Simon Wittenberg travels to Cognac in South West France to discover the fascinating story and craftsmanship behind the newly unveiled €5,000 Midleton Very Rare Forêt de Tronçais whiskey.
Following on from the recent launch of the 48 Year Old Midleton Very Rare Silent Distillery Chapter Four expression in May, the famed Midleton Distillery, which belongs to Irish Distillers, has carved out another important milestone in its impressive nearly 200-year history with the launch of the new Midleton Very Rare Forêt de Tronçais whiskey.
Before looking at the latest addition to the Midleton line-up, it is important to delve a little deeper and explore the casks, which heavily influence the end product, i.e., the whiskey itself.
A unique behind-the-scenes visit to the Taransaud cooperage (a business responsible for making casks) on the outskirts of the town of Cognac reveals an interesting story – a relationship with Midleton that goes back to 2017.
It was at this time that the very personable and charismatic Jacquelin de Pracomtal (above), Vice President of La Tonnellerie Taransaud and the latest family member to manage the cooperage, went to visit Midleton’s Master Distiller Kevin O’Gorman in Ireland, bringing with him wood samples used at the cooperage, subsequently sparking a new and successful collaboration between the two businesses.
With whisky distilleries and winemakers as far afield as California, using Taransaud casks, quality control, and a drive for total perfection sits at the heart of all processes.
Therefore, from the very beginning, staves are meticulously inspected before they pass down the production line through the numerous stages at the hands of over 100 people across two shifts.
These include the machining of the round top and bottom – called heads, the bending of the staves with the use of water (to create the curvaceous and bulging form of the barrel), assembly with the hammering of metal hoops that slot down over the exterior of the cask, and the toasting of the inside layers over an open fire to allow the spirit to interact better with the wood.
Regarding the latter, there are various grades of toasting, but not to the extent that the process delivers an adverse “burnt” smoky edge to any liquid that sits within the barrel. As you walk through the facility, a cacophony of noises and aromas makes this cooperage a veritable hive of activity.
Any leftover wood in large metal cages is used to power the toasting of the casks and the cooperage itself, which means there is no reliance on gas, plus nothing ever goes to waste.
Taransaud’s casks are made exclusively from French oak, gathered from various locations across the country. One of the most renowned sources is the Forest of Tronçais (also known as the Forêt de Tronçais) – a 10,600-hectare woodland located in the Allier region of central France, which Kevin O’Gorman has visited on several occasions as part of the cask procurement process.
Such is the forest’s long and established track record of supplying high-quality oak, initially for shipbuilding; a decree was signed by the King of France as far back as 1669. This explained that the forest should be preserved and managed for future generations; hence, there is an ongoing focus on sustainability, which includes a study looking at species of trees and their resistance to climate change.
Every year, France’s state-owned Office National des Forêts (the National Forests Office) informs cooperages of the grouping or “parcel” of oak trees that will be going up for auction at the Forest of Tronçais. Taransaud will then send experts to individually inspect the trees for the required quality in terms of the grain, the profile, and the presence of any knots, amongst other features, keeping in mind a vision of how casks will spawn from this wood later down the line.
To put this into some kind of perspective, these are 30 to 50-metre 250-year-old oak trees and are highly prized, as the oak from this forest is classed amongst the finest in the world. This means when the chosen parcel of trees goes under the hammer in a silent auction, at a notable cost, Taransaud will normally have about four lots up its sleeve, in a tense wait to ensure that it secures supply that year when up against the competition.
The trees will then be transformed at the mill in the forest into staves (i.e. the vertical pieces of wood used to make a cask), which are subsequently stacked and left out in the open air for five years by the cooperage, exposed to the elements across all seasons. From here on in, it’s a largely manual process with very little automation, although there is a degree of machinery as the casks are created and finished.
In fact, securing winning bids at the yearly auction is critical, as the flagship and highly sought-after cask made by this cooperage, named the “T5”, is derived from the slow-growing Sessile oak (Quercus petraea) trees from the Forêt de Tronçais, which produce a very fine and light-grain wood.
Furthermore, the beautifully crafted T5 cask is made in limited quantities in a dedicated workshop overseen by true masters of their trade, so this was deemed to be the perfect match for the new Midleton Very Rare expression.
The whiskey has, therefore, aptly taken the name of the forest in a nod to its heritage, reinforcing the fact that this important woodland is a significant piece of the puzzle for its creation.
