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Midleton Very Rare: 40 years of Irish whiskey at its best

How does a prestigious whiskey brand celebrate a 40th anniversary? With great whiskey, obviously. 

This year Irish Distillers gives us not only Midleton Very Rare 2024, but also the Midleton Very Rare 40th Anniversary Ruby Edition.

Last week I ventured to the Midleton Distillery, Co. Cork to taste the two whiskies and celebrate a drink that has often been described as “the pinnacle of Irish whiskey”. 

Midleton Very Rare is back

Midleton Very Rare: creating a legend

Back in 1984, then master distiller and now Irish Distillers master distiller emeritus Barry Crockett created the very first Midleton Very Rare. It was a blend. Yes, one of Ireland’s great whiskeys is a blend, and it’s all the better for it. The inaugural bottling was drawn from just 32 casks and the whiskeys were roughly between nine and 13 years old. 

The whiskey was launched in a completely different era. The new Midleton distillery had only been commissioned a decade before. In one of the new warehouses on a wet day in November 1985, Midleton Very Rare 1984 made its debut. Future Taoiseach and then Minister of Industry and Commerce, John Bruton, was in attendance and the liquid was favourably received. But the price of IR£40 a bottle raised eyebrows (hilarious now) as the interest in Irish whiskey then pales in comparison with its popularity today. 

The market for an Irish whiskey of this kind wasn’t really there in the mid-eighties. It would have been easier to toe the line, produce what was in demand, close shop for half the year and shut the distillery. But Crockett took a chance and was thinking ahead, trying to lay down the foundations for what Irish whiskey could be. Midleton Very Rare wasn’t created for just that year but as an ongoing annual series. Crockett set about laying down stock to meet that mark, always with a core of single pot still, a truly Irish style that he became arguably the most important guardian of. 

Irish Distillers was formed in 1966 when a merger took place between John Power & Son, John Jameson & Son and Cork Distilleries Company. But it was in 1988 when Pernod Ricard took over that things changed internally for the brand, with investment and a global distribution network. Master of maturation Brendan Monks established contacts in Porto, Madeira, and Sicily to source casks of Port, Madeira, and Marsala wine respectively, while strengthening ties with Antonio Páez in Jerez for sherry casks, a relationship Irish Distillers rely on today. Crockett says the family still involved after the takeover were all too happy to back the use of the more expensive first-fill casks. While Irish Distillers was motoring towards a brighter future, the industry around them still greatly paled in comparison to Scotch. 

Midleton Distillery

Midleton Very Rare: maintaining the legend

But Midleton Very Rare proved each year that Irish whiskey could be as complex and compelling as any good Scotch. The showcase of the very best of pot and grain whiskey made at Midleton evolved and matured into one of the highlights of the whiskey calendar. While the behemoth of Jameson did more than keep the lights on, Midleton Very Rare’s success meant that more great single pot still whiskey could thrive. A revived Redbreast, the expanded Spot range, and Barry Crockett Legacy followed, while Powers was reformed. 

The series of annual releases were led by Crockett until his retirement in 2014 when Brian Nation took over. Then in 2020, he handed the reins over to current master distiller Kevin O’Gorman.  As the series progressed, the choice of casks expanded to about 100. Consistency was achieved with American oak whiskey barrels, with a core of first-fill casks. The age of the grain and single pot still whiskeys increased over time. O’Gorman says the key is to balance four aspects: the ingredients; the distillation methods; the cask type; and the age of the whiskeys in the blend. 

For this year’s edition, Midleton Very Rare 2024, O’Gorman increased the grain percentage and the amount of medium pot still whiskey used. At Midleton, three styles of pot still are made: light, medium, and heavy style. He also raised the number of first-fill American oak whiskey barrels (called B1 at Midleton, B2 means second-fill and B3 means third) of both pot and grain whiskey. It’s bottled at 40% and comes in a recyclable gift box, because sustainability, innit. 

“While every year the master distiller adds their own unique touch to the final product, the profile and very essence of Midleton Very Rare remains the same,” O’Gorman explains. “When creating the annual vintage, my aim is to preserve the timeless elegance and finesse of the liquid that has become synonymous with the Midleton Very Rare brand over the last forty years, while introducing my own twist by carefully adjusting elements such as grain and pot still whiskey contributions, as well as cask selections, to unveil new flavours. We believe we have achieved just that with this year’s remarkable annual vintage, which we look forward to sharing with you all.”

Master distiller Kevin O’Gorman

Midleton Very Rare 2024 Edition tasting notes:

In the distiller’s cottage at Midleton, the very house in which Barry Crockett was born before eventually taking over from his father as master distiller, we got to taste Midleton Very Rare 2024 Edition. Here’s what we thought:

Nose: First there’s apricot, hay, floral honey, and creamy fudgy goodness. Then pear drops, floral notes like Turkish delight, aromatic clove, and a buttery quality like a warm croissant.

Palate: That luscious pot still character gives you a silky palate backed by rich baking spice, toasted oak, and tropical fruit. Vanilla and toffee apples add depth.

Finish: Creamy, floral, and vibrant.

