Paddy’s Day Picks

Talking about which Irish whiskeys to either gift or share to mark St. Patrick’s Day used to be like a quiet conversation amongst friends. There was a lot that didn’t need to be said as much was already understood by those already familiar with the available selections. For others the discussion might have covered how many Jameson shooters to have with your green beer and Irish car bombs. Not that there’s anything wrong with that — different strokes, as they say — though it was more about quantity than quality.

These Are The Good Old Days
Today, it’s more like a bustling convention floor with multiple simultaneous exchanges and a larger and rapidly expanding range of Irish drams from which to choose.  And that’s good news. Irish whiskey is very much in ascendance and we are still at the start of “the good old days” for the category.

A reader this weekend (we’ll call him Ken because that’s his name) emailed me to ask for recommendations for Paddy’s Day whiskeys. Ken has enthusiastically made it a point to get his hands and tastebuds on nearly every new and many old Irish whiskeys over the past few years. He wants to line up +/- 4 whiskeys for the day. He’s hoping to get the recently released (in the US)  Redbreast 21-year-old among others that he hasn’t tried.

With so many new Irish whiskeys coming into distribution here — and so many good ones — it’s hard for me to issue a pick list. Also, after guiding about 80 tastings with various crowds in the past few years and attending many others I’ve seen how wildly different individual reactions can be to any given whiskey.  And even that usually changes on any given day.  I’m reminded of two friends of mine on a tour of Scotch distilleries a couple of years ago who managed to be at polar opposites on nearly every one of the 60+ whiskys we tried; for every “brilliant” there was a countervailing “shite.”

Go Leor
Allowing for the differences, I would at least strongly encourage you to include at least one Irish whiskey you have yet to try. Frankly, it’s hard to go wrong. Among the newest, Teeling have some really excellent whiskeys just now coming into US distribution. The established independent brands from Castle Brands (Knappogue Castle, Clontarf), Sidney Frank (Michael Collins), Walsh Whiskey, née Hot Irishman (The Irishman) and others are very good drams. The Bushmills line and the Beam Cooley brands (Kilbeggan, Tyrconnell, Greenore, Connemara, 2 Gingers) are always enjoyable. I mentioned Redbreast before before, and that reminds me that Irish Distillers Ltd (IDL) continue to expand distribution of their Jameson/Powers/Paddy blends as well as the Single Pot Still bottlings (Green Spot is now in America).  I don’t mean to leave anyone
out, rather, please chime in with the comments. The point is, we have
whiskey “go leor” or “galore” from which to choose these days, and more
are on the way.

“Let’s See, What Do I Feel Like…?”
I’m not sure which bottle or 3 I’ll break out for Paddy’s Day. It depends on the time, place and mood. I don’t get hung up at all about which is “the best” because “the best” is the one you like right there and then. One other — and more important — factor in my criteria is the one that the distillers themselves say is the biggest influence on how you perceive a whiskey. It’s who you’re drinking with.  Seriously.  It matters. In fact, the shared enjoyment and the craic are the point of the whiskey in the first place.

I’ve adopted a practice that a friend discovered while researching the history of a very old Jameson whiskey that he found.  A wealthy industrialist in pre-Prohibition days really appreciated fine whiskeys. Whenever he opened a bottle of whiskey he’d write on the label the date, the place and the names of the people with him. It’s neat to look on the shelf and be reminded of that occasion no matter how big or casual it was. It turns an empty bottle into a memento.

Your Call
I’d like to hear from you about what your Irish whiskey choices may be for Paddy’s Day this year and why you choose a particular brand or bottling. I’d also like to hear about who you’ll be toasting, with whom you’ll be sharing the whiskey, or a person that the whiskey brings to mind.

Have a good one, and Sláinte!

Whiskey Spotting in America, Part 2

In our Part 1 posting we sneaked a peek at some of the new Irish whiskeys bound for America in the next 6 to 9 months. These are from distillers and brand owners who obtained the necessary U.S. regulatory approvals for the labels to appear on the bottles, otherwise known as COLAs (Certification of Label Approval).

Taking at look at the current approved labels is intended as more than just a speculative tease. It’s really meant as an indicator of the continuing renaissance in Irish whiskey and Irish spirits in general.  New distilleries are either in production, coming online or are in the planning phases. That represents an impressive reinvestment in an Irish industry that was on the verge of disappearing in the 1960s. 
Remember these caveats when you’re looking at the labels:
  • These whiskeys/spirits have not yet been introduced. 
  • Label
    approval doesn’t guarantee that a whiskey or spirit will be introduced. There
    may be delays or changes to the label after approval, or, a brand owner might have a change in plans for the product.
  • Not
    all distributors or retailers can get new bottlings at the same time. It
    depends on geography, target markets and other factors. Once a new whiskey is in distribution you’ll have to ask your
    retailer if they are willing to order it.
1661 Poitín
This is a Kickstarter-funded initiative by Mullingar, Co. Westmeath native and Washington, DC resident Ashlee Casserly, to bring the story and products of traditional Irish cottage (literally) industry distilling to America. David Havelin first wrote about this poitín on his Liquid Irish blog in February 2012. Looks like a interesting story and spirit drink all in one.

  

Banshee Single Grain Irish Whiskey
This appears to be a brand extension of the Banshee Legend caramel and vanilla-flavored liqueur. Banshee Legend sticks with the grain whiskey alone at 40% ABV. It comes from a company called Dublin Distillers run by entrepreneur Illann Power. The company has been planning a U.S. entry and recently sorted its importing and wholesale arrangements.



West Cork Distillers
West Cork Distillers of Union Hall first came to our attention a couple of years ago with the Drombeg liqueur and more recently with Kennedy, Lough Hyne and West Cork spirits drinks. They been quite busy since and are expanding their lineup with several new whiskeys and spirit drinks while prepping for an entry into the U.S. market.

