Midleton Distillery, Once An Irish Whiskey Saviour, Are They Now Out Of Touch and Being Left Behind?
I first want to start this article off by stating one thing…I enjoy all the whiskeys presently produced at the Midleton Distillery. In fact, The Spot whiskeys are some of my favourites in the entire category. I will also clearly make it well known that the following article is an op-ed, meaning these are my personal opinions and my opinions only. Some may share a few of these, but I suspect there will be many more defending against what I am about to say. So, as Heath Ledger’s Joker so eloquently said….”And, Here We Go”
The history of Midleton Distillery, much like that of Irish Whiskey as a whole, is long, storied and has many ups and downs. It also includes two variations of what became known as “Midleton Distillery”. Midleton Distillery (The Old Midleton Distillery) was founded in 1825 just outside the town in County Cork that bears the same name by three brothers named Murphy. This distillery once used the largest Pot Still ever created that held 31618 gallons of liquid. They made whiskey on this site through many ups and downs in the Irish Whiskey industry and many amalgamations of smaller brands under their wings. The final of these occurred in 1966 which saw John Jameson & Son, John Powers & Son and Cork Distilleries Company (the name of the company owning and producing at the Midleton Distillery) to all join forces. In the summer of 1975 The NEW Midleton Distillery began production and a year later the Jameson and Powers distilleries in Dublin ceased production and everything under the three brands was made under the same new roof at the new facility in Midleton. Currently, the following brands are still being produced out of the complex at Midleton Distillery: Jameson, Powers, Redbreast, The Spot Whiskies (Green, Red, Yellow, Blue and Gold) as well as Method & Madness. Paddy Irish Whiskey is currently still being produced at Midleton as far as I know, but the parent company of Paddy, Sazerac, has purchased the Lough Gill Distillery in County Sligo and has all but confirmed to be moving the production of Paddy to this new purchase. Tullamore D.E.W. was also produced at Midleton all the way up until 2014 when that brand's owners, William Grant & Son, built a brand new distillery in the town of Tullamore where the brand had Originally been made up until 1954. The most often forgotten tidbit of the history is that after the merger in the 60’s/70’s, The parent company was called “Irish Distillers” and even the mighty Bushmills were brought under the umbrella in 1972. Bushmills never ceased production and was always produced at their distillery in County Antrim in Northern Ireland and eventually in 2005 Bushmills was sold to Diageo, bringing the Irish Distillers company solely based out of Midleton Distillery once more. So, through the 70’s and 80’s all Irish whiskey was produced by Irish Distillers Company and outside Bushmills, was produced solely out of the Midleton Distillery. They may have not single-handedly saved Irish Whiskey but it’s as close as you could get. Seeing as Jameson alone was the brand that brought Irish Whiskey back into the USA, and it is made by Midleton, it's a fair statement to be made, that many do make to this day that Midleton Saved Irish Whiskey.
Now that we have taken a look back at the immense history of the Midleton distillery, let's look a little closer at a couple of its flagship brands and in the process, what Midleton has almost become known for in the past few decades. We, of course, are talking about the Redbreast and Spot Whiskeys lineups. These two brands have almost become synonymous with the Single Pot Still style which in turn has become known as the “Irish style”. Single Pot Still, in the Midleton way of producing it, is a mix of malted barley and un-malted barley which produces a distillate that is denser, seemingly more complex and has a richness to it and incorporates a spice to its flavour profile that Single Malt and Grain whiskeys don’t tend to have. Seeing as Midleton, for the longest time, was the only distillery producing Single Pot Still whiskey, they also controlled the rules behind what could constitute a whiskey being defined as Single Pot Still (more on that a little further on in this article). Redbreast and The Spot Whiskeys have all been released as Single Pot Still Irish whiskey from Midleton and being the only brands carrying that distinction, they came to be known as THE Single Pot Still whiskeys. Redbreast took that even further as the availability of the Redbreast line was at a much more prevalent level than not only other Single Pot Still, but almost all Irish Whiskeys period next to Jameson. This issue is still felt today as most casual to semi-regular drinkers of Irish Whiskey have little to no experience with any of the new wave of Pot Still Whiskeys that are now making their way into the marketplace. Taking that into account here are my thoughts on where these two brands stand at the moment in the overall Irish Whiskey landscape. I personally prefer the Spot Lineup over the Redbreast line, as I feel they tend to have more of the traditional Pot Still character to them while also being put into some great cask combinations that help highlight the distillate. With Redbreast, I personally find that the casking being done tends to hide the true pot still characteristics and the flavours are heavily cask driven as opposed to complimenting the distillate. There are outliers from each lineup as well. My favourite Redbreast is the 15 year, as I find it to be the least Cask driven of all the releases and the Red Spot is a damn sherry bomb for the Spot lineup. Again, I will reiterate here, I like every one of these releases and I drink every release from both of these lineups. I just think the fanfare for the Redbreast line is over the top and it basically boils down to availability and familiarity with that particular brand.
