Monday, 7 September 2015

Writers Tears, Copper Pots

When the Irish Whiskey Technical File was published, I noted that Writers Tears had been somewhat shortchanged by its relegation to the blended whiskey category.

Typically, a blended whiskey is lighter, cheaper whiskey made in a column still, amped up with a dollop of either pot still or malt whiskey (both made, confusingly, in a pot still) for flavour.

Writers Tears is a blend of just pot still and malt, with no column still contribution, and it's one of the best Irish whiskeys under €50.

Until now, Writers Tears has been able to declare itself a "Pot Still Blend" or even, simply, a "Pot Still Irish Whiskey" on its packaging. "Pot Still Whiskey" has an older meaning, however, one now resurrected and given legal force by the Technical File. Writers Tears, though made in pot stills, is not a pot still whiskey. It contains pot still whiskey, but in a blend with malt whiskey.

While the File was still being drawn up by the Irish Whiskey Association, I asked the company founder, Bernard Walsh, if there would be a special category for Writers Tears (along with his similarly formulated Irishman whiskeys). Apparently, though, it was never raised as a subject for consideration, there being too many other matters to tease out.

Instead, Walsh Whiskey is going with the simpler expedient of replacing the words "Pot Still" with "Copper Pot" on the label. It's a reminder that Writers Tears is made the old fashioned way and it comes, appropriately, just as the new Walsh Distillery in Carlow takes delivery of its copper pot stills from Forsyths in Scotland.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Dan Kelly's Whiskey Cask-Aged Cider

Previously on Liquid Irish...

If you recall, I ended a post a couple of months back on quite the cliffhanger. Oak casks had been used to ferment cider, emptied, then filled with Irish whiskey for a few months. The whiskey subsequently appeared on the shelves as a Cider Cask Finish. But what happened to the cider??

Cut to the present day...

Enter Dan Kelly's "Full Steam" Cider at last weekend's Irish Craft Beer Festival in Dublin. The blackboard in the photo below tells the story of the apples, the cider, the whiskey and the casks a lot more succinctly than I'm about to. (Click on photos to enlarge.)

In June I joined a tour of the 200-acre Boyne Grove Fruit Farm in Drogheda, the home of Dan Kelly's Cider. Dan Kelly's is the brand but it's a McNeese family business and it was Olan McNeese who steered us through the apple stores, the cider production process, and then out amongst the trees.

One of the 14,307 apple trees, with beehive
Nature has been thoroughly co-opted for this project. Honeybees and bumblebees live in the orchards and take care of pollination. Beneficial predators control insects so successfully that no insecticide has been needed this year or last.

Bramley apples
Best of all, the cider is fermented by wild yeast. The usual way to make cider is to add sulphites that kill off the natural yeast in the juice before adding a cultured yeast to begin fermentation. The advantage is a more predictable result. The disadvantages are the unpleasant flavour contribution of sulphites and their allergenic effect on some people.

Allowing wild yeast to do the job, as Olan does, is doing things the hard way. A measure of consistency is relinquished but the resulting ciders are more interesting.

Back to those casks...

The whiskey company had requested a very tart cider to season their casks. Olan supplied a juice mix of Bramley and Grenadier apples, both cooking varieties. That's fine for a cask-seasoning experiment but it's a tricky starting point for drinkable cider since what you get is lacking in body, high in acidity, and low in alcohol.

Olan took it back anyway, storing it in a large, stainless steel vat where it was undergoing a secondary ("malolactic") fermentation at the time of my visit.

Olan McNeese with the cider vats
The oak casks continued to reside at the distillery warehouse in Clonmel for a few more months, transferring their new, cidery imprint to a standard whiskey blend.

Their whiskey job done, Olan brought two of the disgorged casks up to Drogheda at the end of April.

The whiskey casks at Boyne Grove
Into these casks he filled a mix of ciders. The greater portion of it was the Bramley/Grenadier cider that had returned earlier from the distillery warehouse. To that he added a Dabinett/Bramley cider (the backbone of Dan Kelly's) and a pure Dabinett cider.

Four months later, Olan tapped some of it for the Irish Craft Beer Festival, presenting it just as it came from the cask. In other words, not "back sweetened" with fresh apple juice, or carbonated as many ciders would be. It clocked in at 7.5% ABV.

According to Olan it divided opinion among the tasting public, with some loving it, others finding it too unfamiliar. Apparently the Spanish favour just such a cloudy, uncarbonated, slightly-acetic style.

I became accustomed to the slightly dry catch in the throat and enjoyed two full glasses of the stuff, one unchilled on the first day, another chilled on the last. It would be interesting to revisit it alongside food.

There are no plans at the moment to bottle Full Steam, but now that cider drinkers have had a chance to sample it and venture an opinion, who knows? At least one off license has already offered to stock it.

