‘whisky lactones’). Cis-methylloctalactone provides sweet ‘oaky’ flavours, while Trans-methylotalactone gives a spicier quality and helps to boost the coconut flavour. In order to pull different flavour profiles from wood, barrels are usually burnt or Charred, to 4 different levels, each level of char imparts a slightly different flavour. The deeper the char, the more the wood is accessible to ethanol.

Level 1 char is usually used by home distillers and quick ageing bourbons. Since charring makes it easier for ethanol to leach flavonoids from the wood, a level 1 char is normally not used by most distillers.Level 2 char brings out a level of sweetness and light caramel flavour as well as colour. A few distilleries, like Deerhammer, use a level 2 char for lighter notes of caramel and vanilla.Levels 3 and 4 char are the most common for American bourbons and whiskeys. As the spirits are aged in these higher-level chars, the alcohol develops a more earthy and spicy flavour. Level 3 often has more of a natural wood taste and scent, while the longer chars introduce a deeper colour, vanilla tones, and caramelization. Level 4 char, also known as the Alligator char, because the inside of the barrel is cracked, allows deep penetration of the alcohol into the wood. The higher charcoal also reduces some of the tannin flavours. The spirits pick up more vanilla notes but also a smoky tinge that balances the sweet notes.

In the past, old barrels that previously were used to hold pickles, meat or fish were charred to clean out the insides so they could be reused – waste not want not! In todays world, barrels are still reused and are in such high demand, there is a world wide trade in previously used barrels. Luckily for whiskey drinkers, the barrels used today have been previously used for ageing other spirits and not something like herring. I have already touched on American oak being used for bourbon maturation. Since American bourbon needs to be aged in new American oak casks, those cast off bourbon casks are in high demand around the world as the first step for other whiskies. Sherry and port casks fetch high prices from distillers looking to add sweet notes to their whisky. Whiskey will pick up the flavour profile of whatever was previously stored in that cask along with the flavour of the wood. So red wine, champagne, sherry, rum each alcohol can add subtle (and not so subtle) notes to a whiskey as whiskey is aged in first one cask, then transferred to another. Alternately whiskeys will be stored in different casks then blended together to form a completely new flavour profile.

The Mighty Oak

American Oak is hugely popular in the wine and whiskey industry. Quercus alba matures relatively quickly, has a tight grain structure and has high levels of vanillin and oak lactones. The tight grain structure releases tannins more slowly, hence whiskey can be stored for longer without picking up overly woody flavours. Many whiskies start their maturation process in American oak ex-bourbon casks. The American Oak industry has a forestry plan for the next several decades so is a renewable resource as well.European and Japanese oak have recently gained renewed popularity as they impart subtle but different flavours not found in Quercus alba. Quercus petraea and Quercus robur both called a variety of common names but native to Europe, contain higher levels of tannin and darker, spicier notes including chocolate. Midleton has come out with their Dair Ghaelach, finished in charred oak barrels made from native Irish oaks (Quercus robur). Irish oak contains higher levels of some lignin derivative compounds, such as vanillin, vanillic acid, and furfural which further enhance the whiskey with vanilla, caramel, and chocolate flavours. I can attest, the flavour profile of Dair Gaelach has deep and complex notes of chocolate, spice and a pleasant richness. Swedish distiller, Mackmyra, has come out with Svensk Ek, finished in Swedish oak casks. Svensk Ek is the brain child of Master Blender Angela D’Orazio. “Generally, if you describe them, they are like a cigar box,” D’Orazio says. “They are like an oriental perfume. So you have a lot of exotic wood notes, sandalwood, cedar wood, peppery notes. You have tobacco leaf notes. You have ginger notes, cardamom, cinnamon. This oak has less sweet, vanilla tones and more rougher spices than the American oak.” (source Vine Pair, Whiskey Makers Explore the Weird World of Alt Oak Species by Evan Rail). Glenmoragie has used various oaks including Garry, Bur and an unspecified oak from the Black Sea region.Japanese oak, especially the Mizunara oak (Quercus mongolica), are in such high demand, barrels regularly sell for over $6000 per barrel. The flavours this wood imparts are said to be banana, coconut, sandalwood and incense. Suntory has had excellent success with its Yamazaki aged in Mizunara. The Yamazaki Single Malt does include a complex and delicious flavour profile and is one of my favourite whiskeys.Bainbridge Organic Distillers in Washington, uses smaller mizunara casks 10 – 15 gallon, very different to the much larger puncheons (70–100 gallons) used in Japan. The smaller size means that the whiskey comes into greater contact with the wood, so notes are imparted faster. The inclusion of Japanese oak and the longer ageing time help provide their Yama whiskey with notes of coconut, grain and spice. Chichibu distillery in Japan has gone further, using wash back barrels (where wort is fermented) made of Japanese oak. However whiskey needs time in any cask in order to be infused with the subtle flavours inherent in the wood. So whiskies aged for only a matter of months in special casks may not hold the promised notes of flavour.Some distillers have started using Garry oak, Quercus garryana, an oak native to the Pacific Northwest of America. Westland distillers is at the forefront of this movement with their release of Garryana whiskey. Garry oak has a distinctive profile, “incredibly charismatic, you know it immediately when you taste it. The key indicators are molasses, dark toffee, coffee grounds, blackberry jam, wood smoke, and clove. It’s all very dark, spicy, rich, and complex,” Westland distiller Mathew Hofmann says (source Whiskey Advocate Dec 1 2016). Garry oak contains an unusual amount of phenolics, a compound responsible for smoky flavours normally obtained by using peat fires. But think savoury smoky like a good southern BBQ.Coopers and distillers have been talking about Oak Tree Terroir. As if there is not enough complexity in the industry. The Quercus robur grown in Ireland and used by Midleton is different then the Quercus robur grown in Spain. “Irish oak shows lower density and higher porosity compared to Spanish and American oak, which leads to a more open structure and allows more compounds to be extracted into the spirit and at a faster rate,” says Midleton’s O’Gorman. (source Whisky advocate Why and How Oak Matters in Whisky by Jake Emen Aug 29, 2017).You will notice I have spent a fair bit of time on oak casks. This is because in order for a product to be granted the label Scotch Whisky, that product must be aged in oak casks. America has similar laws dictating American Bourbon must be aged in virgin American Oak casks. However Canadian, Irish and Japanese whiskey have no such restrictions. They only require the barrels to be made of wood. Therefore, in this age of expanded experimentation it is exciting to see whiskey maturing or finishing in different wood barrels. That being said, Belfour Spirits in Texas has taken a giant step and used Texas Pecan wood barrels to finish their Bourbon whiskey after the normal American oak maturation. The pecan wood added notes of brown sugar and roasted pecan nuts. Definitely one to watch.

