Gaining a foothold in the spirits industry is challenging under any circumstances. But when you make Irish whiskey and operate in the shadow of a market-dominating behemoth like Jameson, even getting people to know your brand name can be a tall order.
That’s one reason why it’s easy to root for Glendalough Distillery. Founded in 2011 by five friends from Dublin and Wicklow, the microdistillery opened its doors right around the time that the last independent distillery in Ireland was sold to a multinational corporation.
That makes Glendalough the first modern craft distillery in the Emerald Isle – a fairly remarkable claim in a country with a centuries-long history of distillation.
I first became familiar with Glendalough’s spirits earlier this year, when I met co-owner and brand manager Donal O’Gallachoir. And that’s probably how a lot of people got introduced to Glendalough. You’re unlikely to see a big, glitzy Glendalough ad campaign anytime soon, but you do stand a fair chance of running into the U.S.-based O’Gallachoir somewhere around town.
Donal’s a charismatic chap with an inexhaustible supply of entertaining stories, a passion for Irish whiskey, and great pride in his distillery’s spirits. His enthusiasm is infectious and has likely played no small part in Glendalough’s growing popularity. You can now find it in 14 states and countless Boston-area bars.
Last week I had a chance to get further acquainted with Glendalough’s spirits during a whiskey dinner at Brass Union in Somerville.
Pairing the distillery’s three whiskey offerings with specially prepared dishes, the event served to showcase not only the spirits but also the cocktail and culinary acumen of Brass Union beverage director Paulo Pereira and chef Jonathan Kopacz, respectively.
We’ll take it one course at a time.
“We’re trying to bring fun back to the spirit of distillation,” Donal said at one point during the evening. While he was talking about the booze production process, it’s a sentiment that could have applied to the dinner itself. And nowhere was that more evident than in the “amuse” course.
The proceedings began with Glendalough Double Barrel Punch, made with Glendalough’s signature whiskey, a mix of orange, lemon, and pineapple juices, and sparkling water. Refreshing and effervescent, with a pleasant aroma from a mint leaf, it was well suited to the unusually warm fall evening.
Paired with the punch was whiskey caramel corn, a sweet, crunchy treat that incorporated Glendalough’s whiskey into the gooey coating.
I’d say this was a pretty clever way to start the evening. A whiskey and food pairing might seem like a serious affair, the sort of thing attended by whiskey snobs and highbrow foodies. But opening with popcorn and punch established a playful tone, encouraging guests to focus as much on enjoying themselves and sharing the experience as on appreciating the complexity and flavor interactions of the food and spirits.
The first course was a dish of roasted peaches served with goat cheese and a savory honey. Combining sweet, savory, and tangy flavors on one plate, it was light and beautifully presented.
Accompanying the peaches was one of the evening’s first surprises – the premiere of a cocktail that Paulo’s been aging in a rum barrel that was later used for a Jack’s Abby porter. The cocktail, called Lane’s Burrow, was a variation on the classic Irish Tipperary and made with Glendalough’s Double Barrel whiskey, Carpano Antica sweet vermouth, yellow chartreuse, and Bittermens Boston Bittahs (their spelling, not mine).
It was an unusual cocktail – complex and bitter, with notes of licorice in the middle, but smooth as silk and a smart complement to the peach dish.
You may be seeing more of that cocktail, and not just at Brass Union. Paulo bought the barrel from Donal, but since it was much larger than what he’d ordinarily use for aging a cocktail, he invited several other bars in the same restaurant group to go in on the purchase. The Lane’s Burrow will be aged a little longer, but should be available later this fall.
Having never had quail (aside from their eggs), I was excited about the second course. Served with radicchio and cherry mostarda, this grilled bird was delicate but rich, with a crispy skin.
Paired with it was Glendalough’s 7-year, single-malt Irish whiskey. This is a big, rich whiskey with notes of chocolate, butterscotch, cinnamon, and pepper, and those sweet and spicy flavors elevated the flavors on the plate.
Now what would a proper whiskey tasting be without gin? OK, it’s an unconventional move. But then, the surprise guest of the “intermezzo” course, Glendalough’s Wild Autumn Botanical gin, is an unconventional gin.
Incorporating upwards of 20 wild Irish botanicals and made in collaboration with a local botanist, it has a completely foreign aroma and a complex flavor profile unlike any gin I’ve tasted. Paolo used it in a straightforward cocktail that allowed the botanical blend to shine, mixing it with simple syrup and charred grapefruit (along with a cryptic flavor orb, which I’m at odds to describe).
I love the idea of a seasonal gin, and given New Englanders’ fondness for autumn, this one should win its share of local fans. Unfortunately, it was just a tease; Glendalough’s gins aren’t yet available in the U.S. and won’t reach our shores until next year.
It was back to whiskey for the third course. In every respect, Glendalough’s 13-year, single-malt Irish whiskey is the most distinguished of the distillery’s offerings. It took home two awards from this year’s San Francisco World Spirits Competition – Best Single-Malt Irish Whiskey and Best Irish Whiskey. I’d say that puts it in some pretty elite company.
And it’s easy to see why the judges in San Francisco favored it – with notes of vanilla, citrus, spices, and oak, this smooth whiskey is similar to a fine cognac, with a robust mouthfeel and a complex bouquet of flavors.
Served alongside it was braised lamb served with chickpeas, cucumber, mint, shallot, and lemon. Twenty-four hours of braising resulted in meat that was melt-in-your-mouth tender. The soft texture and bold flavor made it the perfect companion to the exceptional whiskey.
Wrapping things up was a flourless chocolate torte with chocolate cherry mousse. Rich, dense, and decadent, its liquid accompaniment is probably no surprise.
The modern Irish coffee may be most famously associated with San Francisco’s Buena Vista Café, but Ireland is still its ancestral home. For this event, Paulo created a traditional Irish coffee with a Portuguese twist – Glendalough Double Barrel, topped with an Irish whiskey cream and a pinch of spice, and Brandymel, a honey brandy from Portugal, in place of the sugar. The brandy added a more complex dimension than sugar would have, and along with the torte, made for a sweet conclusion to the evening.
One of the things I personally found most interesting about this whole shebang is the ways in which whiskey can interact with food. I usually don’t pair whiskey with anything other than the occasional cigar, and I was impressed with the way in which chef Kopacz matched the nuanced flavors of the whiskey with some pretty creative food choices.
I was also impressed with the versatility of Glendalough’s whiskies, both in the food pairings and in cocktails. Glendalough might not move 5 million cases a year like the aforementioned green-bottled whiskey, but with a few international awards to their credit and a growing product line, it’s a pleasure to watch this small Irish distillery continue to make a name for itself.
And look for a story on Brass Union sometime within the next month or two. I’ve been there twice, but each time has been for a specific event. I can’t wait to sit at the bar sometime and see what else Paulo’s got up his sleeve.
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