Monday, December 29, 2008

Jameson Revealed: the David Quinn interview...finally

Did it again...got a great interview with a major figure in Irish whiskey -- David Quinn, head of Quality Control at Midleton Distillery, where they make Jameson, and the previous master distiller at Bushmills back when Pernod Ricard owned both distilleries (Bushmills is now owned by Diageo) -- and didn't get to transcribing it until months later. For which I apologize, to you and to David, who was charming and informative, a dream interview.

But here we are, with the first installment, finally. The interview begins as I get my recorder going in the middle of talking about why we're doing the interview: because Irish whiskey is the fastest-growing segment of the alcohol beverage market in the U.S. (yes, really, faster than craft brewing: the craft brewers treated "whisky" as one category, but the Irish category has been flying at about 20% growth for the past five years).

David Quinn: The renaissance in Irish whiskey in the last ten years has been absolutely incredible.

Lew: What set that off?

I think what's happened, you know, there's been such a huge amount of new Irish whiskeys coming on the market, not just from ourselves but from all the Irish whiskey makers as well. People are becoming more aware of the styles of Irish whiskey, that it's not just sort of a tag-on to Scotch, or anything else, that it's an identifiable category all in itself.

Might they also be realizing for the first time that it's more than just one bottle of Jameson and one bottle of Bushmills?

Exactly. So what we have here today, when we have the premium lineup of Jameson, which is a very exciting lineup of whiskeys, all with their own different characteristics and different tastes, but still staying true to the Irish tradition. What I mean by that is you have traditional Irish pot still whiskey at the heart of those whiskeys, which is quite a unique style of whiskey.

We can talk a little bit about how that whiskey is put together and what makes it different from the other world whiskeys, the unique character that makes it readily identifiable from, say, a single malt scotch, or a bourbon, or whatever. From Canadian, for that matter.

That's high on my list.

That's what more and more people are recognizing. They're seeing the benefits of traditional Irish pot-stilled whiskey, where you have the contribution coming from the unmalted barley, which primarily affects the texture, the mouthfeel, that mouth-coating texture that you get from using barley in the mash. People are starting to become more aware of the benefits of triple distillation and what that third distillation actually does to the whiskey. We can talk a little bit about that later. It's a question that often is raised: what does that third distillation actually do in terms of its contribution to the character and flavor, the taste of the whiskey?

Well, since we've kicked it off, to answer that, what it essentially does is that in the third distillation -- if you go back to the second distillation, we would follow the same routine of taking a heads and tails cut, and only taking the heart, the center cut of the distillation. I guess if we were in Scotland, that would be it. But we take that center cut and distill it for a third time, and go through the same process of taking off a heads and tails cut, and again taking only the center cut. It's essentially a center cut, of a center cut, so you're getting into, really, the heart of the distillation.

What that does is that it removes some, not all, but a little bit more, of fusel oils and the higher alcohols from the body of the whiskey. By removing some of the additional fusel oils and, it's likely, some additional heaviness, you're allowing more of the fragrant, floral, fruity, and spicy characters to come to the fore, that would have been there anyway, but you're just allowing them to express themselves a bit more. That gives quite a different style of whiskey

So if you combine the fact that it's unpeated malted barley -- unpeated malt, I should say -- actually having barley in the mash, unmalted barley in the mash, combined then with triple distillation. If you bring all those factors together, you do end up with quite a unique style of pot stilled whiskey.

And the triple distillation -- it is a triple pot still distillation?

Triple pot stilled, yeah. So you end up with a style that is quite different to the other world styles of whiskey, unique in its own right, and I think that's what a lot of people are recognizing. You also get the added benefit of the third distillation giving you some additional smoothness on the palate. I suppose I haven't met a whiskey distiller yet who won't use 'smooth' as an attribute of their whiskey! But I do genuinely feel that there are degrees of smoothness, and that with Jameson, with that third distillation that you do get an additional degree of smoothness in the whiskey.

You combine all of that together, Lew, and you come up with a whiskey that's very approachable in style, smooth on the palate, easy-drinking, but still with lots of flavor and lots of character. It's a good combination, if you can combine all of those attributes and all of those characteristics together.

That's why we feel that we're seeing the Irish whiskey category as the fastest growing spirits category in the States, and that's being driven principally by Jameson, because it's by far and away, it has the lion's share of that market. So we're seeing Jameson, for example, growing in the States at over 20% per year, and we expect that to continue into the future.

Is that reflected in other world markets?

The global sales of Jameson are growing at about 13 or 14% per year, and have been for the last number of years. But one of the biggest individual growth markets is the United States.

Were we lagging that before?

No, it has always been up there, but for some reason -- maybe some of the reasons we've already talked about -- we've seen an additional increase in sales in the United States. It's a very important market for us. We're seeing Jameson pass half a million cases in the United States, and that's out of total global sales of 2.5 million cases. So you can see it's a sizeable proportion of the total global Jameson sales.

It's exciting times; we're all very excited about it. The distillery, back home, is working flat out, trying to keep up with demand. We're on seven days operation, and looking to expand the distillery in the near future. It's great, it's great to see it. It's great not just for Jameson, which obviously we're very happy about, but great for the category. That's equally important.

Just an aside, before we get into the questions I had planned; when you say you're looking to expand your facility...how do you do that?

Well, you put in extra grain-handling capability, you need to put in extra fermentation tanks, well, extra mashing equipment, first of all, so new mash tuns, new lauter tuns, extra fermentation vats, extra stills -- which is a fairly major step to take, when you start putting in extra stills. Obviously, the key thing when you're putting in extra stills is that they have to match the existing stills, so that you can be confident, and insure that the spirit coming off the new stills will match what came before. We're happy with that.