For Olan, this has been a chance to experiment with cask ageing and, with the knowledge gained, crack on with the next trial of oak maturation.

While we're waiting for that (and apple-picking season is upon us so I'm sure they'll be busy on the farm for a while), we can be getting on with the regular Dan Kelly's cider, an outstanding example of its kind.

Dan Kelly's cider. Standard on the right, the now rare but extra-delicious "Fiona's Fancy" on the left.

Monday, 17 August 2015

Tullamore Dew Trilogy 15-Year Old

The latest Tullamore Dew is a lethal combination of gorgeous and affordable. A bottle was kindly sent to me four days ago and I haven't been able to stay out of it since. Lest I run out during the rigorous "sampling" phase I've already been to the Celtic Whiskey Shop to purchase another and I'm assailed by regret that I didn't just hoover up whatever they had in the stockroom.

From time-to-time I'm reminded how good Irish blended whiskey can be, and it's often Tullamore Dew doing the reminding. They have made the "triple blend" their own, meaning a combination of grain, malt and pot still whiskeys. Most other blends make do with just two of these.

This new whiskey begins with the standard 12-year old Tullamore Dew triple blend aged for a further 3 years in ex-bourbon casks. It's then finished for 3 months in Trinidadian rum casks.

There are, you can see, a lot of threes in this story (the various components are triple-distilled too). Since regular Tullamore Dew is matured in ex-sherry and ex-bourbon casks, the addition of rum here makes the new whiskey a "triple-wood". Hence the name, "Trilogy".

Official tasting notes:
Rich spice and nutty oakiness interlaced with a hint of tropical fruit  
Creamy and full bodied 
A rich and complex full-bodied taste with fruit, nuts and spice and a lingering creamy fudge flavour 
Long, intensely rich and satisfying 
The standout attributes for me are the creamy mouthfeel and whoosh of spice on the finish (traits commonly associated with pot still whiskey). But it's immensely satisfying and balanced all the way from the lively nose to the long, lingering echoes of flavour. The bottling strength of 40% carries all the oomph you could want.

9,000 bottles will be available in selected stores and travel retail in the US, Ireland, Denmark, France, Germany, South Africa, Russia, and the UK. 240 have been allocated to Ireland where you can find it in the Celtic Whiskey Shop, Dublin Airport and the Tullamore Dew Visitor Centre. RRP is €65.

Like the Cider Cask before it, Trilogy is a product of the modestly described "small warehouse" in Clonmel where John Quinn, Brian Kinsman, et al, must be having the greatest time imagining and testing combinations of spirit and wood. Here's an action photo from the warehouse, tweeted by John Quinn himself, no doubt working on the next limited release to delight us.

Friday, 10 July 2015

Kalak Vodka

Vodka Martini
One part vermouth
Seven parts Kalak vodka
A strip of lemon peel
A stick of cinnamon
A week ago I had yet to taste my first martini. Now I'm ready to elbow James Bond aside at the bar to demand it be made just so.

Until recently I had the usual whiskey drinker's prejudice about vodka: that all the flavour had been intentionally distilled out of it. But the recipe above goes light on the vermouth, leaving Kalak to carry the martini. Which it does, easily. Kalak is a vodka with substance.

The big vodka brands (Grey Goose and Absolut, for example) are typically made from wheat. A couple of weeks ago I was standing in fields of winter wheat just north of Dublin wondering why an Irish vodka would use anything else.

According to Kalak's founder, Patrick Shelley, it's all about the character of the finished product. Malted barley delivers that in spades, wheat doesn't. Kalak is made solely from malted barley and water, and is distilled in pot stills. The same jumping off point as single malt whiskey, as it happens.

The kinship with whiskey is apparent on the nose and on the tongue. If you have tried new make whiskey, straight from the still, you will recognise Kalak.

It does not have the rawness of new make whiskey, however, having been distilled to a purity of 96%. It takes three passes through a pot still to reach that point. A further distillation reduces congeners and improves the flavour. Finally, it is filtered through charcoal and cut with spring water to a bottling strength of 40%.

The process is simple to describe but it has taken Patrick 2½ years to get to the point of launching Kalak. Two years alone was spent perfecting the spirit.

The resulting mouthfeel is remarkable. So soft it's ethereal. Pure flavour wafting over the tastebuds.

Official tasting notes:
Freshly baked brioche, vanilla and fresh fruit. 
A deliciously elegant texture with hints of dark chocolate, cream and candied fruit. 
A soft and glowing lingering complexity.

Kalak is 100% Irish in every respect. It's an Irish brand, made by the fully Irish-owned West Cork Distillers, from 100% Irish malted barley. The name, too, is Irish in disguise, derived from a mythological figure, An Cailleach, whose legendary qualities and accoutrements suffuse the branding.

