An Old Irish Estate Wants To Change The Way We Buy Rare And Investable Whiskey

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As whiskey shoppers become younger and more environmentally conscious, beverage brands face a problem: How can they convince these new consumers that their spirits are sustainable?

“It’s sad to see one of them fall,” says David Walsh-Kemis, a 13th-generation owner of the Ballykilcawan estate in Ireland. His seven oak trees, originally planted by his ancestors over a hundred years ago, were cut down and sold to Irish Distillers, the whiskey branch of Ireland-based Pernod Ricard.

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From Ireland, oak trees are shipped to the Spanish region of Galicia and to the Motherbar Sawmills where they are cut to size. They are then sent south of Jerez to be heated in the Spanish sun and lightly toasted before turning into whiskey casks, or “hogheads”.

The hogsheads are then returned to Ireland, where they are used to “finish” the whiskey that Irish distillers have kept in American bourbon casks for between 13 and 25 years.

This practice of turning oak into cask has been going on for centuries. It is one of the most environmentally destructive parts of the beverage industry, but is essential to many premium spirits: cognac, brandy, tequila, sherry, port and rum are all aged in oak casks.

Even before cask making, or “cooperating”, Ireland’s wood was in high demand. Walsh-Kemis states that the Vikings harvested Irish oaks to build their boats in the 11th century.

Since then, however, forests have been laid bare across Ireland, leaving the country with a forest cover of only 1.5% at the turn of the 20th century. By comparison, about a third of the land in the US is forested.

“When Ireland became an independent state, there was a belief of, ‘Guys, there’s no wood there,'” says Paddy Purser, forest manager and consultant for the Ballykillcavan Estate. Thanks to government initiatives, Ireland’s forest cover is now about 11%, and is slowly increasing.

However, due to poor repairs to Ballykillcavan House and all the surrounding buildings, the old oak had to be sold. “It paid off to re-roof a good portion of the house,” says Walsh-Kemis.

Although necessary, such practices do not sit well with the new generation of whiskey collectors.

Retailers say buyers are getting smaller and smaller. At a recent Sotheby’s whiskey auction, 60% of buyers were under the age of 40, Sotheby’s senior spirits expert Johnny Foul recently told Businesshala.

Many of them appreciate the rare whiskey for its tempting returns, if not only for the rich flavor of the spirit. Rare whiskey has seen a return of 468% over the past 10 years, according to the Knight Frank Wealth Report.

But these millennial shoppers want, as with all of their purchases, which is good for the environment as well as for them. Most luxury brands have already released permanent product lines, but the beverage industry has been slow to catch up.

With COP26 on their doorstep last month, several Scottish distilleries accelerated plans to go carbon neutral. The Oban, Nekan, and Ardnamurchan distilleries are among them, which use sustainable fuels to process vast mashing processes (where sugar and starch are extracted from the grain) and recycled materials for packing.

But carbon neutral distilleries still need those wooden casks that give whiskey so much for its depth and flavor. This means that ancient oak trees still need to be cut down.

Instead of mourning their loss, Irish distillers want to celebrate these old oaks. It has just released the fourth installment of its Middleton Very Rare Dare Gelach collection to do just that.

Each of the seven single pot still whiskeys in the release can be traced back to one of the felled oak trees on the Ballykillcavan estate. 42 casks made from seven oaks were recently bottled, each bottle labeled 1 to 7, according to which oak tree gave the cask its wood.

Remarkably, each of the seven whiskeys tastes distinctly, despite each oak tree coming from the same 400-acre forest. Tree Five has “the highest intensity of flavor,” says Kevin O’Gorman, master distiller at Middleton Very Rare. Whether this is because the oak tree stood a little higher up the hill than the others is nobody’s guess.

Each bottle retails for €310 ($350), though O’Gorman says there could be big changes in price once collectors get hold of them. “Sometimes it is said that one tree has fewer casks than others and there is a rush for that bottle,” he says, though refusing to say whether the rumors are true.

To hedge their risks, O’Gorman advises investors to buy all seven bottles with a thirst for profit. Complete collections tend to fetch better prices when they come to auction.

In May last year, a 45-year-old bottle from Middleton Very Rare Silent Distillery sold for £35,000 ($46,690), setting a new record for Irish whiskey.

Among collectors hoping to increase the price of the fourth edition of Middleton Very Rare Dare Gelch is Walsh-Kemis himself: “I brought tree number two and a few bottles of four.” But his real investment is in the next crop of oak trees that can be turned into whiskey casks, which, he admits, are no guarantee of his lifetime return.

Wandering through the wood of 20-year-old Cecil Oak, Purser and Walsh-Kemis check in on this investment. “Every five years we come back to the forest and we go to the exact same trees and update our measurements. We measure not only the trees but the biodiversity as well,” Purser says.

“A very small percentage of these will be cooperative grades,” he says, with a slender trunk towering over the others. “It will be a good couping tree in 80 to 110 years’ time.”


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