In association with Jameson
One of the most respected authorities on Irish whiskey worldwide and a craftsman in the purist form of the word, we sit down with Midleton Distillery’s Master Cooper, Ger Buckley, to discuss his deep-seated appreciation of wood, whiskey, and a job well done.
Ger, you are currently the Master Cooper for Jameson Irish Whiskey, what does this role entail?
In short, it is my responsibility to uphold the high standard of our maturation process at Midleton Distillery. I am responsible for the sourcing, and inspection of all casks that come to the distillery. We buy Sherry butts from Jerez in Spain and Port Pipes from Portugal but the vast majority of our casks are seasoned Bourbon casks from Kentucky in the US. This year we brought in 135,000 ex Bourbon casks from Kentucky and myself or my fellow cooper were there to ensure that each and every one met our high quality standards.
The other role I am actively involved in is the supervision and preparation of casks for Jameson Select Reserve, Black Barrel which has just recently launched in Australia. The preparation that goes into those casks is very specific. We remove the heads and re-toast the barrels first, then we flame char them, this helps to draw out more toasted vanilla and sweet flavours from the wood.
You are a fifth generation Cooper, how has your legacy affected your style of craftmanship and your work at Midleton?
It’s very unique to work on something that virtually hasn’t changed over time. The tools which I use and the techniques I have mastered literally haven’t changed for thousands of years. When I repair a cask, I am repairing it the exact same way that it has always been done. If a Roman Cooper walked into my cooperage today, they would know exactly what I was doing and we would be talking the same language straight away. I specifically asked when I stepped up to Master Cooper that I still be able to work hands-on repairing casks. It is my hobby as much as my craft so even though the economics of making casks have evolved and become more specialised with factory production, my work and my hands-on style remains true to generations of labour and legacy.
So, how important is the wood behind the whiskey?
We go to extreme lengths to look after our casks and have a top-class maturation program at Midleton. The wood can contribute up to 50% of the taste in our whiskey so it is vital in the process. During maturation we use two species of white oak, American white oak and European white oak, each contributing two very different taste qualities. The American white oak contributes more sweet vanilla, and honey notes through the toasted wood. On the other hand, the European oak imparts nutty, spicy, dark fruit tones, which are reminiscent of a Christmas cake character.
What are the important things for people to look out for when deciding on their whiskey?
It is very much a personal choice with whiskey, but one thing that we are very proud of in Ireland is our pot still history and the diverse range of whiskeys we offer. Midleton has released an entire range of Single Pot Still whiskeys over the years like Red Breast and Green Spot. These are robust and spicy whiskeys. However, when it comes to Jameson Select Reserve it has a really unique distilling style, for example, the first distillation of the grain goes through the pot still, which is unusual and unique to this whiskey. The next two distillations go through the column stills, which is normal for most grain whiskeys. That’s why it is produced in such a small batch and is only distilled one day a year in Midleton.
What do you believe makes the Jameson Irish Whiskey range so unique or distinct from other whiskeys in the market?
I think our biggest, proudest, point is that we triple distil, which produces a very smooth drinkable whiskey. Even when at cask strength the whiskey at Midleton is very smooth. On top of that, our maturation program is top notch which means that we know exactly how much of a contribution is given from the wood in all of the aging whiskeys. Jameson has experienced such tremendous success over the last 20 years, that we have doubled the size of our distillery which will allow us to increase our capacity from filling 33 million litres per year to 65 million litres a year.
You work using the same methods as your grandfather and treasure a 90 year old mallet worn from generations of use, how does it feel to work for a company that mirrors your respect for history and stands with such a strong and celebrated heritage of its own?
The great thing with Jameson is that its success has been built upon respecting a craft and an Irish heritage. Thanks to this respect, Jameson ensures that crafts like mine can live on. For the first time in 37 years we have hired an apprentice. I was the last apprentice hired at Midleton at age 17 so it is fantastic to know that the craft will live on in a uniquely Irish style.
What is your favourite whiskey and how do you drink it?
If I’m at home I like to have my whiskey neat with just a tiny drop of water, and usually accompany it with a square of chocolate. I think the chocolate releases so many different flavours in the whiskey. My two favourite bottles at home at the moment are Redbreast 12, and Jameson Select Reserve. When I’m out I like to sample Jameson mixed in different ways for example mixed with dry ginger ale and fresh lime. It depends on where I am and what group of people I am with. I enjoy drinking my Jameson in many different ways.