There’s all sorts of weird and wonderful stuff going on in the Irish whiskey category at the moment. Clinton Cawood joins a team of inquisitive bartenders as they test out the country’s latest releases
If there’s a whiskey category that’s reinventing itself right now, it’s Irish. But change in whiskey takes time, so we’ve been watching as Irish producers go through a number of phases in recent years. While many have set up to produce spirit of their own, they’ve often continued to experiment while waiting for the fruits of their new distilleries.
The result is a vibrant, ever-changing category, with distillers exploring all of their options when it comes to maturation.
To get a snapshot of where the category is at, we gathered the latest releases from a number of distillers, as well as a few entirely new names too. The resulting flight included almost every cask finish you can imagine, and consisted of both blends and single malts, with even one whiskey representing Ireland’s single pot still style.
It’s a mercurial whiskey scene, but from the evidence tasted here, one that’s worth keeping up with.
HOW IT WORKS
To get a good overview of the recent changes in the Irish whiskey category, we asked producers for their most recent releases – limited to one per brand – and ended up including whiskeys that were almost all released within the last two years. A bartender panel tasted these blind, only aware of abv and price, as well as which category each whiskey fell into. They scored each whiskey, with these scores averaged out to percentage scores. All prices are RRP/70cl.
Georgia Billing, Sexy Fish; Clinton Cawood, Imbibe; Ciaran Ó Dubhthaigh, The Sun Tavern; Bobby Hiddleston, Swift; Panos Klazidis, Ukai; Jake O’Brien Murphy, Horatio Street Social Club; Rik Patel, Cornerstone
86 The Dubliner 10 year old Single Malt
BADGE: BEST SINGLE MALT
This Kentucky-bourbon-cask aged single malt was launched in 2016, making it one of the more venerable whiskeys in this flight of new releases, and not one of our panellists had a bad word to say about it. It received generous praise for its complex combination of abundant fruit, sweet butterscotch notes, and savoury spice. Tasters found dragon fruit, stone fruit, pear, banana and pineapple, as well as beeswax, honey and red pepper.
‘Mega-bright, like walking through an orchard – simply stunning,’ said one taster. ‘A good drop that has you dreaming. It makes me nostalgic, thinking of the homeland with green-coloured glasses,’ added another.
42% abv, £50/70cl, Quintessential Brands, 020 7494 3138
85 Kinahan’s Small Batch
BADGE: BEST BLEND
Even as it earned top marks from our entire panel, the unusual and interesting tasting notes came in thick and fast for Kinahan’s Small Batch – everything from pea to Mint Aero, via yuzu and brazil nuts. This complex blend was ultimately grainy and nutty on the nose, with some citrus too, leading to a light and approachable palate with some sweetness, fruit and spice. ‘An interesting interaction between the sherried notes and bright citrus fruit,’ said one impressed panellist.
One to mix with dry vermouth, suggested one, while another pronounced it ‘a great all-rounder’.
46% abv, £36.99/70cl, Magnetic Brands, 07876 834 128
85 Method and Madness Single Pot Still
Flying the flag for Ireland’s traditional single-pot-still style in this tasting, this release from Irish Distillers didn’t disappoint, with unanimous praise for its resinous, sweet and fruity nose, and rich, chewy palate. Tasters found peaches, green apple and tinned pineapple on the nose, as well as some wheat notes, followed by further complexity on the palate, with cereal, leather, toffee and spice.
‘Outstanding, with complex hits of bergamot and green coffee beans underpinned by leather and a slight nutty note,’ said one taster, while another found it ‘good value, and versatile and complex enough to work in cocktails or to sip on its own’. ‘If the Cohen brothers were Irish and made booze,’ summarised another.
46% abv, £60/70cl, Pernod Ricard, 020 8538 4484
84 Tullamore DEW XO Caribbean Rum Cask Finish
Brand new from Tullamore, this Caribbean rum cask finish ticked all the boxes for our bartender panel, even if they didn’t necessarily find any overt rum notes. They praised this whiskey’s layers of complexity, finding it both powerful and creamy, with cereal and red fruit, as well as abundant sherry characteristics, not to mention some spicy, resinous notes on the palate.
One taster suggested this would work well with nutmeg and similar spices, and would do good service in a Manhattan, while another confirmed that this ‘has good value written all over it, and would hold its own in any stirred whiskey classic’.
