Midleton Very Rare expression boosts forest conservation efforts in Ireland

30 November, 2021

Irish Distillers recently introduced the fourth release in its eagerly anticipated Midleton Very Rare Dair Ghaelach collection.

The latest expression, Kylebeg Wood, was aged in native Irish oak sourced from the Ballykilcavan Estate.

The team collaborated with Ireland’s forestry custodians to implement a “close to nature” forest management system.

This method of forestry has led to a reappearance of the pine marten to the Laois countryside, in turn impacting the alien grey squirrel and helping the native red squirrel, which had practically vanish, to re-establish itself.

Paddy Purser, forest manager and consultant who worked closely with the Midleton team on the project, told Drinks International: “When I started working with Irish Distillers on this project more than 10 years ago, I hadn’t realised the extent to which oak is used in the distilling industry, predominately shipped in high volumes from America in the form of ex-bourbon barrels. Instantly I understood the Dair Ghaelach vision – to source oak from sustainably managed Irish forests that would guarantee both a long-term supply and complement a forest management system that ensures the re-generation of native species.

“Since then, we have worked together on four whiskeys in the Dair Ghaelach series including Grinsell’s Wood, Bluebell Forest, Knockrath Forest and, most recently, Kylebeg Wood matured in virgin Irish oak from the Ballykilcavan Estate near Stradbally, Co. Laois. Throughout the process we’ve learnt an incredible amount about sourcing the ideal oak for whiskey production and have successfully managed to incorporate the harvesting of mature oak into the sustainable forest management system while enhancing biodiversity and rejuvenating the forest with young trees.

“Perhaps most significantly this can be demonstrated by the reappearance of the pine marten to the Laois countryside which, in turn, has impacted the alien grey squirrel and helped the native red squirrel return. As documented in studies by the National University of Ireland Galway and the National University of Ireland Maynooth, our system of continuous cover forest management has contributed to this. By carefully selecting trees to fell, and allowing light to reach the forest floor, we are maintaining and managing the forests in a way that ensures a continuous habitat and allows wildlife to foster.

“This process, which creates ideal habitat for the pine marten, improves the micro-climate for the trees and supports the overall health of the forest. We can sustainably fell trees from an oak forest once every 15 to 20 years meaning it’s a slow process similar, in many ways, to whiskey making. Just as distillers observe their whiskeys, it is our job to continually observe the trees until they reach the exact moment of maturity.

“Apart from the positive impact that this process has on the health of the forest, Irish Distillers’ is also supporting the economic and social fabric of the Irish countryside by re-establishing the connection between distilling in Ireland and our native oak forests. Prior to the first Dair Ghaelach release we hadn’t harvested oak for coopering purposes for probably more than a century. Largely, this was due to the huge decline in Irish oak volumes and quality, resulting in an almost complete reliance on imported timber throughout the 20th century. Nationwide, there is now a huge effort to redress this imbalance by planting new oak forests.

“Consequently, we have a whole new generation of oak being planted in Ireland, but we don’t necessarily know how best to manage them to produce the best quality wood. To support the industry, Irish Distillers has sponsored the installation of an internationally recognised forest assessment system at Kylebeg Wood called the AFI (Association of Irregular Forestry) protocol.  This system is used to assess the qualitative and quantitative development of the forest at Ballykilcavan every five years to help us to understand the best sustainable practices to produce coopering grade oak.

“We are laying the foundations for a future when Irish oak is restored to its former glory and can play a significant role in the maturation of Irish whiskey. It’s rewarding to see the positive environmental impact we’ve had so far and through the regeneration of native oak – which has numerous benefits from carbon capture to recreational health – and we look forward to being part of building a more sustainable future.”

Midleton Very Rare Dair Ghaelach Kylebeg Wood is available globally, with a rrp of €310 per 70cl. 

“With each bottling traceable to a single tree, Midleton Very Rare Kylebeg Wood offers a range of seven whiskeys bottled at cask strengths ranging from 55.4%-56.1% abv, all with the hallmark inspiration of fragrant woodland spices and a heightened intensity of rich wood tannins that allow the influence of the Irish oak to linger on the palate until the very end,” said master distiller Kevin O’Gorman.

“Irish Distillers’ partnership with Kylebeg Wood is the ultimate example of how we are collaborating with Ireland’s forestry custodians to marry sustainable Irish oak with the highest standards in forestry practice and conservation, with some of the finest craftsmanship to be found anywhere in the world of whiskey.

“Once harvested from Kylebeg Wood, the resulting oak logs were separately packed and shipped to the Spanish region of Galicia and the Maderbar Sawmills in Barralla where, for more than fifty years, the same family has been working with wood. Here the oak was cut, using the time-honoured craft of quarter sawing before the resulting stave wood made the ten-hour journey from the sawmills to the Antonio Paez Lobato cooperage in Jerez, where they were laid out to dry naturally in the warmth of the Spanish sun.

“It took 15 more months before these oak staves were ready to create 42 of the most special casks to be found anywhere in the world, each was then given a light toast to my own specifications before returning from Spain to be filled with a specially selected range of our finest single pot still whiskeys, previously matured in American oak barrels for between thirteen to twenty-five years.”

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