Cavanagh Whiskey 
An old-enough-to-be-whiskey 3-year-old aged in sherry casks and, interestingly, Irish oak.


Celtic Pride Irish Spirit
This is a Irish oak- and sherry-influenced spirit drink bottled at 32% ABV.
 
 
 
Kennedy Whiskey
A 3-year-old whiskey labelled as aged in Irish and sherry oak.  Not entirely clear on this as the distillery’s website states that it is a fusion of Celtic (Scotch and Irish, presumably, hence no “Irish” before the “whiskey”)) whiskeys infused with wood from oak casks. I think that means wood from the casks vs. the actual bourbon and sherry casks.  The U.S. label refers to the scientific name for American and European oak, in addition to the Irish oak reference.  This looks interesting and innovative.

McFadden Spirit Drink
Another innovative take on blending and maturation with a mix of Celtic whiskeys and malt (presuming spirit vs. whiskey) and oak (not necessary cask) aging.  Interested in trying the result.

Irish Mist Irish Whiskey
Looks to be a Midleton-distilled blend carrying forward Campari’s classic “Irish Mist” Liqueur brand into the whiskey arena.


Paddy Devil’s Apple
Paddy Irish Whiskey flavored with apple and cinnamon.

Devlin Irish Whiskey
A Cooley-produced private-label bottling.

Wolfhound Irish Whiskey
Also looks like a Cooley-made malt-grain blend.



South Boston Irish Whiskey
This one is close to home, coming from Grandten Distilling on “Dot Ave.” in Southie.  We’ll be looking for this! Nice old image of South Bay and part of Southie from the incredible, and easily accessible Norman B. Leventhal Map Center online and at the Boston Public Library.


That’s it for now. We’re keeping our eyes open for more or modified COLAs. Label approval is just one step along the way to coming to market, but Irish whiskey in general is advancing in leaps and bounds. Let us know what you’re seeing out there, wherever your “there” is.

Sláinte!

Whiskey Spotting in America, Part 1

Like bird-watchers excited by the sighting of an exotic species, Irish whiskey aficionados get spooled up when a new whiskey comes to their local retail shelves. It may be because of a bottling not previously available in America. Or it may be a new brand or one not widely distributed before. Like birders, some Irish whiskey drinkers have the equivalent of a “life list” and look to buy or try everything that comes out. Many spirits consumers also are always looking for “the next new thing,” and that’s not a bad thing. It’s actually a sign of a growing market.


As it turns out, there’s a lot for Irish whiskey drinkers to get excited about. But instead of a few new whiskeys coming to the U.S. there is going to be a continuous wave of new bottlings over the next 6-9 months.  The number of new Irish whiskey brands and bottlings coming to America is astounding. There will also be more whiskey “specialities” such as flavored whiskeys, Irish creams, liqueurs and spirit drinks. Notably, there will more 50ml miniature or “nip” bottles of many brands to give the curious a chance to sample before committing to the full-sized bottle.

That’s not really a surprise when you see the growth in both whiskey demand and production. Just two years ago there were 3 production distilleries in all of Ireland. At last count there now are 12 distilleries either operating, under construction or in the planning stages. That doesn’t include the huge, now-completed expansion at Irish Distillers Ltd’s (IDL) Midleton distillery. 



When Can We Get It? (soon…)
Irish whiskey drinkers in America have expressed frustration at not being able to obtain brands that they discovered in Ireland. Paddy was one until it arrived in the U.S. in 2011 at a premium price (it has since come down in price). Another has been Green Spot, one of only two Single Pot Still whiskeys in production (Redbreast was the other) until IDL revitalized and expanded the Single Pot Still range in May 2011. By, the way, anyone jonesing for some Green Spot here in America will have their wishes fulfilled in the near future.

Regulatory approval, logistics and distribution often are behind that frustration. For example, the U.S. standard bottle size is 750ml compared to 700ml for most other countries. When the U.S. switched to metric measures for alcohol in 1980, the 700ml standard was a little lower in volume from 4/5s of a quart, or one-fifth of a gallon (757ml) — usually called a “fifth.” Regulators didn’t want consumers potentially paying the same for less so they chose 750ml as the metric equivalent to a fifth. U.S. spirits producers at the time also had their own reasons for the 750ml size. The result is that any brand owner wanting to sell in the U.S. has to procure 750ml bottles for separate bottling runs.

Whiskey and COLA (no, not that kind)
They also need labels that meet U.S. standards. Those labels have to be submitted to and approved by the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, or the “TTB” for short. Brand owners receive a Certification of Label Approval, or COLA, meaning that the labels can be produced and affixed to the bottles. A COLA is then published as public document. That’s a key step, but it’s just one along the way toward getting the bottle to your local liquor store. Among other activities, shipping boxes with inventory codes are printed, advertising and other sales and marketing materials are created, and retailers and bar managers have to place orders. Then you have to find it and buy it. From COLA to store shelf tends to be 6 months, more or less.

Whiskey-Spotting In America
Following is a preview of some of the labels for new whiskeys that are likely heading our way in the coming months. Our information comes from a well-placed industry source and from TTB filings. There are more from other brand owners that I’ll cover in Part 2.

The point of showing the labels below is to give you an idea of the number and range of whiskeys that are coming out of Ireland compared to a few short years ago. It’s also a pleasant tease of more good stuff ahead.

A few caveats:
  • These whiskeys have not yet been introduced. 
  • Label approval doesn’t guarantee that a whiskey will be introduced, and there may be delays or changes to the label after approval. Brand owners also might have other purposes for obtaining the label, e.g., importing samples for tasting labs and consumer testing.
  • Not all distributors or retailers can get new whiskeys at the same time. It depends on geography, target markets and even the number of available bottles. Once a new whiskey is in distribution you’ll have to ask your retailer if it available for ordering.
Redbreast 21-year-old
Word about the latest Redbreast bottling got around earlier this year. Look for it in the fall.


