Q&A with Dave Quinn, Head of Whiskey Science

24th February 2017

We got to interview Dave Quinn, Head of Whiskey Science at Midleton Distillery, ahead of our “Irish Whiskey: The Journey from Grain to Glass” NI Science Festival event. Here’s what we asked him!

You’re the Head of Whiskey Science for Midleton Distillery – that’s some title!

Well, it takes into account anything that has a technical nature to it. Anything to do with the science of brewing, fermentation, yeast, distillation, wood aspect of maturation, but also more routine stuff like quality control.

We also carry out a great amount of Distillation Research and Development. We’ve a nice pilot plant where we do some experimentation using pot stills and column stills. So we can play with different types of distillation techniques. We have a micro distillery as well with 3 different types of pot still where we can try different recipes and use different styles and techniques of distillation.

The role also involves looking after whiskey stocks, which sounds straight forward, but the challenge is that what you’re making today is not for sale for at least 5, 6 or 7 years time.

What would your average ‘day at the office’ entail?

At the moment we have been preparing to launch a new Whiskey range, Method & Madness, which is to reflect both the scientific knowledge that we know about whiskey and the experiments that we’ve done in development.

We’ve ended up with a lovely selection of very different whiskeys. One is a Pot Still whiskey finished in French Oak, one in a Chestnut Cask, which is quite unique, and we also have a Single Grain Whiskey – the first time we’ve done that. The whiskey just went for bottling last week.

I spend a fair bit of time in the micro distillery. I really enjoy it as it’s all manual operation, so if you’re starting a distillation you have to open and close valves manually, start and stop pumps you have to physically do it. Very much a hands on distillation and you have to watch how the distillation is progressing. We’ve done lots of different types of distillates. We’ve gone back into our archives and picked out old distillation methods that even John Jameson II would have used. We’ve made whiskey from Rye and from Oats, used different types of cutting strengths and just played around with it to try to make different styles of distillates with different characters. We can make a small batch that might fill only 12 casks at a time, fill them up then send them to warehouse. It’s been going for just over a year now. 

There have been some fantastic new releases recently such as Jameson Caskmates, The Blender’s Dog, The Cooper’s Croze etc. Which is your personal favourite?

I suppose I’d have to say Jameson Caskmates as to me it was just a great example of how innovation can just happen. It started with Shane in Franciscan Well asking for some casks to use for maturing his stout and it was only when we took them and back filled them with fully mature Jameson did we realise what we had unearthed. It was purely out of intrigue and interest to see if something would happen. I remember very well when myself, Billy Leighton, Brian Nation and Kevin O’Gorman looked at the whiskey, what we liked about it was that it was still most definitely Jameson and it wasn’t overpowered by any beer character or hops.

Is there a specific flavour or nuance that you associate with Irish Whiskey?

If we look at the other way round first in terms of what you don’t associate with Irish Whiskey, we don’t tend to have any peated whiskeys so there’s that element of it. The triple distillation gives a reduced heaviness to the whiskey, but it has a fragrant and spicy character that are the most obvious key flavours. The other element is more on texture than aroma and taste. The barley heavily influences the mouth feel and our whiskey has a distinctive oily mouth feel, so in my opinion texture is as important as flavour and nose of Irish Whiskey profile.

Any tips for aspiring Whiskey Drinkers?

I wouldn’t try to suggest how anyone drinks a whiskey, but I do recognise that if you’re just coming to the category for the first time there can be a degree of apprehension as to how to drink it. I see a lot of the graduates coming into the distillery who wouldn’t have necessarily been whiskey drinkers when they start and they tend to start off with the likes of Jameson, Ginger and Lime and then move into other mixed drinks before trying neat whiskey. My advice would be to take your time and enjoy what you drink.

Ice or No Ice in your Whiskey?

It depends! If it was quite a high end whiskey with lots of character I would drink that in a balloon glass on its own just so that you can appreciate the full aroma and complexity. I normally add a small amount of water to help open the whiskey. Sometimes the higher end whiskeys can be that higher ABV so it’s just down to personal preference.

What can guests of tonight’s event expect?

As it’s NI Science Festival we wanted to focus on the Science of whiskey and take guests through how the whiskey is made. The first sample guest will try is new make distillate straight off the pot, what whiskey is like before it goes into the cask. We then have the same spirits that has been aged in two different casks, American Oak and Spanish Sherry Cask. I wanted to show the influence of the oak itself on exactly the same distillate coming off the still to help show the building blocks that a blender has to work with. We also have a whiskey from a chestnut cask, that we’re launching next week, and an Irish Oak whiskey. We are finishing off with Green Spot Leoville Barton which has been aged in Bordeaux wine casks.

We’ll talk about not just the taste and the flavours, but the science of it – if I see anyone nodding off then I’ll change tact!

Can you please tell me where the angels live so I can go and get my share

You wouldn’t believe the amount the angels take every year. They’re our second biggest market after the USA. They take the equivalent of almost a million cases a year. Unfortunately I don’t know where they live, no amount of experimentation has discovered this yet.