A gang of hardened tipplers in Dublin was lucky enough recently to preview some coming attractions from The Teeling Whiskey Company. It was all in the name of market research but while they were watching us, we were watching them, and I think we started to get a feel for this brand new company's values and intentions.
It wouldn't have surprised me if this tasting had been strictly off the record. Some distillers keep their cards close to their chest and can be pretty cagey about what, precisely, is in the bottle. Jack Teeling, however, told me that nothing was off-limits. They are happy to do their thinking process in public.
Look forward, then, to a lot of direct engagement with whiskey consumers. This is a small company's strength: information is not chill-filtered by corporate HQ or watered down by the PR department. Whiskey drinking enthusiasts like to talk about whiskey with the enthusiasts who actually make it.
There is one caveat to this. TWC depends entirely, for now, on other companies for its stock, and these companies sometimes impose restrictions on what can be revealed. Quite reasonably, they like to keep control of their own marketing.
TWC's whiskey wizard is Alex Chasko, formerly Innovation Manager at Cooley. I recall a masterclass at WhiskyLive last year where Alex treated us to a couple of experimental reformulations of Kilbeggan. Well, Kilbeggan didn't change, but Alex has gotten a second bite at the cherry in his new role. In the dying moments of Cooley's independence, TWC locked down a supply contract so it could create its own blends. (Incidentally, Jack says the hasty negotiations explain the name of his company - there was no time to think of anything different!)
Kilbeggan whiskey has always been a bit of a puzzle for me. Cooley makes fine malt and grain whiskeys but I've never been a huge fan of the flagship blend when served neat (it's a great mixing whiskey though). It's the youth of the components. They are shouty and unrefined. Blended Cooleys have appeared in many tweaked guises as supermarkets and others rushed to label their own 4-year old Irish whiskeys. But there is still a great blend waiting to be conjured out of Cooley-made components (Kilbeggan 18yo qualifies but it's too expensive for everyday drinking).
This time around, Alex poured us three candidate blends. Each had a high grain/malt ratio (80/20) but the malt was 8 years old, a very good age for Cooley malt. With just the usual bourbon cask ageing, this was still recognisably in the Kilbeggan family with that young nose and overwhelming pepperiness in the taste. A beautiful citrus finish though.
This is where the innovation comes in. For the second sample, Alex married the malt and grain in a rum cask, sourced from Nicaragua, for eight months. Nobody in the room picked up on the rum influence. Instead, it supplied a nose of "candy cigarettes", brought that spiciness under control and moderated the citrus finish in a very slightly bitter marmalade direction. It was delicious. I shouldn't say more after only a single tasting, but this has the potential to be my favourite Irish blend. I hope this is the one TWC decides to bottle.
The third candidate blend seemed more like a Hail Mary pass to me. It was based on the first, solely bourbon-matured blend but with a splash of far older malt from another distillery in it. I'll say more about that other malt later. The result was, in my opinion, a fairly dead nose, a weak mouthfeel and a flavour of herbal sweets. Noticeable vanilla on the finish. It didn't have any spark for me.
By "whiskey-led" I mean not marketing-led. There is no doubt that Jack knows what the market likes and is keeping one eye on it. But the whiskey comes first.
Consider that older malt I referred to above. There was a batch of malt offered to Cooley a few years ago by, um, let's say a distillery in the north of Ireland that had no outlet for past experimental distillations. Cooley declined but Jack Teeling snapped it up.
Among this consignment, for example, were 80 casks of double-distilled malt from 1991. We tried this whiskey fresh from the cask. It was perfectly acceptable, and could have been bottled as is and marketed as a rare Irish 21yo. As a whiskey, however, it lacked something on the finish.
A great whiskey must tick every box. If the finish is too dry or a sherry flavour dominates, say, then it's not a great, balanced whiskey. Every aspect has to sing, in harmony.
And so, even though these casks could have been bottled and flogged off without further ado, Alex transferred their contents to 60 sauternes casks. Alex is just shaping the profile of the spirit here, not trying to bury it under another flavour. He avoids using the term "finishing".
It's a brave move. There were gasps in the room when people heard where this unique 21yo malt went. But it was the whiskey itself that demanded it.
A separate batch of 24- and 25-year old malt has been decanted into white burgundy casks. We tasted this (pre-burgundy) and it was even better than the 1991. But Alex sees a little more potential in it. In particular, he says, these burgundy casks should add a good mouthfeel.
There might be some single cask releases too. They have stock dating from 1983 to 2001 to choose from. But I have a feeling that Alex won't let them out the door unless they are truly good enough to stand on their own merits. Otherwise they will be blended or transformed in some way.
TWC is making a virtue out of necessity. They want to distil their own spirit and are working actively to make that happen. In the meantime, however, they need to sell whiskey.
There is a well-established practice in Scotland for independent bottlers to procure casks of whiskey from distilleries, then bottle and sell it. For various reasons that doesn't happen so much in Ireland. But it turns out that Irish distilleries have casks they don't know what to do with. That one in the North has obviously been a rich source for TWC, and Cooley had various experiments on the go before it was acquired by Beam so there is at least a chance of something from there down the road.
TWC also acquired a couple of casks of a blend of Irish and Scottish malts, orphans stranded long ago (but now bottled and ready for release). This has given them the idea of mixing Irish whiskey with the output of other nations. I'm quite sceptical about this concept, actually. Constraints stimulate creativity; this might be loosening the bounds too much. I don't think there's much market clamour for this either but I'm ready to be proved wrong.
Poitín, in the sense of unmatured whiskey, is a well-known but almost non-existent (legal) drink in Ireland. Someday, someone is going to figure out how make it and market it back to us. Cooley released one in its independent days but it was raw and hard to digest (I thought), and nobody figured out a good way to drink it.
TWC is going to take a pop at the category. It will also be made by Cooley but it will be a blend of malt and grain spirits rather than the straight pot still that Cooley tried. That's smart because it adds a lot more processing to the grain, mitigating that rawness.
We sampled it and it's certainly milder and more palatable. I still don't think I'd drink it neat but I look forward to mixing it to see what happens.
We were all a bit concerned when Beam took over Cooley that some of the colour and excitement would drain from the Irish whiskey scene in the pursuit of volume growth. Happily, much of Cooley's adventurous spirit survived, jumping ship with Jack Teeling and Alex Chasko. The Teeling Whiskey Company isn't a year old but it has firmly nailed its colours to the mast. We have much to look forward to.