Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Redbreast Mano a Lámh

Midleton Distillery is drawing attention to sherry cask maturation with its latest release, Redbreast Mano a Lámh. There are two 'hand's in that name, one Spanish, one Irish, linked across Europe by the journey those casks take.

The oak grows in the forests of Galicia and Cantabria in the north of Spain and is crafted into casks at the Antonio Páez Lobato cooperage in the south. They then spend two years at one of several bodegas, filled with oloroso sherry, before being emptied and dispatched promptly to Midleton for immediate refilling with spirit.

Sherry butts are big and expensive, and Midleton imports only 4,000 to 5,000 of them each year (compared with 125,000 bourbon casks). But the whiskey matured in them has a huge influence on many of the brands that Midleton produces, including Jameson. Besides contributing a rich hue to the spirit, sherry casks add notes of dried fruits, cinnamon, nutmeg and berries.

I can't think of a prior all sherry-matured whiskey from the new Midleton distillery and, having sampled such spirit straight from the cask on several occasions, I can understand why. The sherry is overwhelming. Many of my whiskey-drinking colleagues love those big sherry flavours, however, and have been agitating for just such a release.

Their wish has come true with this new Redbreast. There is a limited quantity - just 2,000 bottles - and it's only available to members of the company's Stillhouse website (membership is free). I'm as curious as anyone to try it so I've already bunged in an order. At €65 a pop, I think this will sell out in no time. It's nice to have something unusual on the shelf, a talking point.

Billy Leighton, the Master Blender, says in the press release:
It was an exciting challenge as a Master Blender to work on this project; having to ensure that the right balance was achieved and the sherry contribution did not over power in the final taste.
I'd love to know what means were employed to restrain that sherry. I remember on the Mitchell & Son website, way back, they noted that their original Green Spot whiskey was a vatting of oloroso and other dark sherries with lighter finos. Wine importers like Mitchell's and Gilbey's (the original owners of the Redbreast brand) were bringing in all types of sherry by the cask and refilling with fresh spirit from the Jameson distillery.

Midleton doesn't have a range of sherry types to play with, just the oloroso, and they are all first-fill casks for this release so there are no punches pulled there either. The new Redbreast lacks an age statement so perhaps the incorporation of younger whiskey lightens the effect.

Here are Billy Leighton's tasting notes:
Very deep dried fruits, raisins and sultanas with the more earthy tones of fig, dates and prunes. The sweetness is from the fruit and balances perfectly with pot still spices such as dill and black pepper, and the contribution of the toasted Spanish oak. 
Silky smooth and deceptively sweet, full of rich, ripe, dark fruit with the leisurely emergence of the signature spices. 
The rich fruit slowly gives way to the perfection of the Spanish oak.

Monday, 19 January 2015

The Liberties 11 Year Old Single Malt

Happy birthday, Dublin Airport! 75 years seeing us off the island and back again.

Many airports are endured rather than enjoyed but I always hope for a good hour to squander airside at Dublin. It's a chance to survey the full landscape of Irish whiskey and chat with the sales staff, enthusiasts themselves and keen to offer information and opinions. (They have formed their own whiskey club, based at the airport: the Aviators Whiskey Society).

There is the prospect of uncovering a previously unknown bottle since new releases sometimes surface at The Irish Whiskey Collection weeks before they appear elsewhere. And then there are the whiskeys that are entirely exclusive to the shop (which has a branch in Cork airport too).

The latest exclusive is The Liberties Single Malt, one of several collaborations to date with the Teeling Whiskey Company. It's named for the area of Dublin that Teeling and others are rapidly transforming into a new distilling quarter.

The whiskey is aged for over 11 years in ex-bourbon casks and bottled in a limited edition of 1,000 at 46%, with no chill-filtration.

It comes in an attractive presentation box that would make for a nice gift for an overseas client or friend. Or you could delight your future self by buying it on the way out and picking it up on the way back. (That Shop & Collect service is dangerously seductive when you are kicking around the departure gates.)

At €99 it could be worth a punt. I haven't tried it, but I was a fan of an earlier TWC/IWC hookup, The Gathering.

Official tasting notes:
Fruits of the forest, raspberry, roses, tea tree 
Honey, blood oranges, peach, all spice 
Wood, burnt toast, a lingering spice

Friday, 19 December 2014

Makers & Brothers Select Reserve Glass

If you're anything like me, you'll be thinking about getting around to buying Christmas presents one of these days. If the intended recipients of those presents are anything like me, you won't need to stray much further than the Makers & Brothers pop-up shop on Dame Lane in Dublin.

