Midleton Very Rare shows patience is a virtue

Midleton Very Rare shows patience is a virtue

Master distiller Kevin O’Gorman has waited 23 years to put his stamp on Midleton Very Rare and this year he’s finally had his chance

People | 09 Jun 2021 | Issue 175 | By Mark Jennings

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It is hard to keep up with the soaring number of releases from Ireland at the moment, but one always stands out from the crowd: the annual ‘drop’ of Midleton Very Rare from Irish Distillers. Since 1984, this premium blend of pot still and aged grain whiskey has been a favourite of drinkers and collectors alike. The bottle is marked with the name of the current master distiller, continuing the tradition begun by its legendary originator, Barry Crockett, through to Kevin O’Gorman, who took the helm in 2020. The 2021 release is the first that he’s worked on from start to finish and gives drinkers globally some insight into his whiskey-making philosophy.
Midleton Very Rare

O’Gorman has been with Irish Distillers since 1998 and credits former master distillers Barry Crockett and Brendan Monks for instilling in him a real reverence for the details. “There are no shortcuts; everything is exact and, if not exact, you go and do it again.” In a distillery that produces eight million cases of Jameson every year, that philosophy makes perfect sense. However, Midleton Very Rare is different: annual differences are part of its makeup and the blender is seeking distinction, not consistency.

As a keen runner, O’Gorman finds many of his ideas outside of the distillery, while on the hoof, but he credits the past as being his key source of inspiration. As Irish Distillers is the merging of many old distilleries and hundreds of years of practice, there’s a lot of history for him to draw on. He can access the archives and the company’s very own archivist, Carol Quinn, is always on hand to help him search for insight into the company’s heritage. Additionally, as the company’s former head of maturation – a role that saw him managing the thousands of casks that go on to produce Jameson, Redbreast and the many other Irish Distillers’ releases – O’Gorman is well used to experimentation: “With maturation, you just never know until you actually go through it and see what comes out. It’s very hard to put a model on something and say what this is going to turn out like.”
Kevin O'Gorman

This deep experience when it comes to whiskey maturation led some commentators to speculate that wood influence would be put front and centre in the 2021 Midleton Very Rare, but this is not so. Instead, O’Gorman wanted to give due credit to the impact of distillery character. The process involved assessing more than 100 samples, which he nosed and tasted over many weeks, and the whole endeavour to finalise the product took many months. In the end it came down to two prototypes, which he brought home to his wife for the final decision. They both agreed which would be ‘the one’.

The final Midleton Very Rare contains spirit between 15 and 36 years of age, though there is no statement on the bottle. O’Gorman was keen to have some spirit from 1984 in the mix, as a nod to the very first Midleton Very Rare release, but his most significant fingerprint on this year’s blend is his incorporation of a higher proportion of grain than usual, along with his exclusion of any third-fill casks (which would have been included in previous years). The increase in the grain, specifically aged grain matured in first-fill American oak barrels, was to deliver what O’Gorman described as a distinct aroma of rose water and rose petals on the nose.

As is the case when it comes to any whisky with the word ‘rare’ on the bottle, among whisky aficionados there is always talk about how rare Midleton Very Rare actually is. For O’Gorman, however, it’s about more than just bottle numbers: “Because of the combination of age, the combination of single pot still, the single grain, the taste profile, to me it has a lot of elegance, a lot of finesse – that is its rare DNA.”
Midleton Very Rare vintage release

Head of auction content at Whisky Auctioneer, Joe Wilson, agrees, highlighting the exponential growth of the secondary whisky market, which he suggests indicates a greater understanding, appreciation and demand for rare and high-quality whiskies.
He notes that Midleton Very Rare is part of this shift. “In the last year alone, we have seen a 75 per cent increase in people searching for these expressions,” said Wilson. “These are of course particularly sought after but given its quality and reputation, newer releases will continue to attract interest for those looking to bolster their existing Midleton Very Rare collection or begin the collections of the future.”

When a new distiller takes over the mantle there is inevitably an extra weight of expectation on them, especially around an annual release. O’Gorman says that he is aware of the history and the people that have gone before him, but he’s not fazed by the challenge. “It’s like a football pitch: you know how to play but within that pitch you can push this way, you can push that way. I know the boundaries and I’m always willing to push them. At the same time, I’m very respectful to the people that have gone before me and what they were trying to do.”

Midleton Very Rare used to sit alone in terms of high-end releases from Ireland, but in recent years several newcomers have been cleverly packaging bought-in, well-aged whiskey and challenging the premium end of the market. O’Gorman is not bothered though, recognising that Irish Distillers have the oldest stocks on the island and having recently released Chapter One, a 45-year-old peated single malt from the silent Old Midleton Distillery. This series will be followed up with another mega old release later this year. “It allows us to be self-confident in terms of super-premium whiskies, in terms of age and taste – they stand up to any whiskies in the world,” he adds.
Irish Distillers Midleton Distillery

Looking more broadly at the future of spirits from Midleton, O’Gorman is excited by two things: one is maturation, especially cask finishes in different types of woods (allowed in Ireland, but not in Scotland), and the other is brewing. He has spent months working on various theories with his teams – from distillate styles, different cereals, fermentation and types of yeast. “The list is endless,” he admits. “I’ve got a new lease of life in terms of maturation and that will continue.”

Midleton Very Rare 2021

Bottled at 40% ABV, Midleton Very Rare 2021 is available online and in Ireland now. It will hit the shelves in the UK, USA, Global Travel Retail, Australia, Germany, France and Canada in the coming months at an RRP of €180.

Nose: A medley of woods up front, with bamboo and sandalwood especially, and cloves. Then a lemon hit, more lemongrass than citrus, moving into butter-fried apples, a wedge of soft fudge, nutmeg and cinnamon spice. An extremely perfumed nose all the way through, one you are happy to linger over a long while.

Palate: Sliver of proper liquorice before a dollop of astringency from the wood that is just tamed by some icing sugar-like sweetness. This marries up and becomes blackcurrant and bergamot. The vanilla rises and it becomes an iced latte. Heavy enough mouthfeel, some pot still spiciness but still delicate.

Finish: Long and unctuous – lasts an age. The nutmeg and cinnamon come back at the end for a warm, spicy, enjoyable finish.

Comment: The previous two Midleton Very Rare releases were heavier on the pot still, which delighted the ‘pot still heads’ who love the funky quality this brings, but it was perhaps out of step with a true MVR character. This release redresses the balance and moves the expression back into its own space, distinct to the other Midleton-made products, such as Redbreast and the Red, Green and Blue spot whiskies.
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