“I read a ton of old text books, combing through countless manuscripts from the 1800s and even earlier. Taking every whiskey course available, learning from master distillers, masters of wood while using my years of wood and blending knowledge.”
Jay Bradley, Founder, The Craft Irish Whiskey Co.
Jay Bradley comes from a long line of blenders in the food industry. His grandfather perfected the perfect blend of spice seasoning for Irish Sausages. Jay’s father was a chef and owned his own spice blending business. And so, it was only natural that he would one day perfect his own methods and combine whiskey and wood to create the perfect blend.
His journey to becoming a whiskey aficionado is inspiring.
“I’ve spent over half my career in hospitality through whiskey bars, mixology, restaurants and BBQ. Having won trophies on the world stage in competitive BBQ, placing top 10 from over 130 teams at the world championships. This set me on a course to become an expert on perfecting seasoning and blending, and fully understanding the flavor you can get from wood,” says Jay.
He explains: “I learned how long to yard season wood for, allowing the rain and sun to beat down on it in order to remove the tannins. Those tannins had a huge effect on the flavor you got from your barbecued food. Green, young oak can make a great cut of beef unpalatable after a few hours in the smoker. Whereas aged ‘yard seasoned’ oak had the opposite effect, making it mouthwatering. Same goes for whiskey. Barbecuing is all about the right type of smoke, the perfect blend of seasoning and wise marination.”
“One thing I know for certain is to get more flavour into a product, you really need to marinate it. So, I couldn’t understand why the whiskey industry always added water at the end of the process. It just dilutes all the work the oak does. Curiosity took hold and I decided to learn more.
“In traditional whiskey making methods, the whiskey comes off the still at around 75-85% alcohol by volume (ABV), and water is added to bring it down to between 60-69% ABV. An old myth tells the industry that the alcohol level at 75-85% ABV is too high to be. Put into the cask and it will rip too many tannins from the wood. This is true, if the wood has a lot of tannins, but yard seasoning the wood fixes this. The issue is that everyone wants to use cheaper barrels and make more cost-effective whiskey. Cheaper barrels yard season their staves for less than three months! Whereas a decent cooperage will yard season staves of a barrel for at least three years! Huge differences as the older barrel has far less tannins.
Because of the fear of tannins from cheaper barrels, they stay below the 70% ABV mark. But they also never go below the 60% mark as the higher the ABV, the less casks they need to use. And, make no mistake about it, the cask and the storage are the most expensive parts of making whiskey.
“The higher the ABV and fewer casks needed, the more cost effectively you can produce a whiskey. Over time the whiskey slightly evaporates and the ABV comes down. So, when the whiskey is finished maturing, the ABV won’t be between 60-69% as it was when it went into the cask, it will now be at 55-59% roughly. Traditionally, this is when more water is added, to put it into bottle at 40-46% ABV. Some distillers bottle at the cask’s strength of 55-59%, but in all honestly this level of alcohol (ABV) is too high for most palates to enjoy. The alcohol burn masks the true flavor profile of the whiskey. So, water will be added by the end consumer anyway.
“Why cask whiskey so high, and not lower?”
“I questioned many master distillers across Ireland and Scotland about why they cask at 60-69% and not lower, and most couldn’t give a straight answer. The consensus was generally that “this is how it’s always been done”, with distillers explaining to me that being casked any higher the whiskey takes on too much tannin as higher alcohol content breaks down the wood. Any lower and it becomes too expensive as they need more casks and more storage space.
“I thought about it some more: why not add water at the start and allow it to marinate into the whiskey and be flavored by the wood?
“For me it made perfect sense to do that to create a much deeper whiskey. So that when it comes out after years in the barrel, it goes straight into the bottle. No tampering with it, no adding water. It’s a finished product with a deep rich oily mouthfeel.
Questioning everything about traditional whiskey distilling
Jay continues: “Most distilleries are more than 100 years old and use previous mashbills and methods. It’s easy to see that the reason the water wasn’t added in at the start was due to saving money and following traditional methods passed down from generations. But I wanted to be a new entrant to this market and do things differently. Taking what works from the past traditions, while also fixing what is wrong. To question and challenge the status quo.
“In the culinary space the renowned chef Heston Blumenthal did the same, his motto was to question everything, and he’s right. This is exactly what I did with whiskey maturation.
“The traditional method is to keep the alcohol level high and add water at the end, to use less barrels and storage space and keep the costs down. Kind of like a concentrate that you add water to once its ready to bottle. But my argument is that, in doing so, you lose all those years of flavor. I wanted to change that.
“It’s far more costly to do it differently – the way I want to. As you need more barrels and more storage space, but I was very conscious of a gap in the market for Irish whiskey in the luxury category. I knew there was room for a more hand-crafted whiskey where no expense was spared on making it the best it can be without compromise. The best barrels where the wood is yard seasoned for longer, so it has less tannins and more Lignin (what gives whiskey the vanilla flavor), more expensive casking methods such as multiple barrel changes every two years to amplify true deep flavor and so forth.”
Pursuing my passion for craft whiskey – becoming a whiskey aficionado
Jay says this thought process sparked years of detailed research. “I read a ton of old text books, combing through countless manuscripts from the 1800s and even earlier. Taking every whiskey course available, learning from master distillers, masters of wood while using my years of wood and blending knowledge.
“I completely immersed myself in learning everything possible about traditional and emerging methods. This study, my love for whiskey, business experience and background in whiskey-based hospitality, drove me to pursue my passion. I simply want to dedicate the rest of my business life to promoting Irish whiskey.
“I wanted to be a part of creating something really special that would expand into every market and put Irish craft whiskey back on the map as the world’s best whiskey. The gold standard we once held for centuries before Scotland took it over from the 1940s onwards. Not the blends you know of today like Jameson, but the true sipping whiskey.
“The single malts and single pot stills that only need a single drop of water to open them up, release the fatty acid esters wrapped up in micelles and give you a pure, unadulterated, no expense spared Irish whiskey.”