By Emma Briones
In the mid-1980s, Barry Crockett decided to create a whiskey that would be able to showcase the best of the New Midleton Distillery. This expression was unveiled in 1984, when New Midleton was less than a decade old and still was relatively new, and was named “Midleton Very Rare.”
This was an era when world whiskey was climbing out of the nadir of the 1970s. Scottish single malts were gaining ground, while over in America Elijah Craig 12 Year Old, Maker’s Mark and Blanton’s Single Barrel would take the first steps towards establishing a premium Bourbon sector. In the years since, Midleton Very Rare has become an iconic Irish Whiskey and a favorite of collectors.
The launch of its latest edition, Midleton Very Rare Vintage 2017, coincided with a redesign of the bottle and the start of a new club: the Midleton Very Rare Cask Circle. Attending the double launch, I got the chance to talk with Billy Leighton, Midleton’s Master Blender, and taste some of the whiskeys from the collection at a very rare night in the New Midleton Distillery. Basically, it was a chance to explore the meaning of Midleton.
Four Decades, Four Whiskeys
Barry Crockett, now Master Distiller Emeritus at Midleton, saw an opportunity in 1984 to bottle an expression in little batches. The first Midleton Very Rare was a blend of the best Pot-Still and Grain whiskeys of the distillery, fully matured in American ex-Bourbon casks. And so have been all the 34 editions. As he put it, “Midleton Very Rare was born to present the best of the Midleton distillery.”
A sampling of those 34 years of Midleton Very Rare was on display at the event, and while delving into all 34 editions might take too much time, four whiskeys from four different decades served as a good showcase. These four were 1987, 1997, 2006 and 2012, tasted under the guidance of Billy Leighton, Master Blender at Midleton since 2004.
As Leighton explained, when a Midleton Very Rare expression is created, they don’t look for the age in the cask, but for a concrete style, and the individual casks are chosen accordingly. In order to do this, they have to keep in mind all the whiskey that is maturing in every cask. It is important, and a job for both the Master Distiller and the Master Blender, to know what is in stock and what will it be used for. “It is necessary to look to the future, to know what you are going to need to keep the profile you are looking for,” said Leighton.
And surely they do, as very expression of Midleton Very Rare is different. They are not looking for perfection or a strict continuance of a flavor profile, just to keep the style of the American ex-bourbon barrel and showcase the best product of the distillery.
Every one of this expressions, as in any other whisk(e)y, starts in the mind of their creators. In this case, the fruity, grassy touch of the Midleton Very Rare Vintage 2006 was exactly what Billy Leighton had in mind when he started blending the whiskey. And he did a great job with it. Still, among the four expressions we tasted, 1997 was surely my favorite: a bolder whiskey with grape notes and a dry blow.
The Latest: Midleton Very Rare 2017
The latest addition to this collection of whiskeys is Midleton Very Rare Vintage 2017. With it comes a redesign for the brand, complete with a new, more upscale bottle design and presentation box. The bottle takes inspiration from a writer’s inkwell and a soft dip in the shoulder echoes the nib of a pen, a tribute to Ireland’s literary legacy.
The blend for 2017 includes whiskeys aged from 12 to 32 years. This includes some 32 year old grain whiskey and a 26 year old pot still whiskey. It has been bottled at 40% ABV without chill-filtration, and is officially available in the USA, Canada, Ireland and Ireland Travel Retail, retailing at €180.
The Very Rare Cask Circle
To take the Midleton Very Rare brand further, Midleton was proud to present its own version of a “loyalty program” in what they called “a new era for luxury Irish Whiskey”. The Midleton Very Rare Cask Circle is a private members club that offers individuals the opportunity to obtain a fully matured whiskey cask.
The casks are hand selected by Master Distiller Brian Nation, for their quality and rarity. Members can choose which cask they want to buy and if they want to bottle it at the moment or let it mature for a longer time. Prices of these rare casks range from a little under €100,000 euros to more than €400,000 euros.
For the launch of the Midleton Very Rare Cask Circle thirty casks were made available. There are different whiskey styles and ages among them. They range from 12 to 30 years old and have been matured in Bourbon, Sherry, Malaga, Port, Irish oak, and Rum. I did not get the chance to taste them all but, in my opinion, the Malaga cask is a winner. I found in it a whiskey that keeps all the Midleton character while softly blending with the notes of Malaga wine.
Spending six figures on a cask of Irish Whiskey is not within the grasp of even most whiskey clubs. Even so, it is not necessary to be part of the Circle to have a very rare night with Midleton. Any of the wonderful expressions in the Midleton Very Rare collection can help you with that, and for just three figures.