Sunday 27 November 2011

A century of Irish whiskey

Most of the whiskey I tasted at Thursday's whiskey society meetup was distilled before I was born. It's never happened before and, since I'm still piling on the years myself, it's very unlikely to happen again in the future. So it was one to savour.

For the last formal tasting of the year we traditionally hand two fistfuls of cash to the president and challenge him to present us with six bottles that will blow us away.

Our current president, Leo Phelan, is a noted collector of both Irish whiskey and of historical information regarding Irish whiskey. So we ended up with an expertly curated guide to a century of Irish pot still whiskey. In a year when the Irish pot still style relaunched with a bang, it was very apt.

Jameson, but not John Jameson!
Another well-known bottle collector and expert, Irish Whiskey Chaser, was also at the tasting and has described it in wonderful detail so I'll confine myself to some short comments:
  1. Midleton Single Cask Pot Still. This was an amazing coup for the Celtic Whiskey Shop back in 2009. Serious whiskey drinkers at the time were gazing forlornly through the gates of Midleton distillery, imagining the wonderful pot still whiskey being made within, but seeing it come out mainly in the form of mass market blends. What were the chances that the mighty multinational, Pernod Ricard, would throw a bone in our direction? Slim, we thought, until this particular chink of light. That trickle of spirit has now became a flood, with the relaunch of the Single Pot Still style, including several entirely new mainstream bottlings.

    There is nothing wrong with this single cask whiskey but, in my opinion, Midleton only reaches the most lofty heights when it adds the blending dimension. A little bit of sherry makes a huge difference. [7/10]
  2. Jameson 15yo. Given what I just said, I should like this one, a blend of bourbon and sherry pot still from 1999. This was my least favourite of the night, however. I occasionally find a softness in a whiskey that has as much appeal for me as a warm, flat Coke. It's clearly just me though, because this was the room's overall favourite. Leo commented  that this bridged the old and new pot still styles. I can definitely see what he was getting at here. Give me the old one or the new one though. [5.5/10]
  3. Dungourney 1964. Now we were into the realm of the closed distilleries. This was from the old Midleton distillery. 30 years in wood (though you would never know from the taste) and an unknown mix of casks. Whiskey of the Night for me. [8/10]
  4. Old Irish Gold. Distilled no later than 1957, this one is quite mysterious because it's not known from which distillery it hails. The casks made a very roundabout journey from Ireland, via Scotland, to Germany where the whiskey was bottled. Interesting, and different. A strong effect of pineapple yoghurt on the nose and brown sugar in the taste. Actually quite pleasing to me. [6.5/10]
  5. Old Comber 30yo. Like the Dungourney, this had lots of time in wood. It was apparent on the finish but I initially took it as a light sherry so it's not excessive. We were back to 1953 at this point. [7/10]
  6. William Jameson "Irish American". This was a Frankenstein's monster of a whiskey, and one which I had never heard of. I take the "official" bottle photos for the society's event pages but I was not allowed to even glimpse this one in advance, to preserve as much mystery as possible. The Irish part of this was distilled in 1914! It was shipped to the US and, in 1934 or thereabouts, blended with American "straight whiskey". We had an all-rye tasting earlier in the year and we were getting distinct echoes of that here. This blend wasn't bad, and it was more palatable than the full-on rye. A long-forgotten marriage of styles, but perhaps worth a little amateur experimentation at home with modern equivalents. [6.5/10]
  7. Locke's Single Pot Still spirit, 3 months old. Cooley's Innovation Manager, Alex Chasko, brought along a bottle of this stuff, which I have tried straight from the still on another occasion. It's made to the old Locke's recipe which includes 5% oats alongside the malted and unmalted barley. The rawness of the new make is moderating nicely, and it has even picked up a decent colour at this early stage.
And so, having looked back over the last hundred years of the Irish pot still style, we swivelled our gaze forward again, towards the future of the style in the 21st century.