Saturday 2 June 2012

Bourbon comes to Ireland

When Beam took over Cooley I envisaged Irish whiskeys getting better distribution in the US. I didn't anticipate seeing more American whiskey in Ireland. But at Whisky Live in Dublin, bottles of Jim Beam, Makers Mark and other Beam brands stood shoulder-to-shoulder with their Cooley counterparts. Most are not available here but they are working on it.

This is all quite interesting for drinkers in Ireland. Bourbon is very different to Irish whiskey and I'll admit I haven't entirely developed a taste for it yet (though I'll persist until I do). The industry here uses mostly ex-bourbon casks to mature its own spirit so an appreciation of what was in the cask before it landed in Ireland surely helps to understand our own whiskey.

Devil's Cut

Jim Beam's Devil's Cut caught my eye when launched a few months back. It's normal 6-year old bourbon but they have sweated a couple of extra (US) gallons from the wood of the empty cask and blended it back in. Nobody has done this before commercially and I wonder what impact it would have in Ireland if the practice takes off. Would these sweated casks change the flavour of our whiskey, or would we have to pay more for unsweated casks?

I was honoured to have Fred Noe III himself, great-grandson of Jim Beam and seventh generation distiller, pour me a sample of the Devil's Cut. I don't have a lot to compare it to but it's said to be woodier and more intense than your regular bourbon. According to Fred, he learned the trick of sweating a spent barrel from an old-timer when he was 13 years old. He recalled this unofficial technique many years later at a Beam "ideation meeting" and Devil's Cut was born.

It's sounds pretty simple. Add 15 gallons of water to an empty 53-gallon cask. Shake for 30 minutes then use that water to dilute the regular bourbon to bottling strength.


I sat in on a Beam masterclass where the Irish, Scotch and American factions slugged it out, two whiskeys apiece. Fred Noe introduced the bourbons, John Cashman the Irish and Simon Brooking the Scotch (Laphroaig and Ardmore).

Devil's Cut turned up again while the other bourbon was Booker's "Small Batch". This was introduced in 1987 by Fred's father, Booker. It was a personal creation that Fred continues to this day. Each batch is different, it has a precise age statement between 6 and 8 years old (this one was 7 years and 1 month) and is bottled at cask strength ("uncut", here 65%). It's meant to recreate the whiskey made in Jim Beam's time.

The maturation of bourbon has an interesting quirk that you don't get in Ireland. They have 9-storey warehouses in Kentucky. Casks go in filled at a strength of 62.5%. If they are placed at the top of the warehouse, the strength will rise to 70%. If they are stored at the bottom, the strength will drop to 55%. This is due to the temperature variation.

A typical bourbon will be vatted from a vertical cross-section of the warehouse. In other words, they average out all the variation by taking casks from every storey. For Booker's bourbon, all the casks come from the centre of the warehouse, ie a horizontal cross-section.

It has, for me, very bold flavours of tobacco and concentrated prune juice. I enjoyed drinking it. It's early days on my exploration of bourbon but so far this one is setting the bar.

Coincidentally, Cooley had a "Small Batch" series too, which ran to 20,000 bottles with each release. In the case of Booker's, "Small Batch" means about 10,000 casks per year.

Fred Noe, with his earthy, Southern delivery and family anecdotes conjures up a vivid impression of Kentucky bourbon culture. Through Cooley we now have a window into that culture and, I hope, many more opportunities to sample the good stuff.