Redbreast 12-year-old Cask Strength B1/13 59.9% ABV
The Redbreast line grows with the third cask-strength issue coming next year.





Green Spot
Yes, it’s finally coming, probably early in 2014




Powers Gold Label 43.2% ABV, Non-Chill Filtered
IDL is replacing the current 40% ABV Powers blend with a new 43.2% non-chill filtered (NCF) Powers Gold Label blend with higher pot still content. The ability to bottle at 43.2% without chill filtration (vs. the typical 46% needed for an NCF bottling) has to do with the pot still distillate IDL is producing. The previous screw-top cap bottle also will be be replaced with the same cork-stopper bottle as the Powers John’s Lane and Power’s Signature single pot still releases. Look/ask for it in the Fall.






Midleton Very Rare 2014
For next year, obviously, just as a new vintage comes every year. The 2014 issue is notable in that it bears the signature of Master Distiller Brian Nation, who took over from Barry Crockett following his retirement this past Spring.






Paddy Bee Sting Liqueur, 35% ABV
IDL is getting into the flavored whiskey market with a honeyed version of Paddy Irish whiskey. There may be other Paddy-based liqueurs coming too.




Tullamore Dew
William Grant & Sons are still building their new distillery in Tullamore, Co. Offaly. But they’re continuing to move ahead with new issues possibly including a 56% ABV cask-strength bottling and a 55% ABV “Phoenix” limited edition named for the town of Tullamore. Tullamore literally rose from the ashes of what’s considered the world’s first aviation disaster — in 1785 — when a hot-air balloon crash started a fire that destroyed much of the town. The late singer-songwriter Dan Fogelberg was a fan of the whiskey and named an instrumental song “Phoenix/Tullamore Dew” for it.













The Irishman
Known for its very nice pot still-malt blend and no-age statement single malt, Bernard Walsh’s Hot Irishman Co. is re-branding and updating its look with a 12-year-old single malt and a 70:30 malt-pot still blend, both limited releases.










So keep your eyes and ears open for when these — and others — might be coming ashore. We’re not only seeing new Irish whiskeys, we’re witnessing the continuing resurgence of Irish whiskey on a global scale. Whatever you thought Irish whiskey was or was not before, it’s changing. It’s bigger, better and well worthy of a fresh look.

More previews are coming in Part 2.

Sláinte!

Du(e)ling Drams

We’ve put on two “Whisk(e)y Duel” tastings so far this year with fun, comparative tastings of Irish whiskey and Scotch whisky. Ireland “won” both of those tastings and in a fairly decisive way. More about the specific results below.


Sure, it’s fun to call it a duel, but the goal is not really about picking a winner or the “best” whisk(e)y. In fact, we try to gently nudge people away from misconceptions about either Irish or Scottish versions of the dram while having fun tasting some very good whisk(e)ys.

People tend to get caught up in the notion of “the best” whiskey/whisky, as if the “right” choice of a particular style or brand is is a way to show off their good taste and knowledge of gracious living. Oftentimes, people think the “best” liquor is one that’s “smooth.”  That may apply to clear spirits, but saying that a whisk(e)y is “smooth” is like describing a food as “high in fiber.” That may be good, but I want to know what it tastes like.

There’s certainly no shortage of skewed perceptions about whiskey/whisky. That includes attitudes about “singlemalts” (spoken as it it were a one-word incantation) as the definition of fine drink and “blends” as inferior or low-class. Those perceptions also tend to see Irish whiskey, at least in America, as a poor cousin to Scotch.  We simply invite people to set aside what they think they know or don’t know, try different styles and decide for themselves. (we’ve also had included Bourbon, Japanese, Canadian, French, Indian and other whiskys in past tastings).

The Ireland vs. Scotland “duel” is a fun way of setting up the comparison and giving attendees a bit of useful info about different styles. We do a head-to-head/like-for-like tasting of blends, peated single malts and single pot still vs. single malt. We take a vote each round and then poll attendees for their overall favorite of the night. Our selections are intended be fair and unbiased matches.

Whiskey Duel #1 
Our first outing in April had a small group of 9 attendees (the turnout affected in part by the Marathon bombings 10 days earlier). This was our line-up, with explanations of our choices:
BLENDS
Black Bush vs. Johnnie Walker Black Label
Both are easy-drinking malt-grain blends with a pleasant sherry component. The Johnnie Walker Black has the 12-year-old age statement and its whiskys have spent more time in the wood than the no age statement (NAS), 7-ish year-old Black Bush. And just for fun, both also are Diageo brands with the word “black” in the name.  
Winner: Black Bush, by a 7-2 count.

PEATED SINGLE MALTS
Connemara vs. Bowmore 12-year-old
Here again we went with a NAS Irish, this time from Cooley, and the well-known Bowmore 12-year-old. Both are similarly peated (about 20 ppm for the Connemara and 25 ppm for the Bowmore). We thought about matching the Cooley with a Bruichladdich as a fun nod to the work the two companies had done together. We also thought of using Laphroig as another Beam brand but felt its heavier peatiness might skew the match to the lighter Connemara. So we opted for the Bowmore.
Winner: Connemara, by a 7-1 count (one abstention as one attendee was not fond of peated whiskey)

SINGLE POT STILL vs. SINGLE MALT
Green Spot vs. The Glenlivet 12-year-old
Another NAS Irish with the iconic Single Pot Still (SPS) Green Spot matched with the very popular Glenlivet 12. We made the Green Spot our SPS selection instead of Redbreast, Yellow Spot or Powers John’s Lane (all 12-year-olds by the way) because we felt that those other single pots would eclipse the lighter Glenlivet. We also chose the Green Spot because we often include a hard-to-get-in-America whiskey at our tastings. Finally, this also matched two Pernod Ricard brands.
Winner: Green Spot, unanimous decision    

The favorite of that night’s tasting was Green Spot, again, by a unanimous decision.