And then, of course, build new warehouses. That's a program that's been ongoing for the past few years. We've been building an extra two new warehouses per year for the past number of years, and we'll continue on that rate of progress for probably the next five or six years, at two per year. Each of those warehouses will hold about 35,000 barrels.

What style of construction would they be: stone, timber?

They would be block-built, that's the main style of construction. All our warehouses are palletized.

That's just to put things in context. Because as well as the regular Jameson, which is doing wonderfully for us --

How much is it of total sales? 80%?

Oh, yeah. Well, within the Jameson family, it would be more like 90%. But if we include our other brands like Powers, and Paddy, yeah, you'd be, 3/4 of our sales would be Jameson. So it's effectively our international flagship brand.

So, that's to put things in context and set the scene. Because in addition to our standard Jameson, which is doing wonderfully well, and we're all very excited for it, we also have our Reserve range. These whiskeys are there to allow people who would maybe want to trade up, or to try a little something different, maybe try whiskeys who have a bit more to offer in terms of character and flavor.

It's nice to be able to have a full Reserve portfolio to give people that opportunity, to have a whiskey on a special occasion, or something a little different. That's what we're doing today. Not only do we have the latest addition to that family, which is the Jameson Rarest Vintage Reserve, but we're also re-introducing in the United States, Jameson Gold.

Is that actually in now?

Right now, yeah. Jameson Gold was in the States, up to about five, six years ago. It was taken out because a decision was made at the time to just have it as a duty free, Travel Retail exclusive. It was only decided last year that we needed to have the full Reserve Portfolio available in the main markets. So in addition to the introduction of the new Jameson Rarest Vintage Reserve, we decided that we'd re-introduce the Gold as well, effectively to complete the Reserve family.

As you can see, they all got a nice new makeover. The Jameson Gold has been re-packaged, though the whiskey is exactly the same, it's been re-packaged in the Jameson premium bottle and label style, so they do look part of a family. Because the previous bottle, you can remember, was a kind of a squat, stubby bottle; it looked quite different to the 12 [year old] and the 18 [year old]. They all got a makeover, and we have a nice Reserve portfolio. It's almost like a combination event: the re-introduction of the Gold, and the launch of the Rarest Vintage Reserve. So we're excited about that.

Maybe we'd have a little taste?

Sure, if we have to!

I know it's a little early in the morning...but it's 5:00 somewhere. We'll start with the 12. (pouring noises)

While you're pouring...what are these made up of? What whiskeys? What kind of whiskeys do you make?

Right. The main part of all these distillates will be traditional Irish pot still whiskey, made from malted barley and unmalted barley.

The ratio, roughly?

Well, again, that depends. We don't make just one kind of pot still whiskey. One of the interesting features of Midleton Distillery is that it has the capability of making quite a range of individual pot still whiskeys, each with their own nuances and flavor characteristics. Depending on which one that we're making, that will determine the mix of malted barley and unmalted barley in the mash, and it also determines the type of triple distillation technique that we will use.

What I mean by that, is the cutting strengths, where you would cut from heads onto spirit, and then the cutting strength going from spirit to tails, for both the second and the third distillation. And it's one of the neat features of triple distillation: because you have heads and tails taken at both the second and the third, it gives you much wider opportunity to play tunes with your stills. You have lots of different intermediary feints, strong feints, weak feints, that can be used as part of the charge for subsequent distillation.

It gives you lots of opportunities to play with the style and the nature of your distillation technique. Every time you do that, you will produce a different style of distillate. We have to be able to do that, and we always have to be able to do that, because we have to rely on ourselves to be able to make a full range of different styles of whiskeys, and then mature those as individual whiskeys in their own right, because we never had the opportunity to trade whiskeys with other distilleries.

Like the scotch distillers do?

Right. We can't do that, so we have to rely on ourselves to be able to make a wide range of individual pot still whiskeys. The same applies to the grain whiskeys, and we can make a wide range of individual grain whiskeys as well. And then if each of those are matured in different types of casks, that increases the variability even further, and the diversity of character and taste even further, and it's that that allows us to produce a portfolio of whiskey brands that have their own individual character and individual tastes.

That's a key difference for us in terms of how we make whiskey, compared with, say, using Scotland as a comparison to how we make our whiskeys. [continued sounds of corks being pulled, whiskey being poured] It's something that John [Hansell] was very interested in when he visited Midleton. I think it was one of the reasons John gave Midleton [Malt Advocate's] Distillery of the Year a couple of years back; the flexibility.

The thing about that flexibility that impresses me is that you use it. There are a lot of places that have it that don't do anything with it.

Well, we have to use it. The other great learning experience of using that capability is that you very quickly get to learn what really influence taste and flavor in whiskey. You can get past some of the old wives' tales where some distillers are afraid to touch absolutely anything because they don't know what impact it's going to have. Whereas, because we're always trying to make new and different styles of whiskeys, you learn very quickly what is important and what does impact on the final taste and flavor...and what doesn't.

From that experience, Lew, we know the impact that the barley has in the mash, we know the impact that the relative split between barley and malted barley has, we know the impact that adjusting your cutting strengths, precisely the impact that will have on the character and flavor of the final spirit. And that's great, because it means that if we want to make a different distillate with a taste profile that's moving in a particular direction, we have a pretty good idea where to start. I'm sure, having read the citation that John gave Midleton Distillery at that time, that was a key decision-maker for him, in the sense that he was intrigued with Midleton's capability in that respect.

It means that we can have lots of fun, too! It's fair to say that while some of them have worked and we've had good fun, others haven't.

That's how you learn.

That's how you learn, yeah. It's very important.


(And that's about one quarter of what I've got for you. I'll be doing more in these quiet days, so hang tight; it was a very good interview.)

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