43% abv, £26/70cl, William Grant & Sons, 020 8332 1188
79 Glendalough 13 year old Mizunara Finish Single Malt
Another high-scoring whiskey with an interesting finish, this single malt from Glendalough has spent some time in Japanese Mizunara casks, resulting in a whiskey that impressed our panel enough to put it in the top five. They described aromas of honey melon, blackcurrant, sweet mint and corn, leading to a palate that was full, juicy and rich, and reminiscent of panettone, raisins and leather.
‘A malty, almost IPA-like, hoppy flavour,’ thought one taster, while another found it ‘a strong example that justifies the price point’. ‘It really speaks to you, so take your time and listen,’ advised another.
46% abv, £89/70cl, Lightbox Brands, 020 3239 2939
77 The Dead Rabbit
Just launching in the UK at the time of this tasting, this blended whiskey marks the fifth anniversary of The Dead Rabbit in New York, and is produced in partnership with The Dublin Liberties. It was restrained and light on the nose, with some toasted grain and a waxy, piney note leading to a palate with distinct herbal, honey and spice flavours, as well as some fruit-and-nut aspects.
‘Soft and very well made,’ summarised one taster, while another added that it would be a shame to mix, but suggested it would nevertheless work well in a highball.
44% abv, £40/70cl, Quintessential Brands, 020 7494 3138
77 Hyde No 6 President’s Reserve
This sherry-finish blended whiskey from Hyde stood apart from the other whiskeys here, and divided our panel, with what one taster praised as ‘grassy, rural vibes’ not to everyone’s tastes. But for its proponents, this was characterful and complex, with deep roasted notes joining that grassy, spicy element on the nose, along with toasted sesame and sawdust, as well as juicy fruit. The chewy, textured palate that followed was salty and nutty, with dark toffee and spice, and some distinct grain character, such as oatmeal with honey.
‘Worth the money,’ thought one panellist, who decided this was one to ‘sip on its own, or to use in a Blazer to reduce the abv, with some caramelised fruit’.
46% abv, £55/70cl, Hibernia Distillers, +353 (0)21 421 7686
76 The Dublin Liberties Copper Alley 10 year old Single Malt
The six months of finishing that Copper Alley receives in 30-year-old oloroso sherry casks, after 10 years in bourbon barrels, were immediately noticeable on the nose, with some appealing raisin and prune aromas joined by brighter eucalyptus, fennel seed and green grass, not to mention a cereal note too. This led to a chewy, waxy texture on the palate, with some rich caramel and peanut brittle, as well as warming spices to round things off. ‘The abv is important here, as it carries all of the flavours amazingly,’ added one taster.
A fascinating, complex whiskey, and a masterclass in sherry-cask ageing, although some thought it a bit on the expensive side.
46% abv, £65/70cl, Quintessential Brands, 020 7494 3138
73 Jameson Caskmates Stout Edition
As the latest in Jameson’s innovative Caskmates range, the IPA Edition, isn’t yet available in the UK, panellists tasted instead the more established Stout Edition. Finished in barrels seasoned with Irish craft beer, this had some classic Irish whiskey notes, such as honey, grain and green apple. The palate was full and rounded, yet with a juicy acidity, and an appealing bitter edge not unlike molasses, all culminating in some spice.
Considering how it’s made, you’d expect some Boilermaker recommendations, but tasters instead had a multitude of mixing suggestions, with one recommending it be used in herbal or vegetal drinks, while another imagined it pairing well with sweet vermouth or port – or even served neat with cheese.
40% abv, £22.95/70cl, Pernod Ricard, 020 8538 4484
Triple-casked in virgin, seasoned and sherry casks, this one’s all about the wood, and that was evident to our tasters, who described relatively light, grainy, nutty roasted-malt notes, with a herbal element to accompany the oak and sherry wood character, as well as a touch of tropical fruit and maple syrup. ‘Great for the price point, and one to sip on its own, or in an Old Fashioned,’ summarised one of our panellists, while another said that it was a good choice to serve alongside a beer.
40% abv, £29.99/70cl, Bacardi Brown-Forman, 01962 762 100
71 Pearse Distiller’s Choice
Pearse Lyons may have only officially launched in the latter half of 2017, but it had already been distilling elsewhere in Ireland in anticipation of the completion of its distillery. Its Distiller’s Choice is a blend of grain and malt whiskey matured in both bourbon and sherry casks for between four and nine years. Tasters found it delicate, with some grassy notes alongside sweet digestive-biscuit and baking-spice aromas leading to more biscuit and caramel popcorn on the palate, but with additional spice and perfume. ‘I don’t know if something in this price range should go down as easy as it does,’ mused one panellist.