What is filled and laid down in the 225-litre lightly-toasted T5 casks for a period of three years is a bespoke batch of very special Midleton single grain and single pot still whiskeys matured in American bourbon barrels over decades spanning the 1980s to the 2000s.
In fact, single pot still whiskey is made from a mash bill of barley, malt barley, and triple distilled in copper pot stills and matured in a range of casks, whereas single grain whiskey has a mash bill of malted barley and maize, triple distilled in column stills, before being laid down in a number of casks.
To reinforce the intricate task of how whiskies are blended together to create the right profile in terms of aroma, flavour, taste and intensity within a single new expression that adheres to the values of Midleton Very Rare, like the yearly Vintage or, indeed the Forêt de Tronçais whiskey, we had the rare privilege of taking part in an exclusive tasting led by Kevin O’Gorman at the La Baume de Bouteville balsamic vinegar artisanal facility, which uses ex-Cognac casks for some its products.
This took the form of a money-can’t-buy Midleton medium-style 22-year-old single pot still from a first fill (B1) American bourbon barrel at cask strength (52.6% ABV), which boasted sumptuous notes of wood spices, banana, banoffee pie, ginger, and a touch of vanilla toffee sweetness.
Similarly, the 32-year-old single-grain whisky (51.5% ABV), also matured in a first-fill bourbon (B1) cask, delivered an abundance of herbal and floral notes synonymous with grain whiskey.
Combining these wonderful grain and pot still distillate styles and with the subtle influence of the Tronçais oak, Midleton Very Rare Forêt de Tronçais, bottled at 48% ABV, is an elegant and refined whiskey that has oak-enriched perfumed aromas with delicious fruit notes of poached pears, caramelised apples, and orange zest. Additional notes of honeycomb and toasted hazelnut continue to develop in combination with an aroma of freshly roasted coffee beans.
The woodland spices are brought to the fore by the elegant and measured influence of the extra fine-grained French oak, adding nuanced characteristics that enhance the pot still spices and floral grain whiskeys in this complex and aged blend.
For the taste, it has an initial herbal persona, followed by notes of fresh peppermint and sage, interspersed amongst the succulent orchard fruits and zesty orange. The oak’s subtle tannins complement the chocolate-dipped honeycomb and sweet vanilla, adding to the luscious, silky-smooth texture synonymous with Midleton’s pot still and grain whiskeys.
This superb whiskey also offers an exquisitely long finish where the fruits and spices are enveloped by the enchanting nature of the toasted wood, showcasing a harmonious balance between Irish whiskey and French oak.
The bottle colour, with copper-like branding and motifs, pays homage to the Midleton duck egg shade featured on the orchid in the Midleton logo, whilst Midleton Very Rare Forêt de Tronçais is presented in a bespoke cabinet created by Manufacture Jacquemin – a third-generation traditional woodcrafts business based in the Jura Mountains in Eastern France.
It has been made from fine oak from the Tronçais forest, and on the inside, it features laser-cut illustrations that pay homage to the historic French woodland and its role in this whiskey’s story.
For those wondering what is coming next for the Midleton Distillery, keep an eye out for the unveiling of the next Vintage Release in the third week of February 2024. The Vintage releases are made from a selection of the very best casks holding pot and grain whiskies.
Not only focused on the present, Kevin O’Gorman and his team are also tasked with looking as far ahead as the next 40 years to ensure there is enough inventory to create expressions well into the 2060s, setting the distillery, and whiskey connoisseurs alike up for a very exciting future.
Midleton Very Rare Forêt de Tronçais – Where and How?
For more information on the new Midleton Very Rare Forêt de Tronçais expression, visit https://midletondistillerycollection.com/midleton-very-rare.
Starting with Édition 1, this will be an annual release subject to the future availability of this rare liquid and oak combination. The whiskey can be purchased in selected markets, including Ireland, the UK, Global Travel Retail, France, the UK, China, Hong Kong, and the USA, and online at an RRP of €5,000 / $5,000 / £4,400.
See videos from our visit to Cognac with the Midleton Distillery on the Luxurious Magazine Instagram page.
With thanks to L’Hôtel Chais Monnet & Spa in Cognac for their hospitality.
Photo credits: Midleton Distillery / Simon Wittenberg.