The Art of Whiskey: Where Wood Talks to Spirits

Ger Buckley

Modernity and tradition collide to make Ireland—and Irish whiskey—delicious.

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Ger Buckley is a fifth generation cooper. He’s shaped a bit like a barrel: broad across the torso from decades swinging the axes, adzes, and hammers that have been the cask makers’ tools for 4,000 years. He’s an artist whose medium is oak staves, barrel hoops, and reeds used as gaskets. Aside from the composition of the hoops (metal now, wooden then) nothing much has changed since the Egyptians discovered barrel making. Ger likes to say that an ancient Greek or Roman could walk into his shop and get right to work.

The master cooper’s face brightens beneath his white hair when discussing the properties of American oak (sweet), European oak (spicy), and red oak (too porous  for casks). One can easily reverse Buckley’s time travel scenario and it still holds water, or in this case, whiskey: Transport Ger to an ancient Roman cooperage and he’d fit right in, too. So what the hell am I doing in a Dublin basement pub dancing with master cooper Ger Buckley?

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The story begins a few nights earlier on a big old jet airliner carrying me from my home at 600 mph. A digital map affixed to the seat in front of me tracks our progress like the transition maps in old adventure movies: an illustrated airliner traces an arc from our starting point in Boston to our destination city, Shannon, Ireland. But that’s not all my adventure map displays: the locations of both the Titanic and the Lusitania are marked, too. A history of shipwrecks while hurling through the sky is an odd but not unwelcome juxtaposition.

Castlemartyr 2 smallIt isn’t the last. On our bus ride from Shannon to Cork, one of my fellow journalists says, “Did you see that? There was an old castle in the middle of that field.”

“The only castles in my area are stucco. You visit them to eat turkey legs and watch actors joust,” I say.

“In my neck of the woods they’re fireworks stands,” adds another. We all know that the United States is a new country that places high value on prefabricated dining experiences and quality fireworks at medieval prices, but confronting those facts not ten minutes into our Irish adventure makes us laugh.

We hit the first of many villages crowding the narrow road to Cork. I don’t know which one, but I’m sure it had a colorful name. Along the way we passed signs for Croom, Bruff, Ballingary, and Kilmallock, just to name a few. Each town through which we drove was like something out of a picture book: a row of connected two story buildings lining each side of the road, some of them painted red or green, others in their natural stone or cement colors. The buildings bore names of family business ranging from pubs to grocers to laptop repair. To my left I spotted what probably was a pub 150 years ago, but now housed an American fast food franchise.

Onward we rolled, eventually arriving at our hotel: a resort built adjacent to the ruins of an 800 year old castle. The hotel itself was elegant and modern, with a pool, gym, and full spa. Built into the nightstands were touchscreens that controlled both the lights and drapes.

Not all of the facilities were new, though. Some parts of the hotel once served as a boys’ school. The bar, for example, with its towering ceiling and ornate plaster moulding, was formerly the school’s chapel. Later that night I met a former student of the school, who was back for a long weekend. “I still think of it as a chapel,” he told me. “I genuflected before I ordered my drink.”

He ordered my drink, and then he welcomed me into his party and they made certain I didn’t see the bottom of my glass until daylight. “You’re here for St. Patty’s then?” my new best mate asked.

“Of course,” I said. “I want to see how the Irish do it.”

“It’s more of a family holiday here. You make a nice dinner, maybe take the kids to the parade,” he said.

“That sound uneventful.”

“No, mate. It’s good craic,” he said. Good fun.

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That same evening our little band of jet lagged writers found our way to the Blackbird pub in nearby Ballycotton, where we found more good craic thanks to a cordial host and an abundance of Jameson whiskey. Walking into the Blackbird was like stepping into a movie. Van Morrison reminded us that it was a marvelous night for a moondance, a family of three played a block stacking game, and a couple of old timers huddled near the wood stove. We walked to the backroom, where the bartender was already pouring shots for us. This was traditional Jameson, with its sweet vanilla and toasted caramel notes. In 12 short hours I would understand how they got there.

They served us fish and chips that were swimming in the ocean just a few hours prior (the fish, not the chips), caught by a local fisherman and brought directly to the pub. The cod was mild and flaky, a real treat for those of us who equate bar food with fatty, prepackaged, deep fried somethings. The proprietor grew so animated talking about Ballycotton that he volunteered to drive groups of four to see the lighthouse, and along the way he told them local ghost stories.

The rest of us moved to the front room and listened to a pair of local gents sing and play guitar. They performed mostly traditional songs, and when they found out where we were staying they told us about the time they played for Springsteen while he was staying at the resort. Then they proudly played a story song about the night they played “The River” with The Boss. There was something so right about Ballycotton’s local Irish folk duo jamming with the world’s biggest rock star.

