Streams of Whiskey
Not to alarm anyone, but the world is facing an unprecedented whiskey shortage. It’s not quite an oil crisis, but that in itself is no reason to remain calm. Sales of whiskey have exploded internationally, but by its nature whiskey production can’t rapidly respond to demand. The process takes time. The whiskey you drink tonight probably took four or five years to produce. So if you’re planning a big night out in 2018 or 2020 it’s best to put some aside now.
Words: Niall Murphy
Aidan Mehigan is back in Dublin, after living in the UK for a decade, with a plan to produce some whiskey, and plug this gap. A partner in London-based hedge fund Praxient before he was 30, he could be a poster boy for the successful Irish in the City. But finance isn’t tangible. It doesn’t produce a product you can touch, or taste. Which is why he’s converting an abandoned building in Waterford into a distillery and seems set to produce Ireland’s first sour mash whiskey. But before we ask what sour mash is, let’s ask where the sudden rise in whiskey drinking is coming from.
THE MAD DON
American media call the whiskey boom the ‘Mad Men Effect’. Increased demand started with the show, which is based around functional alcoholics, wearily talking to each other between gulps of bourbon. So it seems like a pretty straightforward case of cause and effect. In our look at the state of American tv right now, Mad Men did not come out well. The show would strongly divide opinion if it was particularly popular. But though it’s widely known, it isn’t particularly widely watched. So is it really possible that Don Draper, seemingly trying to drink himself to death with whiskey, could be responsible for this explosion of interest? But Mad Men isn’t only about guys who sell image for a living, in the world of advertising. The show is an exercise in selling its own image. The show itself is the product, not the cigarettes and cars the characters in the series are advertising. And the impact of a product on culture is different to the impact of a show. You just have to see a product once to know you want it. The first thing you notice about the series is that everyone is always helping themselves to a drink, a sophisticated bourbon, whatever the time of day or night. And this can throw us a little at first, though it shouldn’t. Most British soap operas revolve around people having cans of cider in their kitchens, or pints of bitter down the local, in the middle of the day. People don’t seem to need to work because it’s always beer o’clock. But unlike the regulars of the Rovers Return, the characters of Mad Men mix drinking with success.
HIPSTERS ARE BLINGSTERS
Mad Men is a show about consumerism. It’s about earning money to buy cars and televisions in the brave new world of the 1960s, when these products were like things of science fiction, the highest forms of human luxury ever invented. The ad men of Mad Men tell America they can have it all. And this is the key. The critical success of Mad Men is often credited to the quaint nostalgia of the show. The rampant sexism is a reminder of how far we have come. The homophobia is so successful it is rarely required to even be seen. And people smoke all day, everywhere. In effect ,the appeal of Mad Men the show, is that it’s an American Downton Abbey. But that is distinct from the success of Mad Men the brand. Because the brand screams loudly of a better time, despite the sexism. The brand screams of a time when you could spend your life buying things. When there was no shortage of jobs. No shortage of living space, which would be full with gadgets. Where money was easy to come by, and tomorrow was always going to be a good day. This is a fantastical world to millenials, the stuff of dreams, so the image of better times is subsumed into hipster culture. This is a brand they can get behind. With their tight turned up jeans, neat hair, and anti hippie message, hipsters are in a sense the children of Don Draper. And an essential, perhaps most fundamental, part of that brand is the whiskey.
