John has worked with Tullamore Dew since 1974, when it was made in John's Lane distillery (ie Powers) in Dublin. Not coincidentally, I'm sure, John's tenure in the business has coincided with the great revival in Irish whiskey sales around the world.
Today, Irish whiskey is the fastest growing spirit category, yet comprises only 3% of internationally traded whiskey. Lots of room for further growth, in other words. Tullamore Dew would seem particularly well-placed for grabbing a slice of the action, having a strong brand that lags only Jameson in volume sales.
We got much insight into whiskey marketing over the night, from historic ads to the newest TV and print campaign, along with the shifting perceptions of Irishness and the mixed impact of Irish coffee (good for volume, bad for pegging Irish whiskey as an ingredient rather than a quality drink in its own right).
The whiskeys we tasted...
1. Tullamore Dew Original
A blended Tullamore Dew was first introduced in 1947, a mix of pot still, malt and grain whiskeys. Over the years, production has shifted from Tullamore to John's Lane to Midleton but the very same proportions of pot still, malt and grain are combined today to make Tullamore Dew.
John called our attention to the citrus, orange peel nose followed by a light spice. The taste calls to mind green apples. It's a fresh, well-defined whiskey up to this point. For me, the lingering finish is a little bitter - like orange pith.
2. Tullamore Dew Black 43
There was a concern in the company that established Dew drinkers would look to trade up to a slightly finer whiskey but would find the leap in price to the 12yo a hurdle. To fill this gap, Black 43 was introduced. There is still no age statement but the premium cues are the "Black" branding (also seen in the Bushmills and Johnnie Walker ranges, for example) and the higher ABV (43%).
The difference in the whiskey itself is that the pot still component of the blend has been aged a further 11 months in a sherry cask.
That slight bitterness I mentioned in the Original? Gone. The sherry ageing makes for a beautiful, slightly sweet finish. When we voted on our favourite whiskey at the end of the night, this was the runaway winner. Sad to say, in Ireland this whiskey is only available in the Tullamore Dew heritage centre (currently closed for renovations) and the airport. If you live in the strongest Tullamore Dew markets like the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Bulgaria, on the other hand, then availability is much better.
3. Tullamore Dew 10yo Reserve
There was already a 12yo in the range when this came along in 2008 so it wasn't obvious to me then why this was introduced. We learned from John that the US marketers felt a 10yo would be more familiar and acceptable to consumers there. European markets, in contrast, were happier with the 12yo. So they both remain in the portfolio.
This is a very different whiskey to the first two. It's much rounder and is heavily suggestive of vanilla butterscotch. Apparently this one is slightly favoured by female drinkers whereas men lean towards the 12yo.
4. Tullamore Dew 10yo Single Malt
This was released hot on the heels of the 10yo Reserve. The intention, it seems, was to have something to fill the "malt" category. To do that, they had to contract with a different distiller (Cooley). I find this a brand extension too far, to be honest. The heritage of the label went entirely out the window with this one.
As a whiskey drinker though, I applaud the novelty of combining normal bourbon-matured malt with sherry-, port- and madeira-finished whiskeys. The result is not to my taste but Cooley has released the various components separately and those have been very good indeed.
5. Tullamore Dew 12yo
Back to the blends here. This one was inspired by the old Jameson 1780 with its sherry cask influence. It's quite similar to the 10yo blend.
6. Tullamore Dew, 1970s/1980s
Tullamore distillery closed in the 1950s and the brand was bought by Powers. Production transferred to the John's Lane distillery in Dublin, where this particular bottle came from.
As John had told us earlier, the recipe for Tullamore Dew never changed but, over the years, the pot still spirit produced at Irish distilleries became lighter as popular tastes changed. An older whiskey like this one should therefore taste oilier and heavier. Quite a nose of brown sugar from it, I thought.
This bottle was known as the "export" version. It has a simple, strong silhouette. The white type on glass wasn't good for visibility on the bar shelf so the design was eventually retired.
Bottle shape matters more than you might think. The current squared-off design works fine in, say, the Czech Republic, but in the US does not evoke an association with whiskey. A new bottle design that bridges these local preferences is therefore on the way.
7. Tullamore Dew, late 1960s
One more from John's Lane.