A Dry Run on a Wet Day in County Clare


Our Cows Watch Anxiously As Casks Arrive

As the heavens opened some of our casks arrived on site today, not the Red Letter day I’d hoped it would be when I was typing those words I have to admit. These casks are our spares and also most importantly are EMPTY. So if you are the Revenue Commission reading this, don’t worry we have nothing of interest  in  the Rackhouse just yet. These had been languishing up in Dundalk with our Full casks. After a meeting a few weeks ago, with a gem of a man and hopefully our Master Cooper in years to come I realised that I could put these casks to use by getting them down here ASAP. Why you ask? Well, I am very much in the “Fail to Prepare, Prepare to Fail” mindset just now. The reason I brought the casks down is so we can practice handling them and prep the Rackhouse properly for receiving the full casks and putting them into racks by hand.

A full cask of whiskey weighs about a quarter of a ton, so handling it can be perilous in a lose your finger kind of way. In addition, no matter what you paid for the liquid inside it, should you drop it and not be able to explain properly to the Revenue Commission why, you may be liable for the duty payable on the liquid which has likely soaked into the ground. Each cask has about €7500 duty payable on it addition top of that what I paid to have it distilled, the cost of the cask etc. and you are taking a big hit for a small business like me.


My Dad & Neighbours Roll the Casks In

Unfortunately, I live in Ireland not Kentucky or Speyside. The only people experienced at handling casks in Ireland at the moment work for multinationals, I can’t exactly call em up and ask them to Schlep down here on their day off. In addition, and this is important. Anyone who is working with casks on the Island is doing so with forklifts and pallets. I’m the only one planning to Rack my whiskey by hand at the moment and most importantly the first company to do it in a VERY LONG time. To that end, there is no working knowledge of racking or dunnage houses for me to call on here in County Clare.

I have no doubt that by the delivery of our second batch we will be adept at this, but I am taking NO CHANCES with the first delivery. We are going to have a few hours of training with our Master Cooper on how not to lop you finger off or contract tetanus from the steel hoops on a cask whilst handling. Our Master Carpenter can get cracking on laying the tracks to properly receive & roll the casks, so they don’t wobble all over the place and leak everywhere.

I will say though, even though I only have 10 ex-bourbon casks in the Rackhouse, the place is smelling DELICIOUS. It’s that wonderful sugary caramel waft you get in any whiskey facility, just wonderful. In just a few more weeks that scent will be intensified and our immensely well prepared crew….i.e. My Dad and some neighbours hopefully, will practically Waltz those casks into the Rackhouse to rest peacefully for a few years.

Without Trees There is No Whiskey

workshop-of-a-cooper-barrel-maker2Trees, casks and cooperage in that order are on my mind this week for a few reasons. I’m putting in an order to my guys in Kentucky for some juicy ex bourbon casks for our next batch of New Fill, second I’m planning a trip to Portugal to have a look at some other interesting vessels and third I have a visit coming up this week from one the only working Master Coopers left on the Island of Ireland. I understand there are four Master Coopers left here. Ger Buckley down in Midelton, John Neilly is coopering for Nephin from his base in Kilbeggan. Jose Cuervo have someone at Bushmills too.  Pernod Ricard and Jose Cuervo have brought on apprentices in recent years but 2 more apprentices do not a dying industry make.

Making whiskey is or should be an holistic process. Everything from the grain of the wood that makes the staves of the barrels to the source of the water used to cut it is what makes this wonderful liquid. I’m all about the wood at the moment, and because of my upcoming Master Cooper meeting I started to dig into the backstory about Irish woodlands and how it affected the whiskey industry and the art of cooperage,

Here in Ireland  up to the Bronze age about 90% of Ireland was covered in forestry. Much of it was oak and giant oak at that. Even into the early Christian era swathes of the country were covered in trees, with many place names deriving from the abundance of them. Mayo (Meigh  Eo) “plain of the yews” etc. The hardcore deforestation really kicks in during the Medieval period. Blast furnaces sprung up across Ireland with huge industrial works located in Derry, Wexford, Leitrim and Laois all of which had good proximity to the woodland necessary to produce charcoal for smelting. Glassworking then begins to add to the pressure on forestry as does shipbuilding and indeed cooperage. By 1603 when Elizabeth the 1st died, tree cover in Ireland was estimated at 2%. Even so, shipbuilding was really taking off at that time and the East India Trading Co. established a shipyard in Cork. All of this combined with a four-fold increase in population between 1700 and 1840, led to the fact that any appreciable forests existing in Ireland in 1600 were GONE by 1800. Yes GONE.

You know why I’m buying my barrels from Kentucky and Portugal and anywhere but here? It’s not because the native species here is not conducive to ageing whiskey, several original species are.  It is not because its traditional in the true sense. It’s because we ran out of trees. Back in the 1800’s we started importing casks to age our whiskey in from abroad because we had no choice. We chopped down all the trees people. We chopped down all the goddam trees.

Afforestation has been ticking along since about 1930 with Irish the free state. A big push was made in the 80’s with a grant scheme for farmers to plant their ‘lands marginal for agriculture but suitable for forestry.’  This led to large swathes of peatbog being designated suitable. Many thousands of hectares of now lost biodiversity fell sway to monoculture planting of non-indigenous conifer species.  They went with these species as technically you can harvest them faster than broad leafs. We have about 25 hectares of it here on the farm ourselves. I remember planting some of it with my Dad. It is my intention never to chop it down, even though I’m sad about all the bog it sucked up.

In fact, the 700,000 hectares (about 10% of landmass) that have been planted since the Afforestation drive began is 75% conifer. Conifer is great yes, it is good that we are bringing back our trees, but it’s the broadleaf species like oak, birch, hazel alder etc. we need back. We need them for biodiversity and you know what? I need them for whiskey.

How sad is it that Pernod Ricard’s “Dair Ghaelach” (which is a great whiskey, no doubt) touts itself as “The First Ever Irish Whiskey to Be Finished in Virgin Irish Oak Hogsheads.” It’s sad because it is kind of true, in that virgin Irish Oak has not been used since 1800 because we ran out of it. I have no doubt virgin Irish Oak was used prior to that for whiskey but they have a fair marketing stance there. Let’s remember that every single bottle of Kentucky Bourbon sold is aged in virgin American oak, it should not be THAT big of a selling point, if only we had our own woodland. There is a push here by The Forest Service who manage forestry, towards planting sustainable long-term broadleaf species with a view to having biodiverse and productive forestry industry. Sadly, I don’t expect there to be a sustainable supply to service the Irish Whiskey industry in my lifetime. “However as they say Big Things come from tiny acorns.” I’m hoping to discuss something long term but super interesting with my Master Cooper this week.