Simon Wittenberg catches up with the Midleton Distillery’s Master Distiller, Kevin O’Gorman, following the launch of the new Midleton Very Rare Forêt de Tronçais whiskey.
Luxurious Magazine: Congratulations on the launch of the new expression. It must be a proud moment to see it come to fruition after a six-year journey.
Kevin O’Gorman: It is a very proud moment. It has been wonderful working with the Taransaud cooperage over the years. They introduced me to the Tronçais Forest back in 2017, which has become a very special place for me.
I am honoured with this partnership, which allows the Tronçais oak to have its say within the world of whiskey. From packaging to design to quality – it’s a huge team effort, which is very rewarding.
LM: As an important addition to the Midleton Very Rare line-up, is this one of your career highlights?
KOG: It is. It’s a special whiskey in terms of its quality, and its journey. In this collaboration, I have developed a personal relationship with Jacquelin and the team at Taransaud cooperage. One of the highlights of my career was visiting Tronçais for the first time.
Sustainability and the protection of land and nature is a passion of mine, and the way they look after the forestry cycle is inspiring – it allows for natural regeneration and preservation, which was deeply important to me.
To return to Cognac for the launch was a full circle moment, to share Midleton Very Rare Forêt de Tronçais with the world from the place where it all began, with Jacquelin and Pierre from Taransaud cooperage there to celebrate the collaboration in person.
LM: How did the relationship develop with the Taransaud cooperage in Cognac, France, to create this spectacular new whiskey?
KOG: At Midleton Distillery, we are driven by an innovative spirit and a thirst for excellence that means we are constantly looking at unique ways to create only the most elegant of whiskey expressions.
When I heard about the Taransaud cooperage and how their values around sustainability and quality mirrored ours here at Midleton, I knew I had to see what a partnership could entail. So, in 2017, the team and I embarked on a journey to the Cognac region to visit the cooperage in the hope of finding the perfect casks for a special whiskey I had in mind.
That trip created a strong relationship between the cooperage and the distillery, and I look forward to many more years working with Jacquelin and his team to create Midleton Very Rare Forêt de Tronçais, a liquid that truly combines and celebrates the pinnacle of Irish whiskey and the best of French oak craftsmanship.
LM: Midleton Very Rare Forêt de Tronçais has been laid down in oak T5 casks for three years. What makes the T5 so special?
KOG: The oak from the Tronçais forest is some of the highest quality in the world, and when I met with Jacquelin and saw the cooperage for myself, I knew we were on to something spectacular. Only the finest, tight-grain oak from the Tronçais Forest makes its way to the cooperage, dedicated to creating the legendary named T5 casks after being naturally seasoned in the open air for five years.
They are created at the masterful hands of the Taransaud Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (French Master Craftsmen) using hand tools only, and are only made in limited quantities, making this a truly rare cask to obtain.
In 2018, Forêt de Tronçais became one of only 15 forests in the whole of France to be designated a ‘Forêt d’Exception’. The experts who select the timber that will eventually be transformed into casks use their years of experience to identify oak that is not only certified sustainable by the Programme of the Endorsement of Forest Certification but also a wood and a grain that satisfies the strict standards of excellence demanded by the cooperage.
LM: At €5,000 per bottle, who is the primary audience for Midleton Very Rare Forêt de Tronçais?
KOG: Midleton Very Rare Forêt de Tronçais is one of the most elegant expressions we have ever created. It is a true mastery of craftsmanship, from the liquid to the casks. This expression is for new and existing fans of Midleton Very Rare, those with a sincere appreciation of the quality of the liquid, and those who adore the taste of a fine, elegant whiskey.
The presentation of the whiskey is also a work of art. The oak cabinet is created by Manufacture Jacquemin, a third-generation traditional woodcraft business based in the Jura mountains in eastern France.
It pays homage to the Tronçais woodland, with laser-cut illustrations and handcrafted intricate details, and is intended to live on alongside the whiskey in celebration from where it has derived.
LM: Which are the biggest markets today for Midleton Very Rare, and which new countries are you looking to build a presence in?
KOG: We are seeing a growing appreciation on the global stage for our luxury Irish whiskey offerings, particularly Midleton Very Rare. While traditional markets, such as the UK, Ireland and the USA, continue to flourish, we are now seeing a growing appetite from more non-traditional Irish whiskey markets, especially in Asia.
LM: What is next on the horizon for Midleton Very Rare?
KOG: As the pinnacle of Irish whiskey, we have plenty more up our sleeves for Midleton Very Rare. Every year, we launch our annual vintage, and 2024 is shaping up to be a very exciting one, as it will be the 40th anniversary of Midleton Very Rare, which was first created in 1984.
Next year will see the fifth and penultimate chapter in our Silent Distillery series, a collection that honours the very last drops of spirit created at Old Midleton Distillery. We are also working on a second edition of Midleton Very Rare Forêt de Tronçais.
Alongside this, we are always looking at new ways to innovate and create something exceptional. Very soon; we will see a new Midleton Very Rare Dair Ghaelach – so make sure to watch this space!
LM: Is Irish whiskey going through a renaissance and coming out of the shadows of Scotch whiskey on the world stage?
KOG: Absolutely; with such a rich heritage in craftsmanship and lots of exciting innovation coming from a host of Irish distilleries, I couldn’t be more excited to see a growing global appreciation for Irish whiskey.
At Irish Distillers, we are going from strength to strength in our traditionally strong markets, as well as in new territories, including in Asia and Africa, where Irish whiskey is becoming the spirit of choice for many discerning drinkers, and I look forward to seeing the industry continue to grow.
I am particularly excited by the opportunity within ultra-premium whiskeys, as we have announced ourselves within this category on the world stage.
LM: What are your personal interests outside of your work, and how did your interest start in whiskey?
KOG: I enjoy all things sports. I’m a big fan of GAA (our Gaelic sports of football and hurling), as well as rugby, but I’m interested in all sports. I play golf, run, and generally keep active. My family share this love, so it’s something we can get involved in together.
I also enjoy gardening and have a great appreciation for nature. I was brought up on a farm, so I have always felt a great connection with the land. In fact, I even remember growing barley many years ago.
My interest in whiskey started after I left University, and I began working with Gilbey’s of Ireland Manufacturing, which imported wines and fortified wines from around Europe.
Gilbey’s also produced Baileys Irish Cream, and I had a number of different roles within engineering, process and bottling – but I ended up focusing on the process side, learning how to blend the whiskey and the cream.
Back then, the whiskey came from Midleton Distillery, and it used to arrive on-site in tankers. That piqued my interest in the whiskey side. I was intrigued by it and got a ‘taste’ for the whiskey industry, if you will.
Generally, I have a great interest in food and drinks – exploring flavours and experimenting with tastes – so as you can imagine, it’s a great privilege to hold the title of Master Distiller!
LM: Thank you for your time, Kevin, and it has been a pleasure speaking to you.
Photo credits: Midleton Distillery / Bertrand Bouchez – DOLLY.
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