42% abv, £35/70cl, Pearse Lyons, +353 (0) 1 802 6289
64 Roe & Co
Launched last year, Diageo’s blended Irish is exclusively aged in former bourbon casks, with the high proportion of first-fill casks no doubt contributing the noticeable spice here. Tasters found spiced pear and orange notes, as well as brighter pine and menthol aromas, leading to a rich palate of dark-toffee and vanilla, and a return of those fresh herbal notes too. Ideal as a spirit-and-mixer, perhaps with ginger ale, thought one taster, while another thought it mixable in general.
45% abv, £30/70cl, Diageo, 020 8978 6000
62 Tipperary 8 year old Single Cask Release Red Wine Finish
From its distinctive amber-red colour to its unusual flavour profile and high abv, this left not one of our tasters on the fence; they were either singing its praises, or rather unconvinced. Witch hazel, rose, lavender, spicy strawberry jam, cognac, rocky road and marshmallow were just some of the many unexpected notes identified by our panel, who went on to find a sweet-and-sour palate, with a salty nuttiness too. One taster saw this forming one half of a ‘Boilermaker after a long day’.
59.5% abv, £69.95/70cl, The Malt Whisky Company, 01738 479 929
Many thanks to the team at The Sun Tavern for hosting the tasting, and for all of their help on the day.
-Overall this tasting showcased the innovation and fast-paced change within the Irish whiskey category, but even as tasters were appreciating these, there was a sense of anticipation for what’s to come.
-Blends took all the praise from our panellists here, but it was a single malt and the tasting’s only single-pot-still whiskey that took first and third place, respectively. When these styles were good, they were very good, whereas the blends were generally consistent, affordable and approachable.
-Similarly, there was mixability suggested throughout this tasting, but these recommendations were much more practical when it came to the better-priced blends, as opposed to the more expensive single malts that most bars would seldom consider mixing.
-Given the exceptional value available at entry level here, our tasters cast a critical eye over the higher-priced examples. Most, but not all, justified their additional cost.
Georgia Billing, Sexy Fish
‘This is a category with deep history, and one that’s evolving and becoming more interesting. It’s experimental, and growing for a reason. I was particularly impressed with how expressive the blends were, and I felt I could do more with those – you could mix with them, but sip them as well.’
Clinton Cawood, Imbibe
‘Irish whiskey is clearly in a transitionary phase at the moment, but it’s a highly creative phase too, and the result was an exciting and diverse flight of whiskeys, with some incredible value to be found. Ireland’s known for its crowd-pleasing, approachable style, and more than ever there’s something here for everyone.’
Ciaran Ó Dubhthaigh, The Sun Tavern
‘Irish whiskey has come so far, but it has much further to go. The beauty is that it isn’t as tied down with regulation as some others are, so there’s more room for innovation – but more room for rubbish too. Ultimately though, it’s good whiskey for a good price, and without pretension.’
Bobby Hiddleston, Swift
‘Irish whiskey is phenomenally trendy at the moment. I’m worried it might be over-expanding, and could “do a gin”, where people get bored of it. And all of the liquid from the new distilleries is incredibly young – we’re going to have to wait a long time. Meanwhile there’s a lot of good stuff from the old distilleries, of course.’
Panos Klazidis, Ukai
‘In recent years Irish whiskey has been very innovative – it’s a category that’s becoming a lot more interesting and attractive. I found the blends and malts to both be good for mixing and serving neat. The biggest distinction between them was price.’
Jake O’Brien Murphy, Horatio Street Social Club
‘For mixing, I think Irish whiskey is as versatile, if not more, than other whiskies. A house Irish in a craft cocktail bar – that’s the prime spot. And then some of the new finishes have real cross appeal, for everyone from the neophyte to the expert.’
Rik Patel, Cornerstone
‘The recent expansion in Irish whiskey is really good for the category. The more people taste it, the more it becomes a category in and of itself, like scotch. The blends here were more appealing to me, from a bartender point of view, both in terms of price point and flavour. I was really surprised by how interesting they were. They’re great for the category, as long as the price points remain accessible.’