I visited the shop recently and several items caught my eye that would delight the spirits drinker.

Select Reserve Whiskey Tumbler

This was the initial draw that lured me to the shop. I met Midleton's Master Blender, Billy Leighton, back in October and he told me some of the qualities in his ideal whiskey glass. He collaborated with Makers & Brothers and The Irish Handmade Glass Company to create such a glass so I was very keen to see how it turned out.

Photo: Al Higgins, courtesy of Makers & Brothers

As it happens, stock didn't arrive till a couple of days after my visit so I haven't laid hands on it myself yet. This is how Makers & Brothers describe the concept and design process:
The project began with Master Blender Billy Leighton, Billy introduced Makers & Brothers to the need for a wide base in a glass to allow for swirling and aerating the whiskey and a narrow opening to focus the aroma. The classic glass of this type is tulip shaped with a small stem, delicate and scientific in its use it almost takes the joy out of what should be a magical moment. Makers & Brothers wanted to keep the key functions but create something a little more modern and everyday. 
An everyday whiskey tumbler, sturdy with a form reminiscent of the barrels the whiskey matures in. Truncated to allow for a swirl and a focused aroma but beyond that a simple glass that elevated the drinking experience and was a pleasure to hold with a wide base and a small ridge around its middle. 
To develop the idea further Makers & Brothers called on the expertise of the master craftsmen at The Irish Handmade Glass Company, the men responsible for keeping the tradition of mouth-blown glass alive in Ireland. Like all of the products designed at Makers & Brothers, learning about the makers’ individual techniques is an integral part of the design process. Makers & Brothers worked with The Irish Handmade Glass Company to turn the prototype moulds from local oak, experiment with scale and refine the details with each new iteration. Every adjustment was the result of fascinating conversations and experiments with glass blowers and cutters down in Waterford. 
Each glass is handmade in Co Waterford, on the banks of The Three Sisters River, the home of Irish Crystal. This whiskey tumbler is the result of a strong and respectful partnership between designer, maker and blender.
There is a video of the collaboration.

Price: €40.


I understand that the Select Reserve glasses sell out quickly when they arrive in the shop but two other Irish glass makers are represented too, J. Hill's Standard and Jerpoint.

I also spied an unusually small, slender, glass water jug with a pour fine enough to deliver the tiniest splash needed to open a reluctant whiskey, and a beautifully-glazed ceramic jug that wasn't quite as petite but would look great at an Irish whiskey tasting.

You may or may not find exactly these items on your visit to the shop as they are artisan products hand-made in small quantities. You are guaranteed, however, to find yourself surrounded by the best of contemporary Irish design. The shop disappears for another year on Christmas Eve, so do drop by over the next few days. (Their website remains online all year round, of course.)

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Writers Tears & The Irishman Cask Strengths 2014

Walsh Whiskey announced this week that Duggan Lynch of Kilkenny will be building their new distillery in Royal Oak. Completion by Spring of 2016 is the plan, though the spirit should already be flowing from late 2015.

The company continues in the meantime to dip into Irish Distillers' warehouses for its Writers Tears and Irishman brands. This year, as usual, we are treated to a new Cask Strength version of each.

They come with very similar descriptions: a vatting of single pot still and single malt, all triple-distilled and aged in ex-bourbon casks. They are non-chill filtered and bottled at cask strength (53% for the Writers Tears, 54% for The Irishman).

I was unable to prise precise details on composition from the company so let's speculate a little. My understanding is that Writers Tears Cask Strengths contain more pot still than malt. This is reversed for The Irishman Cask Strength. From the number of bottles produced I'm going to guess that 9 casks were emptied for the Writers Tears (1,980 bottles), perhaps 5 pot still and 4 malt.

There are more bottles of The Irishman (2,790), which suggests 12 casks - 7 malt and 5 pot still?

Last year I tried the 2013 editions side-by-side and had a definite preference for The Irishman. This year, Writers Tears has it. It's purely a personal preference; others will disagree.

I've had a chance to get to know the Writers Tears quite well, thanks to the kindness of Walsh Whiskey. It's not the oak and vanilla hit I might expect from the bourbon casks. It's a lot more savoury, which appeals to me greatly. The nose is oily. Tarred rope with a touch of eucalyptus. The taste is quite spicy initially but levels out to digestive biscuits. The long finish is reaching for that vanilla and oak but not quite getting there, instead fading out on notes of unripe banana and raisin-like sweetness. There's something else in the mix I can't put my finger on, something vegetal.

