With the new academic year just starting, I'm reminded of the excitement and anticipation I felt as a child when heading back to school. Or at least that is what I tell myself it was. In reality, the emotions were the polar opposite: dread and fear, being stuck in a classroom listening to an aging teacher drone on about a subject he'd lost his passion for, while I daydreamed of simply being outside, playing football. It was a simple Pavlov's dog relationship, the morning school bell would sound and my heart would sink.
But times have changed and now I consider education to be the most noble of pursuits. As Gandhi once said, "Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever" and as a spirits writer, I am always striving to learn more about this wonderful world of booze. Each and every dram is an education, and every trip to a distillery is like another module on the great degree course of life. So when I was offered the chance to spend two days at the newly established Irish Whiskey Academy at the Midleton Distillery in County Cork, the reaction was not one of fear and loathing, but of schoolboy enthusiasm and energy.
For those of you unaware, the Midleton distillery is situated in the south-east of Ireland and is one of the most important distillery sites in the world of whiskey, if not the world of spirits in general. It is the home to many famous Irish whiskey brands and with Irish whiskey-making on the rise (new operations popping up all over the country) it is the flagship for distillation in Ireland.
Famed for its enormous copper pot stills ("the biggest that coppersmiths and pot still specialists Forythes have ever made," they tell me), triple distillation and a unique style of whiskey called 'Single Pot Still', Midleton also produces grain whiskey in their ultra-modern column stills. As a result, they don't just make spirit for their own brands (Jameson, Paddy's, Powers, Red Breast, Green Spot and a host of others) but also for brands from across the rest of Ireland, who often draw together spirit from the Cooley distillery in central Ireland and Bushmills in the north, as well as some of Midleton's output to produce their own unique Irish whiskey blends.
With such an important role to play not just in brands who call Midleton home, but in Irish whiskey in general (a category that has seen around 25 per cent growth year-on-year over the past few years), the owners Irish Distillers have set up the Irish Whiskey Academy to provide some solid education on this fast growing whiskey style.
Housed in a dedicated part of the large distillery complex, the academy has been open less than a year and prides itself on being a "non-powerpoint environment", instead using some very clever educational aids such as giant chalkboards with diagrams of column stills on, which the academy tutor David McCabe could scribble all over as he once again, with extreme patience, tried to get my group to understand the art of continuous distillation.
The first day of the Academy focuses on the basics of what makes Irish whiskey so unique, starting with a mixed mashbill of malted and unmalted barley, which is thrice distilled through their huge copper pot stills. Far from being 'deskbound' for the day, the course mixes bursts of information and presentations with practical walks around key parts of the distillery, where individual operatives could be engaged to discuss the nuances of a particular part of the process; not something you get on an average distillery tour, it has to be said. As first days at school go, this was pretty impressive.
Having walked away on day one with a brain-load of information, some of it underscoring knowledge I already had and some of it simply brand spanking new facts, I wasn't sure there would be any room left in my head for more information, especially when the second day was to focus on the altogether more complicated side of column distillation.
Perhaps the most confusing of all distilling methods, especially when it involves distilling under vacuum, the process was presented in simple and clear terms that, when put into the context of the course as a whole, took the idea of a high scientific principal down to the level of us mere mortals, more adept to drinking the stuff than making it. No less a valid way to interact with great spirit.
So alongside the detailed but fantastically presented information, there were the all-important practical elements: redistilling some low wines new make in miniature bespoke glass stills, a brilliant cooperage demonstration and 'lecture' from their own in-house cooper Ger Buckley, and the odd tasting here and there of their core ranges, as well as cheeky cask samples pulled from aging casks in their huge warehousing complex.
Leaving at the end of the second day with a notebook falling apart at the spine and a pen writing not in ink, but in dust, myself and each of the attendees were handed a boo. It was beautifully put together with fold-out elements of all the diagrams we had seen, flow charts of the whiskey production process and even a small wallet full of different Irish whiskey brands labels. A true keepsake that, much like the different whiskeys produced at Midleton today, will no doubt be sought-after for many generations to come.