It goes for about €44 and is so far available in James Fox and the Celtic Whiskey Shop (Dublin city centre), Redmonds (Ranelagh), Jus de Vine (Portmarnock) and Eldon's (Clonmel).

By the glass

It's also pouring in at least one of Dublin's top cocktail bars, Upstairs @ Kinara Kitchen. That's where I encountered the Kalak martini, devised by Kinara's Paul Lambert.

Paul is some kind of hypnotist, apparently, because he turned me into a cocktail drinker. After kicking off the evening with the martini, I had two more insanely tasty concoctions that did not frighten the palate of this die-hard whiskey drinker. I'd gladly have any one of them again, something I have never before said of a cocktail.

I always wondered what 007 was thinking, alternating whiskey and martinis. But he knew what he was doing. Now, where can a guy find a game of Chemin de Fer in this town?

Monday, 29 June 2015

Tullamore Dew Cider Cask Finish

"More apples, dammit!" 
The Director of Product Strategy paused to chomp deeply on a Cox's Orange Pippin. 
"We've made whiskey that smells of apple. We've served it up with apple juice. We're really close on this, people. We just need a touch more apple."

That is how I imagine the challenge was laid out for the boffins at Tullamore Dew HQ last summer. The solution they came up with: the cider finish.

About 100 casks were assembled near the end of October in a warehouse in Clonmel. They were filled with freshly pressed Irish apple juice which was allowed to ferment naturally. The resulting cider was decanted in mid-January and replaced with already-blended Tullamore Dew Original whiskey. After a further three months finishing, here it is: Tullamore Dew Cider Cask.

It's available exclusively in global travel retail (it's already at Dublin Airport) and at the Tullamore Dew Visitor Centre in Tullamore. It comes in one-litre bottles for a recommended retail price of €54 (€35 duty free).

Sour apples (or cooking apples, as we know them around here) were selected for the cider, to play well against the whiskey. How did it work out? The official tasting notes emphasise the apple:
Fresh, leafy, crisp green apple scent and sweet maltiness. 
Distinctive – soft and mellow, with a lovely balance of oak, creamy malt and sweet, fresh apple notes. Light-bodied, with a fruity vibrancy. 
A sweet, lingering taste carrying subtle fruity notes.
But apple is not the most prominent aspect for me. Putting it alongside Tullamore Dew Original (they are both 40% so the only difference is the extra few months in cider cask), the nose for me is a lot more honeyed, the mouthfeel more buttery and the finish warmer and biscuity. The Original still pokes through so if you like that you should enjoy the Cider Cask too.

I'd like to taste the cider effect on more rounded starting point, like Tullamore Dew 12yo. The Original is young and shouty enough that it doesn't lie down easily. The tart cider has proved surprisingly self-effacing.

The cider, by the way, hasn't been wasted. It's currently enjoying a secondary ("malolactic") fermentation in a huge vat at a cider maker I can't name. I sampled a little. It's still quite acidic but it'll probably appear as a component in some future bottled cider.

If the Cider Cask finish proves popular, this will be an annual release. I certainly hope the experimentation continues, perhaps with other varieties of apple, different whiskeys, or further ageing. More apples!

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

An Púcán / Teeling Single Cask Single Malt

The revival of Irish whiskey is usually quantified as the number of working and planned distilleries. One indicator I'd like to hear is the number of whiskey bars in Ireland, where a "whiskey bar" would have a minimum of, say, 100 whiskeys on the shelf. (And, of course, bar staff who can explain the virtues of each.)

The supply of whiskey is assured into the distant future but we have hardly begun to stimulate a matching demand. As the fresh spirit is laid down, we need to be forging new whiskey drinkers ready to soak it up.

The small craft producers will need a local fan base to support their work in the early days and to act as unpaid evangelists at home, abroad and on social media. The responsibility for recruiting this volunteer army rests with the bars of Ireland.

Some have already embraced the task. An Púcán, in the centre of Galway city, for example.

Photo courtesy of An Púcán
I haven't been in Galway since the bar was relaunched in June last year but, as I understand it, this is the standard welcome for first-time visitors...

Eoin. Photo courtesy of An Púcán
The bar stocks over 200 whiskeys. The emphasis is on Irish but Scotland, America, Japan and others are accorded generous shelf space too. During the Rugby Six Nations, the pub brought in whiskeys from each country and held tasting battles. Customers can enjoy food matched with whiskey or attend whiskey-related events such as a recent talk on The History of Distilling in Galway.

An Púcán has considerable whiskey cred, obviously. But they recently kicked it up one more notch with their very own whiskey. It's a single cask, single malt produced especially for the pub by the Teeling Whiskey Company.

