Sunday 23 October 2016

Irish Whiskey Awards 2016

Chez Tullamore

The awards ceremony this year was hosted by Tullamore Dew in their Old Bonded Warehouse in Tullamore town. There was an optional tour of the nearby distillery beforehand, which I couldn't pass up. It still looks as pristine as it did the day it opened two years ago, despite operating around the clock pumping out malt and pot still spirits.

What's new is all the pile-driving work going on, preparing the boggy land for a bottling plant and grain distillery, which should come on line in the second half of 2017.

Tullamore were also generous with the whiskey. We dipped into John Quinn's special cask at the distillery, and later we had our pick of the full Tullamore Dew portfolio at the Old Bonded Warehouse, including the most recent 14yo and 18yo single malts. That was my first encounter with the 18yo, but it didn't unseat the 15yo Trilogy as my favourite Dew.


Ally Alpine, owner of the Celtic Whiskey Shop and organiser of the awards, kicked off proceedings. The awards are a massive logistical undertaking every year and huge thanks are owed to Ally and the staff at the Celtic Whiskey Shop who pull it all together. It's aim is purely to celebrate the best of Irish spirits. Producers are not charged an entrance fee, all spirits are judged blind, and all proceeds from the awards night go to a charity, Mary's Meals.

Now that the Irish Whiskey Awards have become an established annual event on the calendar, Ally hinted strongly that he would be happy if the industry representative body, the Irish Whiskey Association, stepped in to help next year, or even took over the running entirely.


Brian Nation, master distiller at Midleton, summed up the exuberant mood of an industry that has known only double-digit growth for the last 20 years. In 2015, Ireland exported 7.7m cases of whiskey, up 1m cases on the year before.

The key to continued growth, he says, is innovation. By way of example, he mentioned Midleton's Wexford Rye Project. This was inspired by old production notebooks from John Jameson II unearthed by archivist Carol Quinn. Noting mashbill recipes specifying rye, they contracted with farmers in the Enniscorthy area to grow 140 acres of rye, to be harvested in the summer of 2017. Enniscorthy has suitable soil but it also has an historical link with the Jameson family as the site of Andrew Jameson's Fairfield distillery.

I'd like to digress briefly on mashbills, if I may. One of my fellow guests at the awards, Patrick Ridgely, brought along a bottle of The Emerald 1865, an American whiskey based on an Irish mashbill from 1865. American craft distillers are a highly creative lot and not as fettered by rules and taxes as we are. It is a given that innovation in distilling will happen; it's up to us whether it happens in Ireland or not.

The Irish Whiskey Technical File didn't serve us well in this regard, putting the kibosh on experimentation with Pot Still mashbills. No more than 5% of a mashbill can be grain other than barley or malted barley if you want to call the result Irish Single Pot Still Whiskey.

Plain "Irish Whiskey", however, has a much more accommodating legal definition, and doesn't specify grain types at all. So innovation in this regard can still happen. Midleton is obviously going to have fun with its new micro-distillery. But I'm tipping Connacht Distillery as the one to watch, with its experienced American distiller, Robert Cassell, planning regular new mashbills.

But back to Brian's address... He mentioned the Irish Whiskey Association's formal mentoring programme which launched only this week. New entrants to the business will receive guidance on production, licensing requirements, branding, route to market, and so on from the incumbents. It's immensely valuable for the new guys, though there is also value for the likes of Midleton and Bushmills too in ensuring that high standards are maintained across the industry.

Brian acknowledged the many others involved in spreading the good word about Irish whiskey (including whiskey bloggers!). He called out the Galway Whiskey Trail, in particular, which is a template that should be followed by cities around Ireland. (Watch out for the launch of Kilkenny's own trail soon!)

Oliver Hughes

The late Oliver Hughes, founder of Dingle Distillery among many other achievements, was remembered in Ally Alpine's introduction and in Brian Nation's keynote speech. The spirit from Dingle has just turned 3 years old and can therefore now be released as Irish whiskey. The awards ceremony proper was preceded by a toast to Oliver, with a glass of that Dingle Whiskey in every hand. He is remembered as a pioneer and inspiration by everyone who makes or consumes good beer and spirits in Ireland.

The Results

First, the whiskey (and cask-aged beer) results. These were judged by members of the Irish Whiskey Society and Celtic Whiskey Club over two days. I managed just one day myself, 42 samples. Same as the number of kilometres in a marathon and just as much of an endurance test, though I confess to finishing any sample I considered exceptional. Since it was judged blind, I don't know what they were (I think that info will be made available).

Irish Whiskey of the Year 2016

Knappogue Castle 14 Year Old Twin Wood

Irish Single Pot Still

This was Redbreast 21yo's to lose, having won the category and the overall Whiskey of the Year title the last two years running. It ceded the top spot to its younger sibling this year, however. I heard a whisper that the latest batch of Redbreast 12yo Cask Strength will be poured at next week's Irish Whiskey Society tasting, so I'm looking forward to revisiting it then.