Midleton, as stated above, has been the sole purveyor of Single Pot Still whisky in Ireland for decades, and as a result, when the Irish Technical File was being established, Midleton had the only say in what could and couldn’t constitute a Single Pot Whiskey. As a result of this, they selfishly ignored tradition and the history of the style altogether and had it established that there was a minimum of 30% of each the malted and unmalted barley and that a third grain could be allowed as long as the amount in the mash did not exceed 5% of the total mash. What has happened in the present day, is it is forcing brands and distilleries that ARE following more traditional mashes for their whiskey, to have to not use the term “Single Pot Still” and instead choose the more linguistically friendly terms like “Mixed Mash Bill” as Killowen was forced to use for thier first ever Distillery-created Release. Or in the case of Kilbeggan, they used thirty-five percent malted barley, thirty five percent unmalted barley and thirty percent rye grain, the casks during maturation were labelled as “Single Pot Still” but when the whiskey was released they were forced to call it “Small Batch Rye”. Kilbeggan, interestingly also released an actual Single Pot Still whiskey which did have a third grain, oats, but only at 2.5 percent of the total. One thing that this has caused in the Irish Whiskey world is a group of distillers and whiskey makers to band together as the Irish Whiskey Association with the goal to have the governing body that oversees the Irish Geographical Indication amend the rules to not only reflect the traditional methods used in the past but it will also ensure a better sustainability for the future of grains in ireland. These historic mashbills have recently been researched by Fionnan O’Connor for his PhD project where he found a series of old mashbills and with the help of BoAnn Distillery set out to recreate them. This is just another piece of the puzzle that I personally hope will aid in the changing of the Technical File that sets the rules for Irish Whiskey.
We touched on the future of Irish Whiskey as a whole, so now I want to dig into what I, as a consumer, see as the future of Midleton and its produced brands. The easiest thing to look at is the loss or removal of two major brands that were under the Midleton production umbrella. Tullamore D.E.W. was the first major departure of a brand as they returned to their Historic home in the town of Tullamore in a brand new distillery. The most recent was the heritage brand of Paddy leaving for Lough Gill Distillery in County Sligo after the owners of Paddy, Sazerac, purchased the Lough Gill Distillery in 2022. With these two brands leaving the Midleton footprint, it may actually increase the percentage of the output being dedicated to the remaining brands such as Redbreast and Spot whiskeys etc. If that is in fact the case I would hope that we would start to see, if not a reversal of the pricing models, maybe a slowing of the increases being observed. I get it, the global market in all aspects, especially in the spirits industries, has seen a huge uptick in the cost of all facets involved. What I don't, and will never understand is the major corporations with an almost infinite advantage over the craft and small producers, ever increasing their prices when a basic understanding of economics would seemingly show it should be the opposite. Yet, we somehow see the smaller craft producers keeping their pricing relatively stable, while their huge corporate conglomerate competitors increase prices at a much quicker way.