I rate the Writers Tears Cask Strength 2014 very highly. It's been both interesting and very satisfying every time I've returned to it.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Midleton Very Rare 30th Anniversary Pearl Edition

For three decades now, Midleton Very Rare has marked the passage of time with an annual vintage release. To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the first bottling in 1984, Irish Distillers has produced a very, very rare Midleton Very Rare Pearl Edition. It's a collaboration between Master Distillers present and former, Brian Nation and Barry Crockett, the bottle carrying the signatures of both.

Back in 1984, the new Midleton distillery had been producing for just nine years, so the first Midleton VR was relatively young (the latest edition, in contrast, contains components between 15 and 22 years old). The concept for Pearl, according to Barry, was to ask how that first edition might have developed had it continued to age for 30 years.

Barry Crockett, Master Distiller Emeritus, raising a glass of Midleton Pearl

From the very limited inventory of 30-plus year old casks that Midleton retains, Barry chose a pot still cask from 1984, while Brian selected a grain cask from 1981. These were were then married in a fourth-fill bourbon cask for 6 months. ("Fourth-fill" means the fourth time the distillery has filled the cask. Midleton normally retires a cask after three fills because the wood no longer contributes to maturation. For marrying these two whiskeys, however, a negligible effect from the wood was exactly what was required.)

Evaporation loss over three decades, along with bottling at the cask strength of 53.1%, meant that there was only enough liquid to fill 117 bottles.

Brian Nation, Master Distiller

Introducing the new whiskey at the launch dinner, Barry Crockett likened Midleton Very Rare to a symphony, each vintage being a variation on a theme, with Pearl the closing movement.

Let's riff on Barry's musical metaphor for a while, and see where it takes us. Your regular Midleton Very Rare is a set of gentle variations on a theme of vanilla and toasted oak (contributed by the exclusive use of ex-bourbon casks, mostly first- and second-fill). It's technically accomplished, with all the notes in the right place, but also unassuming, not intruding on the foreground of your attention unless you invite it to. It's a Haydn symphony, such as Lyric FM might stick on outside of rush hour when listeners are less distracted.

Is Midleton Pearl another movement in the same symphony? I'm not even sure it's the same composer. Those extra years in cask have seen out the Classical era and ushered in that of the Romantics. We have added another 30 instruments to the orchestra, doubled down on the strings and filled out the bass staves with room-trembling low notes. We're enveloped in a lushly arranged melody, with emotion and memory prodded by a colourful, dynamic soundscape.

This whiskey leaps from the glass with a rich, deep embrace of the senses. The official tasting notes are below but the age tells on the nose as beeswax or, as Master Blender Billy Leighton put it to me, as polished sideboard. (In our orchestra, Billy is, perhaps, first violin - the leader - ensuring that all instruments are in tune before the music begins.)

The antique character is prominent, but don't think of the mustiness we associate with old pot still whiskeys from silent distilleries. Midleton Pearl is rich and vibrant on the nose and palate.

After a long finish, right at the end, the vanilla and toasted oak theme returns as the music fades away.

You may have guessed that I like this whiskey but you might also fairly suspect me of succumbing to the ambience of the launch event. The whiskey was served in a Waterford Crystal tumbler, after a candlelit dinner prepared by Ballymaloe chefs, in Warehouse No. 8 of the Old Midleton Distillery, in the company of the various Masters. If there is any environment that would predispose one to rave about a whiskey, this is it.

I still claim, however, that it is the finest Irish whiskey I've ever tried. I can't afford the price tag of €6,000 for a bottle but if there had been an option to trade €300 for a second glass, I'd have taken it.

If you do have the means, the 117 bottles (well, 116 now) have been allocated for sale in Ireland, the UK, France, Germany and China (I was amazed to discover that 20 bottles are destined for China).

Naturally the presentation is something rather special. The bottles are handmade by Jerpoint Glass Studio in Kilkenny (I've mentioned Jerpoint before). Each box contains a 700ml bottle and a hand-blown 50ml miniature that allows the whiskey to be tasted without cracking open the larger bottle. (I really hope, though, that Pearl finds its way to people who love whiskey and will drink it.)

The oak cases were crafted in County Wexford, from wood supplied by the Shanes Castle Estate in County Antrim.


