Sunday 6 November 2011

Connemara Bog Oak

Updated Mon, 7th November: Alex Chasko very kindly sent me some additional information which I have worked into the article below.

One year ago, Cooley's Innovation Manager, Alex Chasko, added a few chips of bog oak to a sample of whiskey and invited the Irish Whiskey Society to try it. Since then we have been on the lookout for an official Connemara "Bog Oak" release. Now it's here!

In-house cooper, John Neilly, took three standard ex-bourbon casks and fitted new ends made from bog oak (ie oak that has been buried in a bog for thousands of years). Connemara whiskey that had already been maturing for some years was refilled into these casks which were then stored on their sides to allow as much contact between the whiskey and bog oak as possible.

Some leftover pieces of bog oak in the cooper's workshop

Most (80%) of the whiskey is the same heavily-peated malt that was released a year ago as Turf Mór. Since that was 3 years old then, this component would be 4 years old now. To that, Alex added malt from casks of varying ages between 8 and 15 years old, with some 6-year old too. According to Alex, this was to "develop the flavours from the bog oak and give the liquid some balance". The whiskey spent between 10 and 12 months in the bog oak casks. On October 31st, it was bottled at cask strength (57.5%).

There are only 1,000 bottles of this Bog Oak produced. This is a much smaller run than for the Connemara "Small Batch Collection" series we have seen in recent years. (The Small Batch Sherry Finish and the extra-peaty Turf Mór ran to about 20,000 bottles each.) Instead, the Bog Oak is marked "Connoisseurs Collection" and also carries Alex's signature which is a nice, new touch. Apparently there are other projects in the works that will come in around this size too.

Let's try it... There is some peat on the nose but it's playing well with other notes of hay, and a touch of boot polish. Very inviting. The taste is pretty peppery. Although much of the whiskey is only 4 years old, I can't detect that youth in the spirit, but the peat is still quite lively. When that fades, we have a gorgeous sweet, zesty orange marmalade. The finish is dry and long without a hint of wood. That's a good trick.

Adding a few drops of water... Lots of oily precipitate! That tempers the initial heat. Now we have a very balanced whiskey. The peat is exactly where I like it: contributing to the ensemble without being obvious. There is nothing about this whiskey that I wish was different. It's a cracker!

I asked Alex what, in his opinion, was the effect of the bog oak on the whiskey:
I think that the bog oak did a few things. The most surprising thing was that it added the orange marmalade flavours that you picked up on in your review. It also brought the peat levels down a little in the nose and added a very nice long finish. So it did a few things that we didn't expect. That was kind of the fun of trying something new! 
... The bog oak changed the strong in-your-face elements of the heavy peat. I am not sure if it did this by reducing the phenol ppms or if it added other notes that resulted in a perception of less peat. The reason for the range of ages was to try and give some depth and dynamic. The bog oak was changing the Turf Mór and I wanted to help it with a small amount of older casks. So the Turf Mór was in the bog oak for almost a year and the older casks were in the bog oak for a little shorter time.
The Connemara Bog Oak has a recommended retail price of €250 and ships in a wooden case with a chunk of bog oak from the cask ends themselves (no second-fills there then).

This has been a great year for Irish whiskey. I can think of at least four bottlings that were outstanding. One was from Midleton: Power's John's Lane. The other three were from Cooley: Kilbeggan 18yo, Tyrconnell 11yo Sherry Finish, and now this Connemara Bog Oak. Well done, Cooley!