A unique taste of Ireland

A unique taste of Ireland

Jamie Walker had revived the Adelphi name after nearly a century. Ken Hyder talks to the man whose cask crusade promises to widen the horizons of Irish Whiskey and Scotch drinkers.

People | 16 Apr 2000 | Issue 9 | By Ken Hyder

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When Jamie Walker put single cask Irish whiskeys on sale this year (see New Releases, Whisky Magazine, Issue 8), it marked both the end of one journey and the beginning of another.Jamie, the great grandson of Archibald Walker, owner of the Glasgow distillery Adelphi, had achieved his aim of reviving the Adelphi label. Bottles of Scotch and Irish whiskey once again bore the name of the family business. But the liquids inside, all from single casks, were testimony to Jamie’s personal and totally contemporary conviction that cask is the only class worth considering.“Cask strength is whisky at its purest. When I first tasted a single cask strength, I was so blown away by the taste I realised there was only one side of the business I wanted to work in,” is how he describes it.Adelphi’s feat of introducing single Irish cask whisky, distilled at the Cooley Distillery in Dundalk, is not to be underestimated either, as Jamie explains, “Single Irish whiskey is very rare as most of it is made from a mix of grains, although in pot stills. Single cask Irish whiskey is practically unique. “We are very proud to be offering a Shannon 1991, single Irish grain, and two single malts. This is exciting new territory for the whisky drinker to explore.”To get Adelphi to this high point took plenty of hard work and inspiration. It began when Jamie failed his accountancy exams and looked to the past for new inspiration.He remembered stories about his great grandfather and the business he ran at the Adelphi Distillery in Glasgow. Although nobody in the family had stayed in the whisky business after Archibald died in 1937, Jamie instinctively felt that whisky was still running in his blood.While at university he had acquired a taste for Lagavulin, which encouraged him to junk the ledgers and head north in order to find out all he could about whisky. His apprenticeship took him to jobs at Burghead Maltings at Lossiemouth and Roseisle Maltings near Elgin.“To go into the industry I knew I had to know it inside out,” said Jamie.But it was at Inver House Distilleries, famous for producing Knockdhu, Speyburn, Balmenach, Balblair and Old Pulteney, that Jamie met the man he now calls “my whisky guru”. This is Stuart Robertson who, although retired now, was then the manager at Inver House and took Jamie under his wing.“Stuart has been in the whisky trade all his working life,” explained Jamie. “It was a marvellous apprenticeship. He would take me round and we would taste all the different whiskies in different casks, and the new-fill whiskies. It was from him I learned the invaluable lesson that 60 per cent of the influence on the whisky is in
the wood.”Then in 1993, aged just 24, Jamie felt the old family connections tug so strongly he searched out the Adelphi name which was by this time held by a London wine company. He bought it and the Walker family was once again back in the whisky business.But unlike the old Adelphi, a mass producer of grain and malt, the revived company is small and highly specialised. Whisky Magazine’s editor-at-large, Charles MacLean is a director, although he took no part in this article. Today, Adelphi is one of the few companies in the world focussing on single cask malts, all of which are sold at
cask strength.The original one was an altogether different enterprise, however. It began trading in 1826 in Adelphi Street, in the Gorbals industrial district, a place where thousands of impoverished families lived cheek by jowl and many were eager consumers of the Adelphi Street
product – whisky.The distillery was unusual in that it was the first to produce both grain and malt, most of it going for the blended market, although there was an own-label grain whisky for sale. By the 1880s the distillery was one of the most advanced in Scotland. It had its own blending and bottling plants and it was turning out half a million gallons a year.It was at this stage the distillery was bought by Archibald Walker. His company already had distilleries in Liverpool, for gin, and in Limerick for whisky. But a couple of decades later the whisky boom began to fizzle out. The Distillers Company Limited bought Adelphi in 1902 but five years later production stopped, the market was producing too much whisky.A lot of whisky companies went bankrupt, but Archibald Walker landed on his feet and became a DCL director. The Walker family’s connection with Adelphi ended as it began with Archibald, but 90 years on Jamie now heads Adelphi mark two, this time in Edinburgh. It’s a small operation with a staff of two and one, clear objective – to buy the best malt in casks, and then bottle it.Jamie explained, “During the 1960s and ‘70s, blended whisky was the only whisky generally available and the whisky companies fought one another tooth and nail with cut-price tactics.“Few single malts were known outside Scotland 25 years ago, but in the mid-1980s the leading whisky companies made a conscious decision to reverse the cut-price tactics and promote Scotch whisky for what it was – a high quality natural product of infinite variety.”Suddenly single malts, some of them in existence for a 150 years, began to appear for the first time in public. Until then they had mainly only been used to give quality to blends.While most whisky is bottled at 40 per cent alcohol, when it comes out of the cask it is around 60 per cent give or take a point or two. Buying at cask strength allows you to start off with the pure stuff, after which you can experiment to your heart’s content. Adelphi whisky is bottled direct from a single cask, which has been selected from the top 10 per cent of those casks filled by the single malt distillery. “It is usual to chill the spirit to near freezing prior to bottling, in order to filter out certain substances which may cause it to go cloudy when water is added,” said Jamie. “But these substances are also vital flavour elements - and we prefer to leave them in.” Nor is the whisky coloured in any way. “Natural colour gives a better idea of what type of cask the whisky has been in and caramel would affect the taste of the whisky,” he added.Single cask bottlings are rare, ranging from 200 to 600 bottles from each cask. The taste cannot be repeated once a cask is finished.Adelphi selects from mature casks – from five to 32 years old and his old ‘whisky guru’ Stuart Robertson is one of his advisers.It’s a hands-on operation. Each cask is tasted, bought and bottled within months. The tasting is very important because individual casks can vary so much. Jamie emphasised, “I want to be sure, and absolutely certain of what I am getting for
my customers.”Moving into Ireland and resurrecting the Limerick Distillery label marks another new departure and the completion of his family odyssey.“It was a natural progression after Scotland,” he explained. “Having both the Irish and Scotch elements marks a gentle marriage, they are not in competition. Our Irish grain whiskey is immensely smooth. This is just the start of our Irish operation, we definitely plan to expand. There is far more to Irish whiskey than what is available to many drinkers at the moment.” Like a lot of malt enthusiasts, Jamie has no one favourite whisky. “It all depends on my mood,” he declared. “When my daughter Chloe was born, I opened a 19-year-old Ardbeg I had been saving. Seeing a baby born is a dramatic experience. I needed something strong and robust – the Ardbeg’s honest peating and sweetness from the sherry cask was just the thing to catapult me into being a daddy.”Jamie believes his own passion for cask strength has tapped into a growing trend. Indeed just as the demand for malts marked a new development in whisky drinking a decade ago, so a second may be on the horizon with more drinkers getting a taste for cask strength whiskies. “People drink less but have more expensive tastes,” summed up Jamie. “They appreciate something special and Adelphi whiskies are certainly that.”
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