First thing you need to know: this is not a story about whiskey. At least, not on the surface. It’s about gin. But it’s very much about the kind of innovative thinking small distillers are bringing to the shelf, and that encompasses whiskey. Read on, you’ll see.
I took a vacation with my family (my wife, and our two adult children) recently. We traveled to Iceland (where we visited the Eimverk distillery), then Scotland (where we dropped in at Talisker), then wound up in Ireland. While we were relaxing in Lismore after some long driving days, I took the opportunity to pop over to Cappoquin, on the Blackwater river in County Waterford, and drop in on Peter Mulryan at his new venture, the Blackwater distillery. Peter’s written a few pieces for Whisky Advocate, and made the jump to the production side of the business only recently. Blackwater is producing a rather tasty gin, and has plans for whiskey and poitin (though Peter told me that recent regulatory changes have made innovation in those areas much more difficult; might have to investigate that).
But we were just two friends, having a cup of tea and talking spirits (and beer; later we spontaneously decided to go see the nearby Dungarvin brewery, where he’s been doing some interesting barrel-aged collaborations). I wasn’t taking any notes or pictures; in fact, I’d left my notebook and camera in the car outside. Then he told me about his new barrel-aged gin…and I had to go get my notebook.
Take a look at those four barrels in the picture to the left. They’re about 50 liters each, and they’re full of gin. Barrel-aged gin is not a big deal; small barrels aren’t anything new (and 50 liters isn’t even particularly small). What’s very different is the wood. These barrels are made of juniper wood. If you’re like me, you’ve pictured juniper as a shrub. Turns out that juniper can also be a tree. Peter found the wood in Serbia (which is apparently the hottest place to find oak these days, too), but couldn’t find a cooper who was willing to try making barrels from it; he finally got a guy in Finland who was willing to take a shot at it.
They’re beautiful barrels, too, with a smooth, rounded finish on the stave ends. But it’s the smell that’s most impressive. The little storage room was full of a fresh, richly piney scent. Peter said he had to change the formulation of the gin a bit to get it to work with the juniper wood; “It’s the same twelve botanicals, but in different proportions. The juniper wood is a bully, a steamroller; too long in there, and the gin’s undrinkable.” But with only 60 days in the juniper, the gin was marvelously different from the unaged product; more juniper, but not as bright, a softer juniper, and a creamy finish. Delicious stuff. Peter’s pretty confident he can get multiple uses from each barrel, given the overpowering strength of the effect.
So…not whiskey, as I said, but it got me thinking. Not all barrels used for whiskey were oak; I was just reading old records that described American rye whiskey aged in hickory barrels. Certainly not all barrels for American whiskey were new, charred oak; we know that. Brown-Forman has done some experiments with different woods, there’s an English distiller aging “whisky” in chestnut wood (“whisky” because anything aged in wood other than oak can’t be labeled as “whisky” in the UK).
More to the point, as I’m watching small distillers try new recipes and fiddle with process, I’m seeing something that I suspected would be true. Namely, that most whiskey drinkers, especially the new ones, really don’t care — or understand — about the label terminology required and regulated by the federal standards of identity. “Whiskey” is the key word, and if the small type says “WHISKEY DISTILLED FROM A BOURBON MASH” or “CORN WHISKEY — A BLEND”, well, that’s just not that important to them, probably because there are so many varieties in the standards that are so close. I’d agree with them. I like the idea of small distillers doing straight whiskeys, but I’m very curious to try whiskeys aged in different woods, distilled from significantly different grains and proportions of grains…and I don’t really care what they’re tagged by the standards.
What I do want to see is good descriptions of just what I’m getting either on the label, or easily accessible on a distillery page on the Web. It’s a good story, it’s a good hook, it’s good information. And it’s the kind of thing that makes me go get my notebook.