Jack Daniels is not a bourbon. Much the way champagne not from Champagne in France is just overpriced fizzy alcoholic water, which is strangely unsatisfying, JD is just another overpriced foreign whiskey. In order to be a bourbon, a whiskey must be made in America, from 51% corn, in new American Oak barrels. It’s a degree of specificity usually reserved for satanic cults trying to raise a demon, who must sing into the wind on a full moon on the sixth day of the sixth month. And is equally ludicrous. But unlike deranged cult leaders, bourbon distillers are winners: like it or not, no one can produce bourbon outside the United States. And even whiskey brewers in the United States fall foul of the fussy labeling rules. Jack Daniels is not a bourbon, but it is a sour mash. This involves throwing back some of the residue of the grain during the distilling process, recycling it as you go, to get that famous American JD flavour. And this is the aim of the ‘Natterjack’ brand, to be Ireland’s first sour mash. Ireland’s rival to Jack Daniels. The Natterjack name is from the only species of toad native to Ireland. It’s probably a good inspiration for the name of a spirit. This toad is usually nocturnal and capable of changing their colours to blend in, a very useful skill on a night out. But also, oddly for a toad, they often drown. Which is perhaps the edgy kicker at the heart of it.
007 likes his martini shaken, not stirred. But even in the series The West Wing, which is certainly not the world’s most testosterone-fueled show, Aaron Sorkin pokes fun at him for this. When you shake martini the ice melts, watering it down, while stirring it just cools the drink. So shaken martini is weaker, meaning Bond is a lightweight. Whatever the truth of this, the Bond brand was in trouble if it was attracting attacks from the paper pushers in Washington. Martini is the drink of playboys and cads, the drink of Roger Moore. But the new Bond is a more muscular, fitter, more masculine, less prissy with his drinks, type. Sir Roger was never going to be filmed emerging from the ocean in his speedo. That was the girl’s job. It’s ironic that Bond was a much more important character during the Cold War. If ever there was a time for a super-fit Bond it was then, not now. Then when there was a world of dirty commies and espionage, rather than the hacker’s world of emails and drone strikes of today. It was harder for Bond back then. The change is all Jason Bournes’s fault. Spies are no longer heavy drinkers and womanisers. They are that odd mix of a big jaw and vulnerability, wrapped up in an agile block of blonde muscle, that is Matt Damon. So Bond has had to change to catch up with Bourne. Also, the world has changed. People go to the gym. Maybe no one did during the Cold War, but they do now, there are gyms on every street corner. A spy who isn’t in shape is simply no longer credible. So Bond is now a whiskey drinker, because whiskey is the drink of fitness. There is a particular reason for the brands he drinks – good money was paid for Daniel Craig to drink Macallan whiskey in Skyfall and Spectre- but the drink will always be whiskey. Bond’s drink must be masculine, but beer makes you fat. Wine is too feminine. Gin is too cheap. And vodka is for the Russians, who may or may not still be the bad guys. So whiskey it must be. For Bond fans it is interesting to mull whether the character defines cool or just tries to reflect it. Or, more precisely, did Bond start drinking whiskey because Conor MacGregor does, or was it the other way around?
Behind the mystic tradition, whiskey is a sort of beer. Technically you could have a Heineken or Carlsberg whiskey, you’d just need to distill it. For whiskey you take your yeast, sugar and water concoction, and rather than leave it at that, and drink that, you distill it. You evaporate off the alcohol, and are left with a stronger wash which you distill again to get to an even stronger 60% alcohol volume. You can go further, and Irish brands often do, triple distilling, which leaves you with a new make spirit that’s extremely strong, maybe 90%. Though after the third distillation you dilute it down to about 63% and you stick it in a barrel for 3 or 4 years. The type of barrel and the length of time have an impact on the taste. And then, when you’re done waiting, you literally just add water. That’s how you establish your final alcohol content, which has to be over 40%. There’s no such thing as weak Irish whiskey. For such a simple process it might seem strange that more Irish whiskey is not produced. We have less than 10 distilleries, while Scotland has about 160. And the unsurprising reason for this is time and money. Because you don’t have a product for a few years you have nothing to borrow against, to keep a company afloat at the start. Scottish banks have a tradition of treating the new make barrel spirit, the seed of whiskey, as a product, collateral to be borrowed against. Whereas in Ireland it’s the banks who borrow money themselves, it’s the banks who need support, so the system is very different. More seriously, it makes the first few years of Aidan Mehigan’s distillery Gortinore particularly perilous. It requires some flexibility to get cash flow going at the start. With this in mind he has spent time in the US in the Breckenridge distillery in Colorado. For aficionados, this is the highest whiskey distillery in the world, and the elevation effects the pressure and therefore the distilling process. For hipsters what’s important is that it is handmade. Every morning the stills are lit and stirred by a man standing on a ladder with a big spoon. And he sometimes wears a hat. It’s this whiskey-as-artisan-product approach that he wants to import back to Kilmacthomas, Waterford. Not only in how Natterjack will be produced, but also in the shorter term when Gortinore will be selling artisan American whiskey to keep the company ticking over.