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The next morning we headed into Midleton to tour the new Jameson distillery. “New” in this context means the 1970s, but the label distinguishes the site from the old distillery in Dublin. Regardless, the site is old: The location has been a distillery since 1825, and the oldest building on the property dates to 1794.

wash still smallWe toured the old side, where a water wheel once turned the millstones that ground barley into grist. We saw the big copper pot, or wash still, that once held 143,000 liters of boiling mash, the evaporated alcohol condensing on its way to the collecting tub outside.

The science of distilling alcohol hasn’t changed much since that first distillery opened at the Midleton site. The technology is certainly better, but it’s still a process of turning water and cereal (in this case barley ) into mash, filtering the sugars to make something called wort, then adding yeast and fermenting.

Jameson locally sources its barley from 100 or so farm families. They malt some of it, or trick the barley into germinating. The company also makes a mash from French corn. These three grains—barley, malted barley, and corn—become the spirits that Jameson’s master distillers blend into a wide range of whiskeys.

These spirits aren’t distilled once but three times, each distillation an opportunity to change the finished product’s aromatic properties. Distilled barley is robust and spicy; distilled corn smells sweet, light, and floral. The density of these profiles can be altered during distillation, or as Jameson’s international whiskey ambassador David McCabe puts it, “If I change the tunes of what I’m playing in the pots I change the spirit.” But a distilled spirit isn’t whiskey yet, and that brings us back to Ger Buckley.

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The first thing to note about casks is that they are among the original reusable/recyclable containers dating to 2,600 B.C. A lot of craftsmanship goes into that utilitarian barrel you’ve never given a second thought. Without a thorough understanding of wood, carpentry, and engineering a cask wouldn’t be watertight, but built well their uses were (and are) myriad: wine, olives, grain, spices, vinegar, and fish, almost everything once was shipped in casks. When the barrels arrived at their destinations, they were emptied of their contents and filled with whatever was being traded. Ireland may want sherry and Spain whiskey, for example, and thus the practice of aging whiskey in sherry casks was born.

Sometimes the traded products were, well, stinky, and fish-flavored whiskey isn’t too appetizing. Some enterprising cooper figured out that charring the inside of a cask killed offensive odors, and then the whiskey trade realized that charred oak brings that caramelized note to the finished product.

So between the natural flavors from the wood, the tannins and the seasoning (i.e., charring, sherry, etc.), up to 50 percent of the taste of whiskey comes from the barrel. Expressed another way, whiskey is a method by which to drink wood.

Ger doesn’t build Jameson’s casks, though he’s certainly capable. The distillery uses around 150,000 barrels per year, the majority purchased from American whiskey distillers. This isn’t an effort to infuse the Jameson line with the flavor of American whiskeys, but rather a collaboration built from convenience. By definition, Tennessee whiskeys must be aged in brand new charred casks, but Irish whiskeys are aged in seasoned casks.

Think for a moment of a brand new American oak barrel as a giant teabag. That first “cup” is going to be really strong, full of tannins leaching from the fresh wood. Jameson whiskeys are too sophisticated for that, so they pick up those once-used barrels from their American counterparts and put them to good use. Now, on the other end of the spectrum if that teabag gets used too many times there’s no flavor left, so Jameson only uses a barrel three times. After that third use the casks are sold off for use aging brines and vinegars, or for decorative purposes. Ireland is awash in planters and outdoor tables made from retired Jameson casks. On a much smaller scale the distiller uses sherry casks imported from Europe.

warehouse smallSo if Ger and his assistant, who is in the middle of a four year apprenticeship, aren’t making the thousands of casks then what are they doing? They are using their hand tools named for animals—their swifts, dogs, and horses—to tend to the tens of thousands of barrels secreted around the Midleton property. Some barrels are tucked away in low, slate roofed stone warehouses straight from a 19th century tintype. Others are stored in towering columns in modern warehouses. We visited one such warehouse stacked high with 33,000 barrels, all aging at the ambient temperature. Many showed leakage around their poplar corks, but the miniscule amount of seepage over the years created a sort of sugary shellac that resolved its own problem.

If any of these casks had a problem when they were filled years ago, they would have been drained and brought to the cooperage where Buckley methodically removed their hoops, replaced their reeds and leaky staves, and made them useful again. You don’t just throw away the component that gives your whiskey half of its flavor.

That flavor comes down to “a conversation between the whiskey and the wood,” to again quote Jameson’s McCabe, and that conversation can take years. By definition a spirit isn’t Irish whiskey until aged for at least three years, but even then it’s just a baby. Jameson tucks away some casks for well over 20 years. A premium offering from the company like Redbreast 21 contains no whiskey younger than 21 years at the time of bottling. Think about that for a second: Just as Ger’s guardianship of the barrels is critical to the success of Jameson whiskey, so is that of the hundreds of other people not mentioned in this article who must put up enough whiskey today for their counterparts 21 years down the road. That takes amazing foresight. Dinner is in an hour, and I can’t even plan for that.

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Among those unnamed contributors are the mad scientists called the master distillers. They aren’t mad at all, of course, but I like to picture them in tweed suits and leather goggles, mixing flasks of different whiskeys together to compose new varieties.