Whiskey Duel #2
Our June tasting had a better turnout of 19.  The line-up and results were:

BLENDS
Jameson 12-year-old vs. Chivas Regal 12-year-old
We chose two popular age-statement blends, opting for the Chivas Regal over the Dewar’s 12-year-old as it seemed like a more even match.
Winner: Jameson 12-year-old by a 17-2 margin

PEATED SINGLE MALTS
Connemara 12-year-old vs. Ardbeg 10-year-old
The age-statement Connemara is about half-as-peated as the 54 ppm Ardbeg but the fruit-floral-honey-vanilla flavors reach out of the smoke on each. We felt this would be a tough call and an even match.
Winner: Connemara 12-year-old by a 13-6 margin
SINGLE POT STILL vs. SINGLE MALT
Redbreast 12-year-old vs. Macallan 12-year-old
We steeped in sherry for this one with two best-in-class offerings. We were not sure how the vote would turn out on this.
Winner: Redbreast 12-year-old by a 16-3 margin

The overall favorite of the night was Redbreast 12-year-old, with 12 votes. Connemara got 4 votes, Macallan got 2 and Ardbeg got 1.

And The Best Whisk(e)y Is…
The “best” whiskey is the one you like, though how a whisky might taste to you can change with mood, body chemistry and other factors. We’ve sipped whiskeys and whiskys that we’ve very much liked to find that they hit us flat on occasion. And we’ve had drams that we thought of as so-so strike us at other times as really quite delicious. And we know that the liquid in the bottle had not changed.

Yes, we all have our preferences, our standbys, and our go-to’s. And we’re not trying to do the whiskey equivalent of giving every player on the team a trophy. I often remember what Cooley Master Blender Noel Sweeney told me: “There are no bad whiskeys, but some are better than others.”  And there are a lot of “better” whiskeys available today.

The point isn’t which whiskey or whisky is the best. It also has nothing to do with how much sophistication or discernment we think our selection of drink confers upon us. The truer measurer is in the the exploration, the enjoyment, the company and the craic.

Sláinte!


Simplicity, Sophistication & Tasting Notes

“Simplicity Is The Ultimate Sophistication”

– Leonardo
da Vinci

Promoting the simple and responsible enjoyment of
whiskey/whisky is a core activity of the Irish Whiskey Society of America and
my related company, All About The Craic, Inc. We’ve done that with hundreds of
people at dozens of tastings in the past few years. By “simple,” I don’t mean
uninteresting whiskeys or cute, bland or dumbed-down information. Attendees
actually learn that whiskey is less about which is the “smoothest” or “best”
and much more about variety and complexity. They also get a good idea of the
myriad permutations in style and flavor that come from grains, stills and wood.


We welcome whiskey newcomers as well as experienced
whiskey/whisky drinkers and even non-drinkers (as “Pioneers”). We can get into phenol counts, still reflux, warehouse
rotations all sorts of other ephemera for whiskey wonks when relevant. But
we’re also relaxed about the things that can make the whiskey world confusing,
confounding or intimidating to would-be whiskey drinkers.



Our Ireland v. Scotland duel matched Black Bush against Johnnie Walker Black Label (blends), Connemara against Bowmore 12-year-old (peated single malts) and Green Spot against Glenlivet 12-year-old. Ireland came out the winner that night.

Tasting notes and ratings are a good example. Either can
be a helpful guide or they can be a distracting barrier. Nobody wants to spend money on what might be a “bad” or “not-as-good” whiskey. And they don’t want to
look foolish just because they can’t smell or taste toasted almonds, cardamom,
sultanas, pixie dust or Cú Chulainn’s wet dog in any given whiskey. Aside from
variations in individual tastes, your sense of taste can shift with time,
place, mood, body chemistry and drinking companions. Geography matters too. For
example, most Americans think of “Christmas cake” not as the tasty treat common
in the UK and Ireland but as a dry, dense, unsatisfyingly sweet bread riddled with
walnuts and candied fruit.


Accounting For Taste
At the tastings we’ll give a combination of notes from
distillers, reviewers and our own experience when introducing a whiskey, describing nose, taste and finish. Each attendee
has their own sheet on which we encourage them to make notes that mean something
to them instead of following a specific form. Sometimes they leave their notes behind so we save them to study the
reactions. The observations range from
basic, to more-standard wording, to colorful and inventive, to what is best
described as “unique.”’

By the way, we give each attendee a pipette and
distilled water to explore how a whiskey/whisky changes with just a few drops.


Here are some of the more interesting examples:

– At a 2011 Irish whiskey tasting, one person described
Bushmill’s 10-year-old single malt as “smooth overall” while another noted that
it “opens up with water, creamier with water.” At a 2012 tasting, one person
said that the Cooley-made private-label Kellan Irish whiskey was “better
without water” while another wrote “like with H2O.”

– Not everyone takes notes while others are sparse in
their observations. At a February 2013 Irish whiskey and chocolate pairing, one
person managed to do both. They wrote “good” in their notes for the pairing of
Jameson and Mo’s Dark Chocolate with Bacon (the favorite combo of the night). Next to the other five pairings
they simply wrote the word “notes.”
 


– Some combine notes with their own rating system.  At a tasting of Island single malt Scotches
earlier this year, one person described 4 of the 6 age-statement whiskys as
“good,” (Arran 10, Jura 10, Talisker 10, Tobermory 10) one as “shit” (Laphroig
10 Cask Strength) and another as “best” (Scapa 16, which was the overall
favorite of the evening).  Another used a
system reminiscent of a 80s-era men’s magazine that ranked pornographic videos
using graphical representations of male genitalia. I’m not sure but I think he
had Laphroig Cask Strength and Scapa 16 tied for first.