I occasionally taste a whiskey from a long-vanished distillery. It's a bittersweet experience, knowing I can never revisit it, mixed with some guilt for assisting in its extinction. It's likely I won't renew my acquaintance with Pearl either but I'm optimistic that a whiskey just as good, or better, will eventually come my way.

There was a massive clear out of casks in Midleton in the 1980s and early 1990s to allow a fresh start under a stricter wood management policy. As a consequence there is very little in the warehouse that stretches back 30 years. But the pipeline is filling up again.

There have been a succession of whiskeys from Midleton in recent years that have excited me: Redbreast 15yo, Powers John's Lane 12yo, Yellow Spot 12yo, Redbreast 21yo. On the evidence of Pearl, Midleton distillery is just getting warmed up. Not only does its spirit continue to improve as it ages, the recent expansion means it now has the production headroom to relieve pressure on ageing stock. The handful of distillate styles that Midleton was producing in the 1980s has been augmented since then, and the extra capacity will allow a lot more experimentation in that regard.

So I'm not going to think of Midleton Pearl as the final movement of a symphony. Instead I regard it as an overture, a taster of extraordinary delights to come.

Official tasting notes
The initial fresh herbal notes of crushed garden mint and rosemary, are a testament to the quality of the ex-bourbon barrels in which this whiskey has rested for many years. Soft honey sweetness along with beeswax shows its antique character, while hints of gingerbread combine with toasted oak to compliment some pot still spices. 
The soft silky mouth coating is initially honey sweet, then the fresh herbal flavours follow through with a touch of menthol. The spicy notes concentrate, staying sweet with cinnamon and liquorice before the toasted oak adds to the complexity. 
The succulence of the herbs and spices is very slow to fade.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

The Irish Whiskey Awards 2014

The second annual Irish Whiskey Awards took place in Kilbeggan Distillery last night. I couldn't be there which was unfortunate as I thoroughly enjoyed the first one.

The awards are organised by Ally Alpine of the Celtic Whiskey Shop and judged by the members of the shop's Celtic Whiskey Club and the Irish Whiskey Society. Everything is tasted blind and I know the number of samples participants had to get through was huge so it seems comprehensive too.

The runners-up are listed on the awards website. I mention only the winners below.

Overall Best Irish Whiskey 2014
Redbreast 21 Year Old Whiskey
This doesn't surprise me at all. It's wonderful whiskey. The other whiskeys that stood out for me over the last year were Teeling's 26-year old single malt and the Celtic Whiskey Shop's Cúig.

Irish Single Pot Whiskey
Redbreast 21 Year Old Whiskey
Irish Single Malt Whiskey (12 years & younger)
Jack Ryan's 12 Year Old Whiskey
I haven't tried this one. Clearly I've been missing out. It was made by Teeling for Jack Ryan's pub in Beggars Bush.

Irish Single Malt Whiskey (13 years and older)
Teeling 21 Year Old Whiskey
I thought this category would be Teeling's this year, but for the 26-year old, rather than the 21-year old. Their 30-year old could easily have taken it too.

Irish Blended Whiskey (RRP of less than €60)
Powers 12 Year Old Whiskey
I don't know what was in the running but last year this category was won by Writers Tears, a blend of pot still and malt whiskeys (unlike most blends which include grain whiskey). I'd still be inclined to give the nod to Writers Tears but it's good to mix it up and it'll certainly encourage me to revisit Powers 12yo.

Irish Blended Whiskey (RRP of more than €60)
Jameson Gold Reserve
My favourite of the Jameson range (though I feel I've never given Rarest Vintage Reserve a fair chance; tastes of that are few and far between, however). I can't think offhand of a current blend I'd rate higher than the Gold. (That said, however, I tried a new blend last night that blows the rest out of the water, and most single malts and pot stills besides. More about that in a later article.)

Irish Single Cask Whiskey
Celtic Cask Naoi
This is not even released yet but clearly the panel members were able to try it. Lucky sods. I'll be hoping for a sip at this weekend's Whiskey Live in Dublin.

Irish Cask Strength Whiskey
Redbreast 12yo Cask Strength
I had some only last night. I rate it very highly.

Irish Single Grain Whiskey
Teeling Whiskey Single Grain
When Celtic Cask Trí came out late last year, I speculated that we might finally have enough single grains for a proper showdown. And here it is, in a new category for the awards.

There's a rumour of another limited edition single grain on the way so Greenore and Teeling might face some fresh competition next year.  