Other Wood

I have been particularly interested in the distillers that use different woods such as Acacia, Sweet Chestnut and Cherry. Oak wood contains a fair amount of tannin, which adds a definite flavour to whiskey. Other woods lack the strong tannin profile but add other interesting notes based on their chemical compositions. The tight grain of Acacia tends to restrict the transfer of flavour chemicals to alcohol so char and longer maturation would be needed to get those profiles. A delightful study came out comparing the different polyphenols that can be extracted from oak, cherry, acacia, chestnut and mulberry. The main wood species used for making barrels is oak, but in particular cases also acacia, chestnut, cherry and mulberry. In this work, polyphenols contained in the extracts of these wood species obtained by solutions of 50% hydroalcohol as well as a model wine were studied and compared with the extracts from oak. The hydroalcoholic extracts of chestnut and mulberry had higher total polyphenols, followed by cherry, acacia and oak, respectively. The oak model wine extract had the highest percentage of polyphenols extractable by the wine, followed by chestnut, acacia, cherry and mulberry, respectively. Chestnut extracts had the highest percentage of oxidizable compounds, followed by acacia, oak, mulberry and cherry. The GC/MS–EI profile of 50% hydroalcoholic extracts revealed as principal volatiles several benzene compounds containing a guaiacol residue, and high contents of C6–C18 fatty acids. To our knowledge, this is the first study reporting on polyphenolic and complete volatile compounds characterisation of these woods for oenological purposes. (source Rosso, Mirko & Cancian, Davide & Panighel, Annarita & Vedova, Antonio & Flamini, Riccardo. (2009)Meant for the wine industry (oenological is science for vintners), the use of 50% hydroalcohol means these can correlate to a degree for use in the distillation industry. Of course just because one can extract a lot of flavours from any particular wood, doesn’t mean those flavours will be pleasing. More is not necessarily better. However I am choosing to hold this research up to justify my love of the Method and Madness chestnut casks single malt due to it’s complex and rich taste. Bushmills took Acacia, normally used for white wine in France, Italy, Spain and America, and matured their single malt in acacia barrels. The result is an oily, complex and pleasant whiskey. Tasting notes include lemon and orange peels, incense, white pepper, baking spices and a mix of richness with a sharper, astringent side from the acacia (source Bushmills exclusive acacia wood by Jake Emen). I enjoyed this offering from Bushmills and found there was a lighter tone of resin incense like Frankincense or Copal with a unique green leaf astringent flavour that cut the usual caramel and vanilla. Midletons Method and Madness range went farther. Their line used a variety of different woods to finish off a medley of unique offerings. There is an Acacia wood and a limited bottling used Wild Cherry Wood. Limited because the distillers found the cherry wood to be so absorbent the barrels ended up soaking up too much of the whiskey stored inside. Talk about an Angles Share! In addition to unique woods there are Method and Madness whiskey finished in Hungarian oak, French Limousin oak and Spanish Oak from Galicia. Now of course all of these whiskies are first placed in American Bourbon barrels for maturation, then in other casks such as sherry so the finishing in these different wood casks simply adds a layer of complexity to an already complex product. When tasted side by side, I did notice there were substantial differences in taste between some of the whiskies (the Chestnut and Cherry stood out, the cherry not necessarily in the best way). Between the oaks, I found the differences were more subtle.Japan, specifically the Ariake cooperage, is actively encouraging their distillers to use unique woods including native chestnut, native Japanese cherry and native Cedar. Nukada, a growing distillery started by the Kiuchi brothers, has been experimenting with some wild combinations, definitely a distillery to watch. Tsunuki distillery is using cherry sealed with fermented persimmon pulp. While Nagahama distillery is currently using cedar, cherry and chestnut barrels.At some point I will need to write about the use of ex-Sochu and ex-umeshu casks in whisky finishing in Japan. Those different flavour profiles go a long way to creating the unique flavours found in many Japanese Whiskies.With all the experimentation going on, I’m sure I have missed something. But that is the fun of continuing whiskey tasting and education. Let me know if you know of any distilleries doing fun experiments with different wood barrels. It will be interesting to see what happens in the next few years.

