Sunday 30 January 2011

In praise of blends

I have a confession to make, one that could see me expelled from the Irish Whiskey Society. Because, you see, this week I sampled what might be regarded as the Holy Grail of Irish Whiskey: a single cask, cask strength, pure pot still whiskey from Midleton distillery. The Quintessence. It was the runaway favourite at the most recent Irish Whiskey tasting. But it did nothing for me. That admission will no doubt appall the hardcore whiskey nuts I (used to) hang with.

Last year, we were treated to a masterclass on whiskey-making at Midleton by the head distiller, Barry Crockett. We were given 12-year old samples straight from ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks, side-by-side with some of the finished products derived by vatting such casks together (ie Redbreast and Green Spot). What struck me most on that occasion was how relatively unattractive the cask samples were. The ex-bourbon sample was drinkable but unremarkable. The ex-sherry was overwhelmed by the influence of the European oak.

A proportion of sherry sharpness added to the bourbon fogginess, however, and you get that familiar Jameson family brightness, something that is more that the sum of its parts.

I had the chance to repeat the cask sampling experience last year in a warehouse in Midleton (bourbon, sherry and port this time) and was again struck by the master blender's art. Some rather strident or hazily-defined whiskeys are combined to give a product of enormous subtlety.

Single cask whiskeys can be great, don't get me wrong. Cooley, for example, seems to pull them off effortlessly. But at Midleton, my impression is that their casks are a palette from which they create wonderful spirits. I think I understand why their flagship Midleton brand is a blend and why their remaining pure pot still brands are not all-sherry as they must once have been. It's all about balance.

But the high-end market demands single casks and so Irish Distillers has released two of them recently under the Midleton brand. One exclusively for The Irish Whiskey Collection at Dublin Airport, the other exclusively for the Celtic Whiskey Shop in Dublin. I'll quote the press release:
Just 200 bottles of the Terminal 2 release were yielded from cask No 48709. This 19-year-old single pot still whiskey was laid down in November 1991 in a first-fill American bourbon barrel and has, in a new departure for the Midleton brand, been bottled at cask strength (53.7% ABV). The cask strength affords the whiskey connoisseur the rare opportunity to experience a Midleton whiskey as it emerges directly from the cask. The whiskey reveals a dark, fleshy fruit character in perfect balance with the underlying pot still spiciness. The impressive presentation box includes a portion of stave from the barrel in which the whiskey spent its life maturing. Each bottle is individually numbered and retails at €260.

The Celtic Whiskey Shop release was laid down in December 1996, also in a first-fill American bourbon barrel, and has been bottled at 46% ABV. This slightly lighter style offers green apples and banana on the palate. Just 270 individually numbered bottles have been made available, retailing at €225 each.

I've only tried the Terminal 2 release and, to be fair, it's not bad. I rated it 7/10, which means I'd be happy to drink it, but not to buy it. It's hard to describe what's not in a whiskey but there was just nothing there to hang your hat on. I hardly noticed drinking it.

Perhaps I'd like the CWS one more. I'm happier for the wizards in Midleton to practise their blending and vatting magic though. I reckon the results are far finer.