What happens to wine barrels when they have outlived their usefulness? Of course there is the ever-present wine barrel planters. Hell we have a bunch of them ourselves, but life goes on for a large number of wine barrels because they get repurposed for making other beverages, most often Whisky and Bourbon. Why the sudden interest in old barrels?

The Dingle Distillery

Inside The Dingle Distillery

During a rainy day on a recent rip to Ireland we stumbled upon the Dingle Distillery and they were kind enough to include us in an impromptu tour. FYI…there are a lot of rainy days in Ireland. Ireland aspires to have Seattle’s weather. The Ancient Latin name for Ireland is “Hibernia” which means “land of eternal winter” and to the Romans, sitting down in sunny Italy, a summer day that only hits 65F probably did feel like winter. No wonder they never invaded the place. We had a great time however when we invaded it but that’s another story.

It turns out that what is “used up” for wineries is the perfect vessel for Whisky and Bourbon because they spend so much time in the barrel and the wine that has infused the wood also lends complexity to the distilled drink. Dingle prefers to use barrels (they call them casks) from either Port or Sherry but others Whiskies use lots of different types of wine barrels.

What intrigued us about Dingle was their approach to their business. Their small operation is very reflective of a boutique winery or microbrewery. In Ireland, there were only three distilleries of Whiskey; Midleton, Cooley and Bushmills. Everything that you have seen with a name like Jameson’s or Tullamore Dew is now a brand of one of those three macro-distilleries. Dingle has become the 4th distillery.  Just like smaller wineries, Dingle needs to find creative ways to get the word out about them. For instance, much like buying wine futures, you can buy a “Whiskey Future” from Dingle with their Founding Fathers program.  In essence, you buy an entire cask of Whiskey before it is ready and they give you a really good price on it.

Many start up Wineries who want to specialize in red wines but don’t have the cash to sit on product for three to four years, start also making white wines that can be sold without aging.  Dingle is following suit and is also making Vodka and Gin which can be sold as soon as they are distilled and packaged. We did a tasting while we were. The Vodka tasted pretty much like any other Vodka I’ve had – not a lot of flavor but the Gin was pretty good as far as Gins go but neither of these are really Karen’s or my drink so we are not the best jucdges. Oh well…I guess I’ll just stick with Wine, Beer and the occasional Whiskey.

Yep…that’s right..Whiskey…not Whisky. You might have noticed the two different spellings for Whisky/Whiskey. The Irish actually invented Whiskey and they wanted to differentiate their product so they own the name “Whiskey” with an “e”- kind of like Bordeaux for wines from the Bordeaux region.  I like Scotch but I found the Irish Whiskies that I tried had a lot more subtlety so I became a fan on this trip. I still like Scotch but it is really a different drink.

The Dingle Distillery

The Dingle Distillery

I was disappointed to learn that no Whiskey would be served in the tasting, but the folks at Dingle explained that to be called Irish Whiskey, the liquor must sit in the cask for a minimum of three years and one day. They distilled their first “Whiskey to be” in November of 2012 and even though I may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, even I can do that math. Their first product won’t actually be “Whiskey” until late 2015. They plan on releasing it in 2016.

So if good Irish Whiskey is at least on par with good Scotch why is Scotch so much more prevalent? Two big factors virtually killed off the Irish Whiskey market. After gaining its independence from the UK, the might of the British commerce machine went into backing Scottish Whisky instead, the omnipresent “Scotch”. Tack on the misguided Prohibition period in the US, Ireland’s second biggest market, and the Irish Whiskey market took a massive hit. Of course we are going to call Prohibition misguided – we’re a wine web site. It currently has only a three percent share of the total Whisky market.

One more interesting fact about Whiskey. It was discovered by monks who were trying to make perfume and found that this particular liquid tasted a lot better than it smelled. Why were monks trying to make perfume? Who knows, but my guess is that it had something to do with the frequency of bathing, roughly twice per year and living in uncomfortably close proximity to each other.  I’m not sure what perfume is going to make the tolerable.

So here’s to all of those “used up” wine barrels that help transform Irish Whiskey into what it is.