Yet another scored the same whiskys as follows,
presumably on a rising scale from 1 to 10:


– Others took a more conventional, descriptive approach.
One noted the finish of the Talisker 10 saying, “Go long + get the sweet.”
Another wrote that 4 drops of water in the Jura 10 “brought out the
vanilla.”  The Laphroig Cask Strength had
a “good strong flavor, opens up w/4 + 8 drops of water, great aroma w/ 8 drops
of water.” He liked all of the Island malts but the Tobermory 10 was best for
him: “I would buy this.”

– People make personal connections to whiskey. One
person noted that the smell of Scotch had unpleasant childhood associations with a
heavy-drinking father. Another said that the nose of an Irish whiskey (I don’t
remember which) reminded him of “an old girlfriend.” I’m not sure but he seemed to think it was a pleasurable
 scent.

– At a January 2013 Irish whiskey tasting one person
made the following notes:

Jameson     Better
than I remember from college
Bushmills   Hot… dat
feel
Kilbeggan   Smells
like fruit + biscuits. Opiate for the masses.
Teeling Poitin    Yeeeah
Teeling Hybrid Malt     DIB!
Smoke dat. (love it)
Dingle Gold Smells
like Play-Doh
Yellow Spot Damn
fine whiskey

Another described Yellow Spot as “decadent without
attitude.”

– One of my favorite, unintentionally funny tasting
notes is one of my own from an October 2012 visit to the Jura Distillery. There
were many bottlings to try in a visit shortened by the ferry schedule. My notes
on one of the Jura Boutique Bottlings end with the words “Hints of.” Now if I
could only remember the hint.

The Art of Tasting Notes
Sometimes words alone can’t completely capture people’s
impressions of a given whiskey. Instead they resort to other forms of
expression, including drawings, to record their notes.  In September 2012 one whiskey newcomer
recorded her feelings about the Irish whiskeys we tried that night, including
the heavy hitters Green Spot single pot still and Bushmills 21-year-old single
malt.  The picture below tells the rest,
though I should note that her feelings about Green Spot and Kilbeggan were not
widely shared:


Kilbeggan actually came in second on this night,
just
behind the first-place tie between Green Spot and Bushmills 21

-- Finally, one of our more artistic drinkers used
alternate versions of a picture-based rating system at a May 2013 Bourbon
tasting. The “notes” may be hard to decipher, though the relative deadliness of
the weapons shown corresponds to how well she liked each whiskey. I think. The
other uses a sequence of birds indicating how well they liked each
bourbon. I think.

 

What Works
The notes here are a small sample from the 50+ tastings
we’ve done. They are not “sophisticated” per se. They won’t be as widely used
as Mark Gillespie’s notes at WhiskyCast, or in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible. But
they are no less valid, certainly to the people making them. And I
think that’s the point of tasting notes and ratings.

As, da Vinci noted above, “sophistication” comes not from
the ability to describe your perceptions of a whiskey/whisky, or in
pronouncements of the “best” whiskey/whisky or the “right” way to drink it. It
comes from “simple” enjoyment of the sharing of the drink and the stories that
come from that. And that doesn’t require any notes, only a little information, an open mind and one or more kindred spirits.

Sláinte! 


A (not-so) Modest Proposal

I would like to propose a toast. It’s a simple one really, though it may provoke strident objections and assertions of dearly and deeply held beliefs.  It is this:

Let us raise a parting glass of Irish whiskey to mark the death, burial and banishment from memory of the twisted notion that there are Catholic and Protestant whiskeys.

That’s it. Done. Great. Now, what can I pour you? Oh yes, and sláinte!

Is It True That…?
I have been asked
many times — by Americans — about Jameson being the “Catholic” whiskey and Bushmills being the “Protestant” drink. I also have been told with great
conviction — by Americans — that your choice of whiskey reflects your affinity for a one or another flavor of Christian
worship.

Like most myths, the purported religious division in Irish whiskey is grounded in history. But in America, this one has badly outgrown its origins as well as reality. It’s not a complete load of nonsense but it is nearly brimful in the b.s. bucket.

Labels
The muck and mire of political/religious identities
in Irish history got a deadly start with Oliver Cromwell and went downhill from there. Over time, “Catholic” and “Protestant” came to mean “Republican” and “Unionist.” Divisions became so hard and pervasive that even everyday products of were tagged with affiliations that had little to do with religion or politics.

Brian Quinn, the manager of Beam/Cooley’s Kilbeggan distillery, grew up in the north (Co. Tyrone). He recalls that in Belfast years ago you could spot the Catholic and Protestant workmen in the pubs on Friday evening by what they ordered. Protestants would order a half-one (a glass) of Bushmills, a bottle or glass or Tennent’s beer (made in Belfast) and Gallagher cigarettes. Catholics would order a half-one of Powers, a Guinness and a pack of Players cigarettes — all made in Dublin at the time. It was about geography, not ideology.

In fact, one of the most iconic of “Catholic” brands had a long history being staunchly “Protestant.” In his book, A Bottle of Guinness Please, author David Hughes writes that until 1939 any Guinness employee intending to marry a Catholic had to offer his resignation. That was as much class-based as it was religious bigotry at the time.

Eventually, the fact that the “Catholic” brands produced in the Republic of Ireland were from Protestant-owned companies didn’t matter very much. It mattered more that they were Irish. Both Bushmills and Jameson were owned by the same Irish company for 15 years in the 70s and 80s. Today, the British drinks conglomerate Diageo owns Bushmills and Guinness and the French spirits giant Pernod-Ricard owns Jameson, Powers, Paddy and other brands. But that doesn’t make those brands any less Irish.

Huh?
The Catholic-Protestant whiskey myth has endured primarily in America but it’s practically
unknown in Ireland. If you mention it there people will look at
you sideways as if you just said with great certainty that Michael
Collins was actually born in Kenya, not Clonakilty. The polite and unspoken response might something like, “Sure, you’re daft or a goat or just a feckin’ eejit, but if I pretend to listen to ye long enough ye might buy a round. Continue then.”