Photo courtesy of An Púcán
It was distilled in 2002, spending most of its life in a bourbon cask before being transferred to a Carcavelos white port pipe for 12 months. To my knowledge it's the only Irish whiskey ever finished thus. It was bottled in March (making it 13 years old) at cask strength (56%) in a very limited edition of 140 bottles. It sells for €125, or €12.50 per measure at the bar.

The tasting notes on the bottle are:
White chocolate with citrus zest and a subtle fruit sweetness. 
Exceptional mouth feel - rich, warm and inviting. Lemon meringue, subtle soft spice with vanilla and toffee notes. 
Warm and satisfyingly long with gentle toasted oak and spice.
Cyril Briscoe, of An Púcán, very generously gave me a bottle to try. I liked it with a little water, which brought apples and strawberry jam out on the nose and enhanced that lingering gentle toasted oak.

It's a Teeling-labeled bottle with An Púcán branding. The small print additionally dubs the whiskey Revival. Teeling have literally revived distilling in Dublin but the tag can apply equally well to the renewed appreciation for whiskey shown by pubs like An Púcán and then instilled in the rest of us.

The back bar at An Púcán. Photo courtesy of An Púcán. 

One of many whiskey cabinets. Photo courtesy of An Púcán.

The coin wall. Photo courtesy of An Púcán.

The stairway to heaven. Photo courtesy of An Púcán.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Green Spot Château Léoville Barton

If we were taking bets on the next "Spot" whiskey to follow Green Spot and Yellow Spot, the smart money would have favoured Red, with Blue attracting few takers at very long odds. I wish I had been running that book because Irish Distillers surprised all of us yesterday with a wine-finished Green Spot instead.

A few years ago the official line from Midleton distillery would have been "we don't do finishes". Last year, though, we had the beer-finished Jameson Caskmates, which was more of a happy accident than something planned. More recently we had the Midleton Dair Ghaelach, pot still whiskey transferred to Irish oak casks for the final 10 months of maturation. Again, that might be ascribed to special circumstances: the need to experiment with the new type of wood, the heavy effect of virgin oak, etc.

The new Green Spot Château Léoville Barton puts finishes firmly on the menu once and for all. It's regular Green Spot that has been vatted together from ex-oloroso sherry and ex-bourbon casks, then transferred to red wine barriques from a Bordeaux winery. After 12 to 24 months resting in these casks, Midleton's master blender, Billy Leighton, constructs the final bottling.

The new whiskey was launched at an event in Bordeaux layered with significance. The Spot range of pot still whiskeys was created by one of Dublin's traditional wine importers and whiskey bonders, Mitchell & Son, founded in 1805. It's still a family-run enterprise, with Robert and Jonathan Mitchell making the trip to Château Léoville Barton yesterday. The winery is also a family affair, overseen by Anthony and Lilian Barton, direct descendants of Irishman, Thomas Barton, who founded a wine merchant company there in 1725.

The new whiskey recalls and updates the historic links between Ireland and France, and between whiskey and wine production in the two countries.

The new Green Spot is bottled at a higher strength (46%) than the classic version (40%). It'll be available from this month in five markets ("including Ireland, the UK and France" - I don't know why they don't just list all five in the press release). RRP is €65. Depending on sales and the reaction from the whiskey community, it might become a permanent part of the single pot still range.

I'm very much looking forward to trying it. Here's what to expect, according to Kevin O’Gorman, Master of Maturation at the Midleton Distillery:
Maturing Green Spot in the Château Léoville Barton wine casks provided a fascinating assortment of floral and wood characteristics on the nose and palate, which give way to a long, spicy finish reminiscent of the terroir in France and Ireland.
The official tasting notes come from Master Blender, Billy Leighton:
It is the contribution of the French oak which drives the initial aroma adding some crisp woodland notes to the spicy Single Pot Still character. The wine seasoning brings a delicate touch of floral perfume and a hint of ripe berries such as raspberries and strawberries, these are in addition to the orchard fruits typical of Green Spot. 
The familiar mouth coating effect is a very satisfying balance of oak and spices. Some vanilla sweetness works in harmony with the dry wine influence, while the fresh orchard fruits and French oak combine effortlessly with barley grains to complete the complexity. 
The rich French oak character is slow to fade leaving the wine and spices of France and Ireland with the last word.

Now, here's a fun serving suggestion. If you are passing through Terminal 1 at Dublin Airport, after you pick up your Green Spot at the Irish Whiskey Collection, check out the adjacent retail area, known as The Wine Goose Chase. This is a unique collection of wines with Irish connections curated by wine expert, Susan Boyle. (If the Irish wine story fascinates you, go see Susan's touring theatrical show on this very subject!)

On the shelves there you will find Château Léoville Barton's eponymous wine, along with La Reserve de Léoville Barton. It would be a fascinating experiment to try original Green Spot, the wine, and the wine-finished Green Spot side-by-side.

The Wine Goose Chase at Dublin Airport