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Ballymaloe and the provenance of oak

  • There is a noted phenomenon in the world of food and drink called ‘The Ballymaloe Trickle-Down Effect’. A thought, or philosophy, or technique starts at Ballymaloe House Hotel and Cookery School in Co Cork and slowly permeates culture in Ireland, then globally.

    Every year, when the skies are cornflower blue and the feeling of potentiality is bursting from the ground, Ballymaloe hosts a Litfest of Food & Wine, to which the migratory birds of the culinary and libatory world flock in order to discuss and debate.

    It’s a place which links people, creates connections. On Saturday night, for example, the talk was of psychobiotics and kimchi, kefir, the Viagra-like potential of nettles, and olive oil production on Lesbos. The conversations drifted from wine to gin to stovies, all underpinned by a belief in provenance, diversity, tradition, modernisation and a fierce love of the local. Is whisky part of this? Damned right it is.

    Yesterday afternoon I spent an hour co-presenting a class with Kevin O’Gorman, Irish Distillers’ master of maturation (yes, that is his job title). We were talking wood, oak type, flavour, mechanisms and the effects on single pot still whiskeys.

    He and the team had done the heavy lifting, I just rambled on about the drams. Give me a Redbreast and I’m happy. It was the last whiskey, though, which opened up a new world.

    IDL’s Midleton Dair Ghaelach is finished in Irish oak casks. It’s more than that, however. It’s the product of a six-year programme which covered sourcing, coopering, maturation and then releasing a whiskey which not only named the type of oak used, but which forest it came from, and which specific tree was used.

    Oak is central to Ireland. Dair (oak) was the seventh letter of the Ogham alphabet, it gives us Derry and Kildare (church of the oak), it formed the sacred groves of old, and it gave timber for ships, houses and palaces. 

    The only reasons why distillers in Ireland and Scotland use second-hand casks is because the native forests were clear-cut. If they had been managed, then the whiskies would have been significantly different.

    Oak forests

    From tiny acorns: Could anyone in Scotch emulate Irish Distillers’ innovation?

    The first issue faced by Kevin and his colleague Ger Buckley (Ireland’s number one cooper), therefore, was finding the oak. Ireland has the second smallest coverage of forest in Europe – a mere 10%, only 1% of which is native woodland. Although there is a reforestation programme under way, there’s not a lot of mature oak about.

    Certainly a dramatic change from the days, Kevin claimed, when it was said that a monkey could swing its way from Kinsale to Derry without touching the ground. I’m still not quite sure what’s more surprising: the extent of the forest, or the fact that there were once Irish monkeys.

    They sourced 10 trees from Ballaghtobin Estate in Co Kilkenny which, followed by Ger, were coopered into hogsheads in Spain, given a medium toast, then returned to Ireland to be filled with a blend of three types of American oak-matured pot still whiskey for a 10-month period of finishing. The casks from each tree were kept separate.

    The first batch were all Quercus robur, but Ireland’s terroir makes this wider-grained, with more tannin, higher extract and a different flavour profile. They have subsequently felled, or identified, Quercus petraea and Quercus cerris (aka Turkey oak) from other forests.

    Traceability, provenance – and different flavour profiles. Forget single estate, we’re now in the realm of single tree. Only Buffalo Trace has gone further in terms of wood research, I suspect.

    The result? A whiskey with pot still’s unctuous nature, but a completely new flavour profile – there’s added roasted nuts and spices and a heavy chestnut honey element, allied to blackcurrant, clove and dried soft fruit. A whiskey which makes your knees tremble.

    So, once again, the Irish have got there first. I know Glengoyne did a Scottish oak years ago, but not to this level of forensic detail. Could Scotch do something similar to Dair Ghealach? Scotland’s forest is in a poor state, but not as low in terms of coverage as Ireland’s, and there is a target for 4,500ha of native species to be planted every year, helping to reforest 25% of the country by the middle of the century.

    So in theory, yes, there could be a Scotch equivalent, adding further profound links between land and spirit. Irish Distillers is doing it, Japanese whisky-makers are managing the tiny amount of mizunara forests and are replanting to give it a sustainable future.

    If Scotch is serious about provenance, it would be daft not to explore this area. From tiny acorns, ideas trickle down.

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