Yes, there are diehard Republicans and others who hold fast to the past, but the vast majority of Irish are exactly that in identity — Irish. They may be Catholic, Protestant, Celtic Mystics, jackeens, mulchies, culchies, boggers or just busy with living.

Land Of The Free. And Competitively Priced.
As Americans we aren’t bound to any of those identities. We have a choice. Actually, we have an incredible range of choices available to us, including whisk(e)ys. So if you want to pick an Irish whiskey to drink do it for a good reason like, you want a malt, or a malt-blend, or a pot-still blend or a single pot still, or just “it’s the one I like.” Don’t go screwing it up with some silly shite like it’s Catholic or Protestant or whatever. That would be as bad, idiotic and un-American as choosing a whiskey because it’s “Conservative” or “Liberal.” That would limit choice. By the way, that doesn’t include Heaven Hill’s Red State and Blue State bourbons which both increase choice and, in a very American way, generate sales.

So raise a glass of an Irish whiskey of your choice and bid a not-so-fond farewell to the whole Catholic-Protestant whiskey thing.

Sláinte!

Guest Blogger: State of California Whiskey

EDITORS NOTE: It’s been a very busy summer and, accordingly, quiet here on the blog. We will be posting updates shortly from tastings we’ve put on in the past few months. We’ve also been busy behind the scenes laying the administrative, tax and other necessary (and tedious, time-consuming) groundwork for creating chapters of the Irish Whiskey Society of America (IWSA) in other cities.

The IWSA focuses primarily on Irish, of course. But it also includes other whisk(e)ys at some tastings to explore the differences and similarities, to expand our palates and, simply, to enjoy some very good spirits. And yes, they have been very good, (though some IWSA members were not partial to a few of the poitíns sampled at a recent tasting). The point of a broader, non-exclusive approach to whiskey is the sharing, the craic.

Along those lines, and in recognition of the wider whiskey community here in the U.S., we welcome guest blogger Mack McConnell. Mack is a whiskey fan and writer from San Francisco. Mack says that when he’s not writing about whiskey, he’s probably drinking it. He also runs the Taster’s Club Whiskey of the Month, which features Scotch whisky and bourbon. He’ll be giving his take on whiskeys that are, like Mack, from the West Coast.  Take it away, Mack!:

California is known for a lot of things. Some of them are pretty good (San Francisco, The Beach Boys, craft beer), some aren’t so great: Hollywood, bankruptcy, Kim Kardashian. Whatever comes to your mind when you think of California, I’m guessing it isn’t whiskey. After all, the American whiskey reputation has been snatched up by Kentucky, Tennessee mostly. But this unfortunately leaves some great whiskey action happening right here in California that needs more attention.

Full disclosure: I’m a California-dweller (San Francisco to be exact) and am very much in love with my state. Maybe it’s for that reason that I thought it was important to bring the spotlight over here for a second.

I’ve had the opportunity to learn about some really cool distilleries and whiskeys coming out of the Sunshine State recently and thought I’d spread a bit of the love around.

“We certainly have the knowledge here because of the number of Scots who settled here and have brought their skills with them. Rye and bourbon were originally made by Scots and Irish immigrants,” says Phil Elwell, from Ye Olde King’s Head pub in Santa Monica, a whiskey haven for southern Californians.

The west coast is known for its wine and beer, which is precisely why many believe locally distilled whiskey is also catching on.  For some, it seems like California is ripe for such a movement, which is why it’s achieved a few drams of success – “People in California have grown up with wineries and microbreweries so they are already receptive to craft whiskeys,” says Elwell.

What you can find here are whiskeys with very distinct personalities, whiskeys you don’t find anywhere else.


St. George Whiskey, Alameda, CA

Jorg Rupf comes from a line of eau-de-vie distillers in Germany. Lance Winters has a brewing background, which is what did before coming to St. George in 1995. Together they run St. George’s Distillery.

St. George’s distillery is on the same premises as that of Hangar One Vodka, which is in an isolated airplane hangar in the old Alameda Naval Air Station.

Rupf and Winters bring certain beer techniques to their whiskey. For example, St. George uses a mixture of the toasted malts on their whiskeys that lend a rich, dark color to porters and stouts; they’re the only West Coast distillers to do so. Some say this is why their whiskeys have such striking fruit aromas that make it so distinctive. Their Bourbon barrels also contribute to their signature fruitiness. They are also known to use smoked malts – smoked over hardwoods like beech and alder.

The product of their collaboration is like no other whiskey ever — it has a rainbow of sweet fruit and flower aromas you can scarcely believe come from grain, and an amazing smoothness on the palate. Yes, it’s a single malt. Or, the “whiskey that wants to be a whisky” (2)


Charbay Distillery, St. Helena, CA


Charbay is known for it’s high-end brandies and eau-de-vie and produced near Napa Valley. More recently they got into the whiskey business and started to get wild.

When deciding how to build a great whiskey, they had a rather radical idea – embracing hops at a new level, featuring it in a similar way as some American beers. This, combined with aging in American White Oak barrels, creates a unique flavor profile.

Charbay Double Barrel Hop-Flavored Whiskey is impressive. Its aromas are vegetal – like grass and hay – and has a bitter finish (props to the hops).  Heady, dry-grass aromas.  More recently, Charbay has announced R5 Aged Whiskey, which is a new experimental whiskey distilled not directly from grain, but from Bear Republic’s Racer 5 IPA Beer, typically known to please very strong hoppy-beer fans across the west coast. It’s then aged for 22 months in French Oak.


Anchor Distilling, San Francisco, CA

In true American fashion, Fritz Maytag, the founder of Anchor, wanted to rediscover the way whiskey was originally made in America, the same kind George Washington used to make – 100% rye, sold straight from the still without barrel aging. He calls it “Old Potrero Straight Rye Whiskey”.

