Dair Ghaelach, a whiskey that's truly rooted in Ireland
Dair Ghaelach Grinsell’s Wood Single Pot Still Whiskey is the result of a six-year project leading to the first whiskey finished in native Irish oak barrels for at least 140 years
Left to right: Kevin O'Gorman, master of maturation; Michael Gabbett, forest owner; Patrick Purser, forestry consultant; Billy Leighton, master blender; Ger Buckley, master cooper
Irish Distillers have released very limited quantities of a new pot still whiskey with a distinctly Irish flavour. Dair Ghaelach (or Irish oak) is the result of a six-year project leading to the first whiskey finished in new native Irish oak barrels. The blend of 15 to 22-year-old single pot still whiskies was aged first in American bourbon casks before spending its final ten months in new Kilkenny oak casks. A mere 1,000 cases (12,000 bottles) were produced. As part of the project, each of the nine 130 year-old trees felled were processed into separate barrels, so that every bottle can be directly linked to a specific tree. The new whiskey was launched a few weeks ago in five countries including Ireland, priced at €260 a bottle.
Bottled at 57.9 per cent volume, the Dair Ghaelach has a complex nose of toast, vanilla and dark chocolate, and a massive hit of flavour on the palate, with coffee and forest fruits underpinned by caramel and fudge, finishing with a note of coffee and spice.
Without wood (and that generally means oak) whiskey would look and taste very different. It is the lengthy ageing in oak casks that gives it that lovely golden brown colour (although cheaper versions sometimes add caramel), and all of those woody, nutty, caramel flavours too. In fact, whiskey without oak is basically poitín. Most distilleries pay large sums of money for oak barrels that have been previously used to store sherry, port, Madeira, wine or bourbon. These impart further subtle flavours to the whiskey. Oak barrels were first used simply to store and transport whiskey. At some stage it was realised that ageing in oak imparted desirable flavours. Given that, until recently, most wine was shipped in cask and bottled in Ireland, Scotland or elsewhere, it seems likely that their use began simply as a way of using all of the otherwise redundant barrels.
Finding Irish oak to age Dair Ghaelach took a huge amount of effort on the part of Master Blender Billy Leighton, Master of Maturation Kevin O’Gorman and Master Cooper Ger Buckley. I spoke to Buckley and O’Gorman. With the assistance of forestry expert Paddy Purser, they located mature native oaks (Quercus Robur in this case) in Grinsell’s Wood on Ballaghtobin Estate in Co. Kilkenny. This forest has belonged to generations of the Gabbet family for three hundred and fifty years. Each of the ten trees felled were replaced with new saplings to allow the forest to regenerate naturally. "The forest inventory in Ireland is surprisingly good," says Buckley. "In the 1960s and 1970s it fell as low as 4 per cent of land coverage. Now, thanks to investment and government action, it has reached 15 per cent. The team did trial runs with mini-barrels, checking the porosity of the wood, and found it to be very good, tighter than French and Spanish oak, but not as dense as American. It imparted a distinctive vanilla flavour to the trial batches.
The trees were transported to Galicia to be quarter sawn, before moving down to Jerez, where cooper Antonio Paez Lobato seasoned the wood for sixteen months, made forty hogsheads and gave them a medium toast. Transported back to Ireland, they were filled with the whiskey and checked regularly until the tasters decided it was time to bottle. O’Gorman is delighted with the results. "It is a unique whiskey with complex vanillin flavours. It was not an easy project, but we are thrilled with the whole process from start to finish." Each label gives a tree number allowing buyers to trace each bottle to a specific tree. Apparently some investors are trying to build up a collection that includes one bottle from each tree. Already Irish Distillers has earmarked four other mature forests around the country for future releases and begun the lengthy production process. For the moment, Grinsell’s Wood is the only release available, and is selling very well despite the €260 price tag.