In the mountains of Japan, Kevin Keenan, co-founder of Glendalough Distillery, discovered the red thread of fate that has become an integral part of the company’s DNA. In search of what he believes to be the very best oak in the world, he found himself on Hokkaido, the Japanese island that is the global home to the Mizunara oak tree.
The master coopers working there heard the story of his journey and of the Wicklow hills where his distillery is based and showed him the thin red thread that is used in Japanese culture to signify lines of fate.
“All our stories are connected,” they explained to Keenan, showing him the significance of a distiller travelling from the Wicklow mountains to the Hokkaido mountains to find their next step forward. So, as well as the Mizunara oak that he brought back home, the red thread and its story accompanied him too.
That same red thread is now hand-tied to every bottle of their new Mizunara-finished seven-year-old single malt. It’s a nod to this complex whiskey’s origins but also a sign of respect for the journey their distillery is still on. And what a journey.
Founded by five friends in 2011, Glendalough has grown from its origins in Wicklow into a global premium craft spirits brand. Recently bought by Mark Anthony International, the Canadian drinks company, it has carved a spectacular niche in independent cask maturation.
“Cask maturation is such a huge part of where the flavour of whiskey comes from,” Keenan says. “The wood, the finishing time, the spirit that was aged in the barrel previously, all of these go into the creation of the whiskey.” Working with casks is part of their craft origin, he says, and it’s what drove them to seek out the Japanese oak in the first place.
“We had won Double Gold for the World’s Best Irish Whiskey at the San Francisco Spirits Awards in 2015 when we started our Mizunara journey,” Keenan explains. “It was for our 13-year-old single malt. Not long after that win I headed off to Japan to find casks to finish it. It was an incredible journey and we couldn’t predict its outcome. We were trying to do what we do best, which is break the mould and reinvent.”
His colleague Gary McLoughlin, also a co-founder, agrees. “We were nervous though. We had to ask ourselves, ‘Are we about to mess this up? We’ve just won best in the world with this whiskey and now we want to reinvent it?’,” he says, laughing. But it was a reinvention that was a sell-out, producing the first Mizunara-finished whiskey in Ireland. Today, it’s almost impossible to find a bottle of the 13-year-old limited release in retail, and so, bringing a new Mizunara-finished series into the core collection at Glendalough has turned heads again in the Irish whiskey world.
“Mizunara is such an incredibly complex wood,” Kevin Keenan explains. “It’s only available on the island of Hokkaido, in Japan, from a tiny amount of sources. The whole year’s harvest is sold in one day in a blind auction. The big Japanese distilleries buy it in bulk so just getting your hands on casks is a huge endeavour. A typical cask will cost around €3,000 whereas a standard bourbon barrel would sell for much, much less.”
The word Mizunara literally translates as water oak, reflecting the quantity of water that is contained within it, and so, needs to be dried for at least three years before it can be used. It’s a very porous wood, Keenan explains, which affects the maturation, making it release so much more through evaporation than European or US oak. This makes the final whiskey more expensive also as there’s simply so much less of it.
The wood is also prone to growing in a twisted fashion, unlike European oak, reducing the amount of wood available for cask building. “You only get one cask per tree - if you’re lucky - and each tree takes up to 200 years to mature, so you can see why the costs mount up,” he explains. “But it’s an incredible wood to work with. Once you fill the cask with whiskey and the maturation begins, it starts to release levels of vanillin and flavours of coconut and cinnamon that you don’t find with other woods.”
While in cask, the spirit interacts with the wood constantly and a chemical reaction occurs, releasing complex proteins that create aromas and flavours that are outstanding, Keenan explains. “Mizunara creates more of these complex interactions than other woods, which is why I consider it the best oak for maturation. I mean the best flavours, the best outcome for the whiskey. It’s an incredible wood.”
The seven-year-old single malt is the first release in a trio of Mizunara finishes that reintroduces the award-winning 13-year-old and a reimagined 17-year-old whiskey, McLoughlin explains. Each are single malts and the seven-year-old will be bottled at 46% ABV. Initially matured in ex-bourbon, the Mizunara finish layers powerful aromas and flavours on the whiskey.
On the nose you can expect to experience vibrant, floral notes. The taste is fresh and citrusy with a crisp malt layered with vanilla, fudge and honey coming from the bourbon maturation. The Mizunara then injects flavours of chocolate orange, sandalwood and cinnamon. The finish is exceptionally long with notes of spice and toasted oak and a smooth dark chocolate ending.
The packaging of the bottle mirrors the Japanese tradition that has now been implanted at the heart of this whiskey. The red thread, the Japanese fonts and artwork on the label, the wooden stopper and the smooth lines of the glass each beautifully combine the two island cultures of Japan and Ireland.
“It’s about storytelling,” Keenan adds. “We have always been storytellers, starting with our original brand and the story of St Kevin and the lakes. The Japanese aspect allows us to extend that story and capture all the sense of handcrafting, attention to detail, appreciation of wood and rarity that we love.”
Glendalough Single Malt Mizunara finish is available in O'Briens (nationwide), The Loop (Dublin and Cork Airports), Celtic Whiskey Shop (Dublin), The Vineyard (Belfast), Carry Out (Killarney), Kelly's Off Licence (Clontarf) and all good independent off licences. For more, see glendaloughdistillery.com