However, laws that still linger in America after Prohibition don’t allow him to sell it without aging it (which surprised me), like he originally planned. He does release one version aged for only two years – but he’s not allowed to call it “whiskey” due to California laws, and settles for “spirit” instead. Another version he makes is aged three years in charred Bourbon-type barrels.

In a tasting panel conducted by the LA Times, it was said that Old Potrero’s aroma is reminiscent of brandy-based liquer such as B&B. When water is added, notes of fresh hay come front and center.

Old Potrero Straight Rye Whiskey

45% ABV

$64

 

Nose: Very smoky and Scotch like. Old leather and molasses with a hint of Alspice.

Taste: Molasses, spice. A bit of vanilla and leather.

Finish: Very sweet molasses and spice that lingers for a minute and then simply becomes a bit smokey.

*tasting notes from Bourbon Enthusiast

Perhaps it’s because California doesn’t have a strict whiskey tradition to limit experimentation, or maybe it’s thanks to typical California craziness, but it needs to be noted that there are unique and seriously interesting whiskeys being created right here in the Sunshine State.  After all, if we elected this guy to be governor, isn’t anything possible?

Citations:

1: http://articles.latimes.com/2004/dec/01/food/fo-whiskey1

2: http://americanhooch.com/2008/06/30/st-george-single-malt-whiskey/

Seeing Spots in Dublin

I arrived in Ireland earlier this week to take part in “Whiskey Week” activities that culminate with the second annual Whisky Live Dublin show on Saturday. The whiskey — and the news — is already flowing.


In line with both current rumours and past public statements about the expected frequency of new Single Pot Still (SPS) bottlings, Irish Distillers Ltd. (IDL) and Mitchell & Son last night introduced — re-introduced actually — Yellow Spot. We had a chance to sample the newest addition to the SPS line and the sibling to the legendary Green Spot whiskey at a tasting at WJ Kavanagh’s gastropub in northside Dublin.


IDL’s Seamus Lowry presents the newest Single Pot Still Whiskey, Yellow Spot


Yellow Spot has three
components each matured a full 12+ years in bourbon barrels, Spanish sherry
butts and Spanish Malaga wine casks. (As David Havelin notes in his first-to-the-web Liquid Irish blog posting last night, IDL does not issue finished whiskeys, and this may be the first-ever use of Malagan casks at Midleton.) It is non-chill filtered and is bottled at 46% ABV.


That compares to
Green Spot as a 40% ABV, no-age-statement mix of 7- to 10-year-old whiskeys aged in bourbon barrels and sherry butts (about a 3:1 combination). They are very much siblings in the sense that they are alike but distinctly different. A few of us tried them side by side and noted the clear differences between Green Spot’s crisp barley-grain “flintiness” and the contribution of the Malagan cask to Yellow Spot’s complexity and delightfully nimble finish. You will want to spend time with this dram.

For many years, Green Spot was the sole survivor of an entire line of “Spot” whiskeys issued by Mitchell & Son. There also were Yellow Spot, Blue Spot and Red Spot, with the names corresponding to a daub of paint applied to the casks to indicate the ages of the whiskeys inside. All but Green Spot disappeared by the 1960s as the Irish whiskey industry was doing all it could simply to survive.

Yellow Spot begins the re-birth of that broader line and honors the paint-spot heritage with it’s labeling. Interestingly, it seems entirely appropriate that Malagan wine casks were used in its creation. World demand for Malaga and other sweet wines had dropped steadily in the 20th century until its production was nearly stopped entirely. But just as with Irish whiskey and SPS whiskeys in particular, there is a resurgence of interest in fine dessert wines. 


Yellow Spot’s spot in the Single Pot Still Whiskey Range


Here are the official tasting notes:

Nose: The initial freshly mown hay aroma is given substantial
depth by the typical Pot Still spices. Red bell peppers, freshly ground
nutmeg, a tincture of clove oil and a splash of green tea, balanced with
the sweet soft nose of honey and peaches contributed by the Malaga wine
casks seasoned in Andalucia. An exquisite sensory experience.




Taste: The mouth coating sensation to be expected from this
Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey is apparent from the first sip. Honey
sweetness with Pot Still spices, slowly gives way to a spectrum of
flavours, from the depth of freshly ground coffee, up through creamy
milk chocolate to crème brûlée, picking up some red apples and toasted
oak along the way.




Finish: Sophisticated and complex, the sweetness of the initial
sip remains throughout, with a beautifully succulent mix of red grape
and dry barley grains at the exit.

The pot still spice is very much there, along with a distinct yet subtle fruitiness that to me was evocative not just of red apple but red apple peel with both sweetness and a tannin-like dryness. The toasted oak was folded in there also. I’m looking forward to exploring it more soon.

I’m attending the week’s activities both as a member of the Irish Whiskey Society here and the president and founder of the Irish Whiskey Society of America. A few members of the American chapter are here in Dublin also, some of whom I’m meeting for the first time.  More on that later.

Even though it’s a very limited release I hope to offer Yellow Spot at a special members’ tasting in America very soon. That will be a treat as there are no stated plans to offer any of the “Spots” in the U.S. market. It is priced at about $80 per bottle for those of you planning to snag some from Ireland.

Finally, a special thanks to Michael Foggarty, the proprietor of both Kavanagh’s on Upper Dorset Street and it’s acclaimed sibling, L. Mulligan on Stonybatter. Not only is the food outstanding, but Michael’s tremendous selection of craft beers and whisk(e)ys is extraordinary. Michael too also was instrumental in the founding and early success of the Irish Whiskey Society. If you are in Dublin, both of his establishments are not only recommended but a must, really.