SEX AND THE CITY AND W(H)INES
Many women enjoy a glass of wine with friends. Or did. But are turning more and more to whiskey. Which is not something anyone predicted, considering the image of whiskey as an old man’s drink. The possible reason suggests some hope for the future of humanity: it is a backlash against the Sex and the City culture established by that show and its awful movies. Sex and the City is a show which deals in no consequences and rewards excess. All done over a congratulatory glass of wine. The world they inhabit is a pre-bust bubble, of pretty blatant over indulgence. Feel guilty about spending $400 on a pair of shoes? The girls are here to tell you that you deserve them. In retrospect the flaw in approach jumps off the screen. And even at the time no one could have made a show centering around a group of men celebrating spending money on themselves. Which makes the success of this show a pretty embarrassing chapter, better forgotten by more and more women. And so they take their revenge out on wine, one of the main symbols of excess. Though, once sophisticated, wine is now pretty commonplace and relatively cheap, and not really exclusive at all anymore. So in truth, it’s more about moving onto the new craze, than taking a stand against the old. Now it is whiskey, with its cultural association with successful mad men and government agents, that is the alternative of choice. In the constant striving for posher and vaguer image crafting, whiskey has replaced wine, and even dinner, as the subject of discerning drinkers’ instagram accounts. The question is if we’re sure what image it projects. So with all that in mind, let’s ask Aidan Mehigan what he thinks…
Would you trust a company where people drink during the day?
No, I don’t think I would. A cocktail evening in the office once a week is enough.
Is Don Draper wise or an alcoholic with a confident voice?
I watched Mad Men, I don’t like any of the characters.
Are the Mad Men great ad men or are the show’s makers the real salesmen?
As above, I just don’t get it.
Do you take pictures of people or things?
People. I can buy pictures of things.
Who lives an instagram life?
The next generation of whiskey drinkers. Instagram seems like a way of life.
Do men or women look better with a drink in their hand?
Does whiskey look better in a bottle or in a glass?
Is it better to hold it or taste it?
If everything has been done before, is originality just a step backwards?
This question devalues the human ability to innovate. The Propellerheads had a point but were wrong in the end.
Does a fancy suit feel good just because it’s fancy?
Great question. It goes to the heart of quality over label. A fancy suit is probably made of material that feels good, but the satisfaction for the masses is derived from what it says about you.
Does knowing what goes into making a whiskey make it taste better?
Yes. Understanding the simplicity of what it takes to make something so complex makes it more enjoyable.
If your whiskey was a movie star who would he be?
And who would be on his arm?
What car does a Natterjack drinker drive?
Who would Natterjack not want to drink it?
I’d rather Chris Evans didn’t drink it, or Jeremy Clarkson.
Is drinking whiskey a good idea?
Yes. In the right environment and in the right quantity. It is a wonderfully complex and interesting drink. More than two in an evening is too much for me.
If when you’re drinking tea you’re selling whiskey, what are you selling when you’re drinking whiskey?
A life less ordinary. Quit your job.
Is the value in the craft or the profit?
The value for me is building something. But I also have to eat…
Will your whiskey make people happy or will they just look happy on Facebook?
I am not sure of the difference anymore.