When Fionnan O'Connor talks whiskey, his personality takes over the room. His recent book, A Glass Apart, is quickly being recognised as the most comprehensive guide to Irish whiskey. That publication is having its first Christmas and he's just back from Hong Kong where he joined a trade mission to promote Irish whiskey. Tonight though, there's only one thing on his mind: the imminent bottling of a brand new, but much anticipated, Irish whiskey: Dingle Cask No 2.
This is the bottling of the first cask in the Dingle distillery to reach maturity, having been first filled in December 2012. During the three years since, O’Connor has kept a close eye on its journey to maturity in an American Bourbon cask, taking samples at the beginning, middle and soon the end of the maturation process. He’s expecting great things from the finished product, referencing grass and light flavours in his description of what he says will be fundamentally different to anything else on the market.
When pushed on how he can be so sure he says that it’s because the bottling of this single malt obliges us all to reveal the unspoken truth of the modern Irish whiskey market. Despite shelves groaning with the weight of new independent whiskey brands over the past few years, he explains, the Dingle bottling will be the first genuinely new single malt made in Ireland in the past 25 years.
There are many new distilleries in planning here, he says, but few of them are in production and none of them have reached maturity yet. “The new Irish whiskey industry is partly a mirage. The new whiskeys are great, the enthusiasm they’ve generated has been fantastic but what they don’t often admit is that the majority of the new brands are all distillates from the same great distillery – Cooley.”
Cooley, created in the late 1980s by John Teeling, was sold to the US-based Beam Inc in 2012. Beam in turn was bought by the Japanese brewing and distillery group Suntory Holdings in 2014. Mixtures of the distillates from Cooley now supply the main Irish independent labels, O’Connor explains, as these independent distilleries wait for their own spirit to mature in cask or indeed wait for their distilleries to begin production.
The real boom in Irish whiskey is yet to come, he says, and what Dingle produce now, he believes, will help to define that boom. “In about eight years many of the new distillers will have produced their own truly new Irish whiskies and the race for dominance will really begin.”
Dingle Cask No 2 will produce 200 bottles, priced at €350 each, many of which are already earmarked for the Founding Fathers of the distillery and others, explains Oliver Hughes, whose Porterhouse Group owns the distillery. Founding Fathers was an investment scheme whereby people could buy casks for themselves at a competitive rate and play a part in the creation of the Dingle distillery. (A new scheme, the Sons and Daughters of the distillery, has just been launched.)
At €350 a bottle it’s not cheap but “in many ways the bottling of Cask No 2 is symbolic, a collector’s item,” says Hughes. “It marks the beginning of a new journey for the distillery. By Easter 2016, enough of the casks will have reached maturity to start bottling and marketing Dingle Single Malt and Dingle Pot Still on an ongoing basis,” he says. “After that it’s about distribution and reaching out to new markets.”
Being first to market with a truly new whiskey puts Dingle in a great position, O’Connor says. The past few years we’ve seen great brand diversity. Now we’re waiting for liquid diversity – the culinary revolution in Irish whiskey. Dingle are the first to bring a new single malt to the market and challenge the flavours we’re used to. It’s a really exciting event.”
Dingle Cask No 2 will be available for sale in the Dingle Whiskey Bar in Dublin from Monday 21st as well as selected off licences For more on Dingle Whiskey see dingledistillery.ie
Fionnan O'Connor's book A Glass Apart is published by Images Publishing and available on Amazon