This is what makes Jameson a blended whiskey. Although the recipe for original Jameson is set in stone, the master distillers have a broad palette with which to work on other blends. They have single malt, which is 100% malted barley, with its peppery note. Then there’s single pot still, a mix of both malted and unmalted barley that brings those delicious caramel, cotton candy, and vanilla notes to the party. And finally there’s the floral and sherry flavors from the grain whiskey. Now multiply that by the number of ages maturing in the warehouses and you can see what a broad range of blending possibilities are available.

The differences may be subtle when tasted in isolation, but line up four Jameson offerings and their unique characteristics are made manifest. After lunch with Ger and David, which featured both baked chicken stuffed with black pudding and the most delicious Irish coffee I’ve ever tasted, we headed down to the tasting room to do just that. There were four offerings on the tasting table:

tasting smallGreen Spot: A Single Pot Still whiskey aged in both bourbon and sherry casks, Green Spot is relatively new to the United States and fairly limited in its production. It’s literally a mouth watering whiskey with small notes of sweet honey and apple and a light peppery taste on the tip of the tongue.

Jameson 18 Years Old Limited Reserve: A remarkably smooth blend of pot whiskey and grain, Jameson 18 is re-barreled for another year after blending.  The sweetness here is a combination of toffee, fudge, and plums.

  • Midleton Very Rare: This is my desert island whiskey. Composed of a blend of 12 to 25 year old whiskeys the vanilla, butterscotch, and floral notes are not to be missed.
  • Redbreast 21: A whiskey so good I made sure to finger sop my glass to get every drop. Oaky, a little fruity, and spicy on the tongue, one can still taste the barley at the core of this remarkable drink. Only around 65 casks of Redbreast 21 are manufactured per year.

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The next day we were in Dublin, our home base the Marker Hotel, which was much more technologically advanced than your average American writer. I stumbled around for five minutes or so, flicking unresponsive light switches and exercising the base end of my Anglo-Saxon vocabulary before realizing that I had to insert my key card into a slot by the door before the lights would work. What a clever way to ensure both that visitors don’t waste electricity and that they don’t forget their room keys. Ireland is peppered with subtle little nods to sustainability like this. Although plastic bottles are available in convenience stores, for example, most places serve glass bottles. Meat, dairy, and produce are locally sourced more often than not. The Emerald Isle is green not because it’s trendy but because the Irish remain connected to their roots.

Beckett Bridge smallIt would be hard not to be. Not a half block from the contemporary and elegant Marker Hotel stand row houses straight out of a Joyce novel. Everywhere one goes the modern butts up against the traditional: The striking Samuel Beckett Bridge just down the way from the famous (and 200 year old) Ha’Penny Bridge; the cheesemongers in Dublin’s City Centre surrounded by burger places and brand name retailers; the classic cocktails at the Liquor Room, which brings us back to the beginning of my story.

We’re down in the basement bar drinking Jameson Punch, which is a delicious mix of grapefruit, bitters, simple syrup and nutmeg, not to mention its namesake whiskey. A DJ is spinning dance music and the floor is packed with revelers of various vintages. I proceed to the dance floor to make a fool of myself; well, that’s not fair. Honestly between the rounds of cocktails and the sheer fun emanating for the locals I can’t help but get into the middle of things. While I’m flailing about wildly I look up and there’s Ger, the ancient craftsman, smiling and dancing along. I give him a big hug and say, “I’m really glad I met you.”

“I’m glad I met you too,” he shouts over the boom boom boom of the bass. Tomorrow I’ll be off on another Dublin adventure and he’ll be back in his cooperage communing with the ghosts of ancient craftsmen, making sure the whiskey has a nice conversation with the wood. But for a brief moment we’re mates, and that’s an equally important tradition dating back thousands of years. Sláinte.

As we celebrate with all of our friends who make St. Patrick’s Day great, we raise a glass to Jameson for sponsoring this story.

 

photos courtesy Maggie Chestney and the author

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About James Stafford

James Stafford is an executive editor for The Good Men Project.  You can follow him at www.jamesostafford.com or on Twitter: @jamesostafford.

Comments

  1. “We all know that the United States is a new country…” The first time I went to England and Ireland, the age of my surroundings made an immediate and lasting impression upon me. Coming, at the time, from Arizona, where a home was considered “old” if it had reached a decade, it was a marvel that so many people lived in homes that were constructed before Arizona had even been a twinkle in some sadistic, heat-loving politician’s eye. Come to think of it, my bet is that there are many a cask and many a bottle of that Jameson whiskey that is older (and probably far more enjoyable) than most of what is in my beloved ancestral state.

    I’d never given much thought before to what goes into making whiskey (although I’ve given a lot of thought to what whiskey goes into making vanilla, beverages, and baked goods). It’s always great fun to geek out on a new topic and learn what goes behind the scenes to see the craft that goes into making a work of art.

  2. Excellent! I can hear the “conversation” from here!

  3. Mary-Anne Byrne says:

    James… Great read. I loved it. Hope you’ve recovered from the insanity.

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