In the meantime, drink well, enjoy life and sláinte!

The Great Whiskey Fire

If you’ve ever done a distillery tour in Dublin, you would have heard the Great Whiskey Fire of 1875 being mentioned, especially if the distillery was based in the Liberties area of the city.

On the night of the 18th June 1875 on Chamber Street, what would be one of Dublin’s most devastating fires began at Malone’s Malt House where approximately 5,000 barrels went on fire. The fire spread quickly through the streets of the Liberties burning everything it touched and sadly taking the life of 13 people, who died not due to the flames but through drinking the burning liquid.

Three Castles Burning have a fantastic podcast on the fire and the impact James Robert Ingram had on getting the fire under control through the use of horse manure. I’d highly recommend you take some time to listen below or you can also read about the fire in detail on Come Here To Me.

Welcome to Hip Cask

Let us introduce ourselves!

Welcome to Hip Cask – Women for Whiskey! The idea for this group came about through a shared love of the spirit and together we decided to build a community of women who like us, also love whiskey.  Our main aim through this group is to connect like minded women (and supportive men!) in the mutual appreciation of whiskey through online resources, events, reviews, tastings and also to remove the snobbery aspect that can be at times associated with drinking whiskey. We hope that you will find this community supportive, informative, welcoming and most importantly fun. To kick it off – we wanted to introduce ourselves and how we got into drinking whiskey! 

MARISA

My journey with spirits started early. In the basement of our old house in Santa Barbara California was a hidden room locked by an old bank vault door put in by my grandparents. The room had been put in during the 1920’s but forgotten and sealed with the repeal of prohibition in the 1930’s. My folks engaged a locksmith to open it in the late 1970’s and to my mothers disappointment but my fathers and my delight, the hidden room held my grandad’s old spirit collection. Some bottles were molded and past their prime, while others were some of the best whiskies, brandies and liqueurs we had ever tasted. It has been a pleasant quest to explore as many different whiskies as possible from Scotland, to Ireland, from small distilleries in the US to Japan’s Suntory. Along the way I have had the good fortune to meet amazing folks in the whiskey world from Keith Barnes at Bainbridge Organic Distillers to Lora Hemy at Roe & Co. My personal goal is to visit as many distilleries and taste as many whiskies as humanly possible. I feel so lucky to now be living in Ireland, enjoying the whiskey renaissance currently taking place. I look forward to sharing my tasting notes, articles and musings as well as reading about others experiences in the wonderful world of whiskey. Sláinte!

Favourite Whiskey: I have a hard time narrowing my likes down to just one: In the peat category I really adored Smoke Head. In the Irish I love Tullamore DEW 18 (SO much bang for the buck). For Japanese I go between Yamazaki 18 and Nikka Whiskey from the Barrel (the complexity!). From American I have to go with Bainbridge Organic Distillery Two Island Islay Cask (Damn Keith you nailed it!). 

SINÉAD

I’ve always loved whiskey – it’s my go to when I want to sip and enjoy a drink, the only spirit I would consider spending a few extra quid on a bottle because I know I will really enjoy it, it’s the go to for a night in by the fire with the family. It’s only in the last that two or three years that I’ve started to learn more about it and to taste a wider variety of whiskey and I figured there’s probably no better way to expand my knowledge than through this group. 