The final point I will look at is the "premium-isation" of Irish Whiskey and how sideways that has gone especially with the Midleton brands. As the Irish Whiskey industry enjoys its renaissance and exponential growth over the last decade and into the decade to come, it goes without question that there will be a premium-isation involved as well. It happens in any quickly growing industry so why would Irish Whiskey be any different? What Midleton seemingly did was try to get a headstart on the premium side of releases and along with their upper tier releases under the actual Midleton brand name (Very Rare, Barry Crockett Legacy, Dair Ghaelach) they started releasing “Premium” and age statement Jameson products as well as higher age statement Redbreast bottlings with special caskings etc. The biggest I personally take with these “premium” releases is there isn't actually anything all that special about them. Different than core range and “premium” are two completely different categories, yet Midleton and its brands are trying to enhance these special releases and price them in a premium category. A category they know almost no other brands can obtain at present time, and absolutely no one else can do with Single Pot still whiskeys. You have to look no further than the last couple years and a few releases that raised eyebrows, not just mine, but collectively throughout the whiskey world. The first we will look at is the flagship release from the distillery itself, under their own name, The Midleton Very Rare. I again, will focus on pricing and availability in my market first and foremost but will add in snippets of info gleaned from around other markets. Up until just a few years ago, you could find bottles of Very Rare sitting dusty on shelves from many previous releases. So much so, in fact, that many stores would frequently put them on sale for a hundred or more dollars off at a time. There are still a few of these from 2013, 2015, 2016 that I have seen as recently as a couple weeks ago. Why did these high calibre whiskeys not sell? Well in my market the going rate has always been close to the $350 mark for Midleton Very Rare. Now that is in canadian pesos which presently works out to be around $255 USD. The last few releases of the Very Rare have come to my market in vastly smaller quantities but have also risen in price by anywhere from 50 to 75 dollars each. I will admit that the Very Rare is one of the upper echelon of Irish Whiskeys that come to the market, however I personally do not find a great deal of value for what the price paid is vs. product delivered. In fact, the last couple years releases have seemingly dropped in quality for my personal palate. In even more recent news, this year's edition was just announced and it seems as though Midleton has decided to jump on the bandwagon of sustainability, which I will never look down on. But what I can look down on is the price point increasing while the quality of the packaging alone is far less. This may be one of the most disheartening developments of all. I have seen a few brands across the whiskey world switch to sustainable packaging and in fact kept the pricing the same as well as actually less in one case. I can't pass full judgement quite yet as I have yet to see the new packaging first hand. Saying that, I would ten times out of ten grab for a bottle of the Barry Crockett Legacy(BCL) ahead of the Very Rare. I was extremely lucky to have picked up a couple bottles of the BCL in 2019 for $150 CAD which is roughly $110 USD. I know that's an insane deal and I won’t ever see that again.. But now, the newest releases for the BCL are again $400+ if we even get them sent here at all. Now for the elephant in the blog…
Along with the sustainability switch for the Very Rare in the 2023 version, there was one more eye popping, head scratching, and mind boggling announcement coming from Midleton. The Midleton “Pinnacle” Quoted as “The rarest bottle of Midleton Very Rare ever produced”. So what is this exactly…Well that depends on who you ask. First off, it is a one-off bottle. One of One. BUT and here’s a huge BUT, It costs a whopping $130000 USD or $176500 CAD. ***
Now that the number has sunk in, let's devolve this for a second. This one off bottle of whisky is made up of a portion of each of the 40 annual releases of the Very Rare that Midleton has released. It also has a sample of a cask distilled in 1984. The bottle size is 700ml which means if each portion was equal you would get a bottle with just a smidge over half an ounce of each in it. You're basically getting the world's most expensive infinity bottle. Not only that but it comes in at the minimum 40%abv. Sure the bottle itself is insanely intricate and looks unique, YOU DONT EVEN GET THE BOTTLE!!! What you are buying is an NFT or basically a photo. A digital image stored in Blockchain technology that you can trade in for the actual bottle at a special Bar in Singapore. You do also receive a full day experience at Midleton Distillery if you use the coupon within a year. Obviously this will be bought and tracked and blah blah blah, but that price is actually insane. In direct contrast, I (humble brag) was very fortunate and lucky enough to somehow get invited to taste the Gordon & MacPhail 80 year Glenlivet (at the time, the oldest whisky ever bottled) and we actually got to drink the whisky. It was bottled and sold and tasted around the world. That bottle is on sale in Canada right now for roughly 50k less than this Midleton Pinnacle insanity.
Now, as a fan of Irish whiskey, I am happy to see the ceiling that's possible, being raised, but let's be real, this may as well have been never done. The Chosen from JJ Corry was the fist “premium” bottle that made me pay attention, and from all accounts that was an incredible drop. But even then, there were threats levied against the owner of JJ Corry and people lost their collective minds and that was for pricing around $10000.
It will be interesting to follow the future of premium Irish Whiskey and how crazy it gets and how high the ceiling really is.
I will end this off by just saying this one thing. Irish Whiskey is growing and growing, There will be absolutely fantastic bottles being released ongoing and into the future hopefully as long as i am around and beyond. Some will end up reaching cult status and sought after more than anything we have seen in Irish Whiskey even now. But one thing I can say for sure is there is already a plethora of great whiskey being made and I am just trying to taste each one. Lol. So come along and join me on this wild journey and til next time….slainte.