Overall winner
Redbreast 12 Year Old Cask Strength

Gold medals
Redbreast 21 Year Old
Midleton Barry Crockett Legacy
Redbreast Lustau Edition

Irish Single Malt (12 years and younger)                          

Overall winner

Dunvilles PX Single Malt

Gold medals

The Famous Galway Bay Irish Whiskey
Teeling Single Malt

Irish Single Malt (13 years and older)

Overall winner

Knappogue Castle 14 Year Old Twin Wood

Gold medals

Knappogue Castle 16 Year Old Single Malt
Glendalough 13 Year old Single malt

Irish Blended Whiskey (RRP of less than €60)

Overall winner

Teeling Small Batch

Gold medals

Jameson Black Barrel
Jameson Crested

Irish Blended Whiskey (RRP of €60 or more)

I think Midleton Very Rare gets overlooked because its price of €150 makes it hard to keep up with the yearly releases. But this is a reminder that it's a whiskey to be drunk, not just collected.

Jameson The Cooper's Croze is notable by its absence. That has seemed like the crowd favourite up to now, but here's The Distiller's Safe and The Blender's Dog edging it out of the medals.

Overall winner
Midleton Very Rare 2016

Gold medals

Jameson The Distiller's Safe
Jameson The Blender's Dog

Irish Single Cask Whiskey

If you really needed one more reason to join the Irish Whiskey Society, how about access to exclusive bottlings like this year's Single Cask winner? The Marrowbone Lane is an 11yo single pot still from Midleton.

Overall winner
Marrowbone Lane Irish Whiskey Society Bottling

Gold medals

Powers Single Pot Still Celtic Whiskey Shop Single Cask
The Irishman 17 Year Old Single Cask

Irish Cask Strength Whiskey

The lesson here is that we have to keep our eyes on the new brands lest we miss out on some good whiskeys. St Patrick's Whiskey has certainly been flying under my radar and I've yet to even see a bottle of Spade and Bushel.

Overall winner

St Patrick's Cask Strength Irish Whiskey

Gold medals

Spade and Bushel 10 Year Old Single Malt
Dingle Distillery Cask Strength Whiskey

Irish Single Grain Whiskey

A pretty clean sweep for the core Teeling range, with the Single Grain, Single Malt and Small Batch Blend all dominating or placing in their categories. Deservedly so, too.

Overall winner

Teeling Single Grain

Gold medals

Kilbeggan 8 Year Old
Hyde 6 Year Old Single Grain Bourbon Cask

Irish Whiskey Barrel Aged Irish Craft Beer

Overall winner

Five Lamps Whiskey Barrel Aged Honor Bright

Gold medals

O'Hara's Barrel Aged Leann Folláin
Five Lamps Whiskey Barrel Aged Dark IPA

The white spirits and liqueurs were judged by a panel of 20 bartenders, who might be expected to have more familiarity with white spirits than whiskey drinkers.

Irish Poitín

There's always an excited murmur at the Irish Whiskey Awards when a previously unheard of product wins an award. "Ooh, what was that again?"

Bán Barrelled and Buried is new from Bán and Echlinville Distillery. It's the regular Bán casked and buried under the warehouse floor for nine and a half weeks, replicating the concealment of illicit spirit back in the day. Why that length of time? Because the Irish Poitín Technical File specifies a maximum of 10 weeks in wood.

The poitín category has the potential to take Irish spirits in new directions. The recipe for Bán includes potato, malted barley and sugar beet, and now they are adding wood to the mix. Definitely one I need to spend more time with.

Overall winner

Bán Barrelled and Buried

Gold medals

Bán Poitín
Glendalough Mountain Strength Poitín

Irish Liqueur

Salted Caramel Irish Cream Liqueur sounds amazing!

Overall winner

Merrys White Chocolate Irish Cream Liqueur

Gold medals

Merrys Salted Caramel Irish Cream Liqueur
Mrs Doyle’s Cream Liqueur

Irish Gin

Boyle's Gin is Blackwater Distillery's latest creation, available from next week. Gin fans at the most recent Dublin Loves Gin tasting had a chance to preview this gorgeous new spirit. (Note: I organise these gin tastings along with Marie Byrne. If you have an interest in gin, sign up for the mailing list, follow us on Twitter (@DublinLovesGin), and come along to one of the monthly meetups.)

Last year's winner, Thin Gin, put in another strong showing this year, taking a gold medal.

Overall winner

Boyle’s Gin Small Batch

Gold medals
Dublin City Gin
Thin Gin

Irish Vodka                      

This is Connacht Distillery making a grand entrance. Straw Boys Irish Vodka is distilled from wheat in Connacht's own copper pot stills.

Overall winner
Straw Boys Irish Vodka

Gold medals
Boru vodka
Kalak Vodka

There were also awards for the best Irish whiskey bars. Nominations were gathered from members of the Celtic Whiskey Club and Irish Whiskey Society.

Irish Whiskey Bar of the Year 2016

Dick Mack’s, Dingle

Irish Whiskey Bar of the Year - Leinster

Overall winner
The Dylan Whisky Bar, Kilkenny

Gold medals

The Palace Bar, Dublin
Bowes Bar, Dublin

Irish Whiskey Bar of the Year - Munster

Overall winner
Dick Mack’s, Dingle

Gold medals

Folkhouse, Kinsale
The Shelbourne Bar, Cork

Irish Whiskey Bar of the Year - Connacht

Overall winner
Garavan’s, Galway

Gold medals

An Púcán, Galway

Irish Whiskey Bar of the Year - Ulster

Overall winner
The Duke of York, Belfast

Gold medals

McCauls bar, Cavan
Fealty’s, Bangor

Irish Whiskey Bar of the Year - International

Overall winner
Patricks Bar, Paris