Building the blend: Midleton Very Rare 40th Anniversary Ruby Edition

As 2024 marks 40 years since Midleton Very Rare was first created, the brand hasn’t just released the regular annual release but also a special bottling: Midleton Very Rare 40th Anniversary Ruby Edition. In Warehouse A2 at Midleton Distillery, a building that dates back to the late 1840s, we try the three casks that are the individual components of the special bottling. Each master distiller that has overseen Midleton Very Rare is represented. In the mid-2000s, Crockett laid down his cask, then a decade later so did Nation, then O’Gorman. 

First is Crockett’s whiskey, blended in 2005 and presented about 53%. He selected grain and pot (light and medium, more of the latter) whiskies previously matured in first-fill American oak and it’s been left to mature about 18 years since in a B2 cask. It’s full of crème brûlée, banana bread, bramble berry, thick-cut marmalade, mango, and roasted nuts. The pot still spice has gone really herbaceous, while there’s also a chocolatey, nutty, praline-style sweetness.

Second is Nation’s whiskey, blended in 2015. There’s all three pot styles in this and about 10-12% refill casks. It was all married together in a B3 cask and has a bright and fresh quality with yuzu, dewy grass, coconut, and geranium. There’s also a rich, peppery spice and warming citrus among the American oak sweetness.  

Third is O’Gorman’s whiskey, blended in 2021, another blend of grain and pot (all three styles – heavy on the medium) aged in American oak, with about 25% refill casks to bring out the distillate character, particularly the grain content which is high in this one. It’s got orchard fruit, green apple skins, lemon sherbet, fudge, raspberry-covered chocolate, and a hint of gingerbread, then salted caramel and nutmeg. 

Midleton Very Rare 2024 and Midleton Very Rare 40th Anniversary Ruby Edition.

Tasting Midleton Very Rare 40th Anniversary Ruby Edition 

Each of these rare casks, individually filled by the master distiller in their respective era, were married to create Midleton Very Rare 40th Anniversary Ruby Edition. Some of these pot still and grain distillates date back to the early 1980s, meaning there’s spirit in here laid down right at the inception of the brand. O’Gorman gave the whiskey a finishing touch by marrying the three in a B1 ruby Port pipe for nine months (the pipe is big so O’Gorman was able to empty each cask equally into it). It is the ruby anniversary, after all. “We knew the first0fill Port pipe is quite giving in terms of flavour, as it is European oak, so it needed attention and monitoring, which we did every month,” he says. 

Retailing at €20,000, the whiskey was filled into 550 bottles at 53.1% ABV. It’s presented in a crystal decanter handcrafted by Waterford Crystal, featuring a four-point crystal to represent the four decades of Midleton Very Rare. The decanter is housed in a ruby case, all encased in an FSC-certified wooden cabinet. 

A one-off NFT bottle was also created, partnering with the renowned Keanes Jewellers in Cork who hand engraved 18-carat solid gold on both the neck and stopper and thirty-two rubies encrusted within the neck collar, stones that are unique in that they are identical in both quality and style. This bottle includes an official certificate of authenticity from Keanes Jewellers and will go live for auction on from 28th February at 12pm GMT with a reserve price of USD $60,000. But then I suspect MoM readers care more about the liquid inside, so let’s talk about it.

Midleton Very Rare 40th Anniversary Ruby Edition tasting notes:

Nose: Unmistakably Port in character with blackcurrant compote, stewed plums, cherry bakewell, dark chocolate, cinnamon pastries, and sweet tobacco. Then fresh nectarine, earthy vanilla, figs, rosewater, dates, and brown sugar. There’s a very green note underneath before the bourbon cask DNA pulls through and gives you a smattering of American oak aromas. Give it a bit of time and there’s a faint meatiness as well as hints of mulberry and polished walnut. 

Palate: Nutmeg and black pepper create a spicy backdrop that more chocolate, dark fruit, and slightly menthol herbs burst through. Give the spirit a second to settle in your mouth and it’s a bit like rolling around a blackcurrant boiled sweet on your time. Blood orange, dry tannic European oak notes, spent matches, and clove follows, with perfumed, chocolatey elements close behind.  

Finish: A Szechuan peppercorn zing is there with creamy butterscotch and coconut revealing that the American oak casks have plenty to say here too. 

All in all, it’s a beautiful dram, but then that’s no less than what I’d expect from Midleton Very Rare. Don’t overlook the 2024 edition though, it has that gorgeous estery, tropical fruit quality that shines in old Midleton distillate and that I’m so partial to it’s actually the dram I’d go back to first. But the very fact that Midleton Distillery can do both in one year says a lot about how far Irish whiskey has come.

Midleton Very Rare wasn’t so much the germination of the idea that Irish whiskey could be truly great, but rather a reawakening of a reality that was always true. We’d just forgotten why there was an empire in the first place to create the ruins of the 20th century. 

At the celebratory launch event dinner, O’Gorman remarked “when you walk through the gates of Midleton, passion is what you’ll find. Attention to detail. Commitment.” Midleton Very Rare is a testament to what happens when you back passionate whiskey makers. It’s 40 years of dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s, the mundane and meticulous, that created the glamorous and now gem-stoned. 

Keep your eyes peeled for new Midleton whiskey to arrive at MoM Towers on our New Arrivals page.

The post Midleton Very Rare: 40 years of Irish whiskey at its best appeared first on Master of Malt Blog.

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