Irish Poitín
Teeling Whiskey Company Poitín

Jack "Three Gongs" Teeling

Irish Liqueur
Coole Swan
If you think you know what an Irish cream liqueur tastes like, try Coole Swan. And then tell everyone how fabulous it is. It has been around for six years now but the word has not reached most bars and shops. That needs to change.

Irish Whiskey Barrel Aged Irish Craft Beer
Franciscan Well Jameson Stout
I can't think of too many barrel-aged Irish craft beers but I do like the effect of whiskey casks on beer so I hope to see more of our many craft breweries giving it a go.

Irish Whiskey Bars of the Year
Leinster: Palace Bar, Dublin
Munster: Dick Mack's Bar, Dingle
Connaught: Garavan's Bar, Galway
Ulster: Duke of York, Belfast
International: Whisky and Alement, Melbourne, Australia
Overall: Dick Mack's, Dingle, Co. Kerry
This is becoming a very healthy category with 33 nominees from around Ireland and another 7 from the rest of the world.

Of the winners, I have first hand knowledge of just one: The Palace Bar, in Dublin. The Palace has gone further than most to showcase Irish whiskey with their Whiskey Palace lounge, and their house whiskeys, including The Palace Bar Fourth Estate Single Malt and the imminent Three Generations.

Dingle is obviously a bit of a hotspot for whiskey now, with the Dingle Distillery and now the overall Irish Whiskey Bar of the Year, Dick Mack's. I hear good things about the pub from the Irish Whiskey Society vice president, Peter White. He's a Dick Mack's regular and has encouraged and assisted their embrace of whiskey this last couple of years.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Jameson Caskmates

This is a fun one. The story begins with a pub conversation somewhere in Cork between Midleton's Master of Science, David Quinn, and Franciscan Well's founder, Shane Long. Shane asked if he might lay his hands on a few spare whiskey casks to age his beer in. He wasn't holding out much hope but it turns out that sometimes all you gotta do is ask. Franciscan Well released its first Jameson cask-aged stout in time for Christmas 2012.

When the most recent batch of twelve casks came back to Midleton, the distillery figured they might as well try their own experimental maturation. The casks had only been used once to age pot still spirit before their stout "seasoning" so there was plenty of oomph left in the wood. They refilled the casks with blended Jameson (at around the normal cask strength of 60% rather than bottling strength of 40%).

After six months, according to David Quinn, they were "shocked" by the transformation. The cask wasn't simply overlaying a beery character on the whiskey. There was something interesting going on, something they wanted to share with the rest of us. Hence Jameson Caskmates, 3,500 bottles of it, at the very generous price of €35.

If you can find it, that is. It all disappeared from the Jameson shop in Smithfield before I could get there. But there are still a few, I understand, to be distributed to various off licences. I'll be trying to bag one of those.

The marketing people took the theme of collaboration and ran with it, inviting artists in various media down to Midleton to absorb the atmosphere and spark off each other. Some of the results are viewable on YouTube: photography / illustration & stained glass / graphic art.

There was a PR launch event last Thursday in Dublin that featured the art work plus live music and a spoken word piece besides. The original collaborators, David Quinn and Shane Long were there to lead us all in raising a glass but there was a sizeable Irish Distillers contingent mingling with the crowd too. They all seem genuinely delighted with Caskmates which must bode well for more small, quick experiments and affordable releases. Midleton never chased the fashion for finished whiskeys but having pulled this one off successfully I hope they are inspired to do more.

David Quinn and Shane Long. Photo courtesy of Burrell Marketing and Publicity.

David Quinn told me they refilled those same casks with more Jameson, just to see what happens. That was only two months ago so it's too early to know how that might turn out.

The partnership with Franciscan Well continues too with a Jameson cask-matured Pale Ale. This one is intended for consumption alongside Jameson whiskey.

Tasting notes

It neither smells nor tastes like a regular Irish whiskey. It took me a few goes to get past the unfamiliar notes but I'm rather enjoying it now. The official tasting notes:
The initial aroma of freshly mown hay is complimented by a crisp orchard fruit character, green apples and pears along with a twist of lime zest. Mild pot still spices appear, deepening from green tea to hazel nut and milk chocolate. The lingering hop influence combines effortlessly with toasted oak and barley grains to form a solid base. 
As expected, there is the initial sweet mouth coating typical of the Irish pot still whiskey inclusion. Then the effect of the beer cask finish becomes apparent with the subtle touch of hops and cocoa beans. Some marzipan and charred oak add to the complexity. 
Long and sweet with milk chocolate and butterscotch.