For any of you that are relatively new to whiskey, know that I’m right there with you and I’m looking forward to sharing what I learn and learning more from all of you!

Favourite Whiskey: Red Breast 12 Year Old 

AVRIL

I started drinking whiskey 7 years ago in my sisters bar in Germany when my boyfriend (now husband) convinced me to try something new – I has a look at the fantastic selection, not knowing much about any of the bottles but I went with a Classic Laddie and straight away fell in love with it! We have visited loads of distilleries over the last number of years in the US, Scotland and Ireland – rarely have we been on a holiday and not found a local distillery to visit! For a couple of years, I lived close to the Teeling Distillery and would spend many a Sunday afternoon in the bar trying out their various cocktails on offer – now I’m not too far away and my love of whiskey is kept alive by the resurgence of whiskey all over Ireland, not just in Dublin.

Favourite Whiskey: Green Spot Chateau Montelena

Sláinte!

Speyside

Speyside is one of the five Scottish Whisky regions and most notably the largest with 50+ distilleries! It is situated close to the beautiful Cairngorms National Park, which makes any visit here even more adventurous. Back in 2017, I spent a week visiting the area and checking out some of the distilleries around (it was February so a lot were actually closed to visitors during the off-peak season).

Glenfarclas

This was the first distillery I visited in Scotland – and it was stunning. The entrance was a long tree-lined drive way, but once the trees cleared, there was a beautiful distillery situated at the foothills of a mountain. Given the time of the year, we were the only people on the tour but this made the tour all the better. We got up close and personal to see the mash tuns in use and the yeast being fermented in the wash backs. Glenfarclas is a family run distillery and the family live onsite, which we learned was quite unusual. The distillery is very small compared to many of the others in the region, but its highly recommended!

Glenfiddich

Glenfiddich have beautiful site in Dufftown. This tour was longer than most and started off with a small video about how the distillery began, before moving through the site. A couple of things we noticed about the distillery was the huge amount of wash backs, it was interesting that when they could no longer be used, they were taken apart and new ones were built onsite as they were too big to be moved into the distillery. They also had quite small pot stills, which was unusual compared to the other distilleries! Our tour guide who talked a lot about the marrying process and the specifics of each of the whisky’s. One fascinating thing about this distillery was their onsite cooperage and bottling plant, this was the only distillery we visited where bottling was done onsite.

Glen Moray

This distillery was a little hidden but we made it for the last tour of the day. This distillery was quite different, as the process was all automated and didn’t stick to the traditional roots like the others we had visited. This was the most generous tasting with three large measures of different whiskeys (2 traditional whisky’s and 1 cask strength) and their new make spirit. You can pay to do the tasting instead of having to do the tour also if you preferred!

Aberlour

We had heard this was one of the best tours around, and as they only have a 10am or 2pm tour, it took us a while to get booked onto one.  This was the biggest tour group also, with about 15 people on it. It was the only tour where we got to see the mill in use and where we got to taste the ‘beer’ after the fermentation process, which was pretty vile. The distillery here is quite small and traditional but we got to walk through each piece of it, and see everything working. We went for a tasting which was really good, with 6 different tastings including the new make spirit.

I highly recommend a visit!

Blair Athol

This little distillery is in Pitlochry, a cute little village on the road back to Edinburgh (not technically in Speyside) and its produces mainly blended whiskey (mainly Bell’s) but they have their own small batch of whisky which we picked up a bottle of. It was founded in 1798 but wasn’t the most successful and soon closed. It went through a number of bad patches before being bought by Bell’s in the 1930’s and later bought by Diageo who are the current owners. The distillery is made up of a number of small, stone buildings, one of which was the shop. We didn’t join the tour, as we could talk through the whisky making process in our sleep and only wanted to do the tasting. It’s a nice pitstop if you’re in the area

Macallan

The distillery is on the other side of the river Spey and is up on a hill with unbelievable views down onto the river and valley. They are expanding the distillery at the moment and the work being done is huge, with a beautiful new distillery and visitor centre in the middle. Our tour guide here was Jody, she was quite new and admitted she knew nothing about whisky before getting this job. Our first stop was to talk about the malting and fermentation process. She was super clear and made sure everyone understood what was happening. We had been to a few distilleries and knew the process, but she described it the best! The interesting thing about Macallan was after going through the wash still, the low wines are divided into two separate spirit stills, this was the only distillery we visited where this happened. We could also see and touch the new make spirit running through clear pipes as it came out of the spirit still. Jody gave a really good description of how Macallan source their own casks and brought us through the cask making process.

Highly recommend a visit!

Have you visited Speyside? If so please leave a comment below and share your highlights!