As John Jameson was, Michael is a Scotsman


Pondering Paddy’s Day

I have to confess to some ambivalence about St. Patrick’s Day. Sure, I observe the day, usually by getting together with family and friends and enjoying a meal and a pint or dram or two (I do have a bottle or three of whiskey around the house…). And for someone with a prior career in PR and who’s building awareness of Irish whiskey the day can be used to capitalize on media interest in all things Irish.

But there’s something about the how the day is marked in America that just doesn’t fit. The big one is getting locked-loaded-langered-plowed-blotto-wasted, etc., as a celebration of one’s real or honorary Irish heritage.

I’m usually willing to have “one for the ditch” (it’ll do ye no harm…) if it suits the time, place and company. But the last place that I want to be on Paddy’s Day is at an Irish pub, most of them anyway. The popular perception that a day-long drunk is the way to mark your Irishness and Ireland’s national holiday is, well, a vast load of shite.

In
comparison, we don’t don ascots and fancy hats and get
plastered while swigging bourbon or mint juleps on Kentucky Derby Day.
And we don’t drink wine and eat cheese until we vomit on Bastille Day.
Nor do we put on tartan and tam o’shanters and carry golf clubs while
downing shots of scotch on St. Andrew’s Day, the annual celebration of
Scotland’s patron saint on November 30. Any of those would look
downright stupid and none of those would be promoted as a popular image.
But Paddy’s Day…

I indirectly battle that perception when I approach people about attending an Irish Whiskey Society of America tasting. There’s a problem with using the words “Irish” and “whiskey” together. Many people react by saying “Oh wow, no thanks, I have to work tomorrow,” as though the event is an excuse to get drunk. It’s not until they actually come to one when they pleasantly discover that it’s not even close to that. IWSA tastings tend to be an eyeopener to the whiskey for many people, sure, but also to the fun, the banter, the gentle slagging, the tidbits of history, heritage and culture, and the welcoming conviviality that is the truer legacy of generations of Irish emigration to America.

Ireland does have a long and tortuous relationship with alcohol. It stems from a lot of historical factors, including Ireland’s poverty that persisted until the Celtic Tiger years. Generations have grown up in an all-or-nothing drinking culture where you either “took the pledge” and didn’t touch the stuff or lived up to your heritage by showing how much you could drink. (Something like, “We’re Irish so we’re supposed to be able to drink more than everybody.”) The drinking culture is a subject of long-standing and ongoing national debate, and it is changing. One personal view on it is in journalist Brian O’Connell’s 2009 book Wasted. It’s more than another sobriety memoir as it takes a broader look at the elements of culture behind the drinking.

Earlier this month Tullamore Dew U.S. Brand Ambassador Tim Herlihy put out a press release that challenged Americans to reconsider their Paddy’s Day celebrations. Forget the green beer, the plastic shamrocks, “Irish yoga” and “kiss me I’m Irish” t-shirts, leprechaun hats and drunk-filled pubs where you can’t hear anything over the crowd. Instead, he says do something that represents “the Irish spirit and culture in an honest and genuine way.” Treat yourself to “the fry” or a traditional Irish breakfast, watch the Paddy’s Day parade, take in some Irish culture at a local session or film festival and go to an authentic pub where you can raise a glass and toast the company of friends and family (and take the mickey out each other in the best ways possible). A boiled dinner of corned beef and cabbage is traditionally Irish-American, while a ham brisket in place of the corned beef is more traditionally Irish. Both are very tasty in any case.

For Irish whiskey, have a whiskey-and-whatever-you-like or whiskey in your tea or coffee, or a “hot one” of hot water, whiskey and a teaspoon of sugar. Whiskey in lemon tea also is similar, simple and very enjoyable. And if you’re drinking whiskey neat, get a bottle of something you enjoy, whether it’s the bottle of Jameson, Powers, Tullamore Dew, Bushmills or Kilbeggan you picked up or a higher-end bottling as special drink. It’s hard to go wrong. Most of all, enjoy it with family and friends because that is what the day is really about.

Finally, don’t limit that mindset of purposeful enjoyment of good company or the inclusion of Irish whiskey to just that one day. Make it how you honor yourself, your heritage and the important people in your life. That shouldn’t have to be a special occasion.

In the end, it’s not about the whiskey or the drinking at all, it’s who you’re drinking with that matters. And as far as being “Irish” on Paddy’s Day or any other day, remember that it’s not where you’re from, it’s who you’re from that makes the biggest difference. So pour a dram, raise a glass and toast those present, those away, and those who are no longer with us but who are never really gone.

Sláinte

Go Leor

January marked another month of growth and good news in the Irish whiskey world. As the headline implies, it was good news go leor, the Irish Gaelic for “abundance” that made it into English as “galore.”

Let’s take a look:

Beam completes Cooley Acquistion
That’s a check-mark in the scheme of things, really, but nothing in business is done until it’s done (it’s done!). Cooley have so many good things happening — i.e., whiskeys in the works — so it will be fascinating to see how, which and when some of those new products make it into Beam’s distribution system.


As for when, I’m at least marking July 26, 2014 in my calendar. That’s when Cooley’s single pot still poitín — at least the spirit in bottles that I have (Rotation 232/11, distilled 26/07/2011– may first be available as single pot still whiskey. It’s a very nice spirit that can turn into a even nicer whiskey after time in the wood. About 1,800 bottles were released late last year, and at 65% ABV. It’s available only at the Celtic Whiskey Shop at and at the Irish Whiskey Collection duty free shop at the Dublin Airport for around $35.


You may have tried either the 40% Bunratty or Knockeen Hills poitín/poteen before. This is a cut above. I’ll write more about it soon.

Time in the Wood

Speaking of Cooley and time in the wood, Livermore, CA, winery Concannon Vineyards teamed with the distiller to finish a four-year-old Cooley blend for four months in Concannon’s Petite Shirah wine casks.

It’s actually a mix of Cooley grain, bourbon cask-aged Cooley malt and Cooley malt finished in the wine casks. The result is Concannon Irish Whiskey, introduced last month. I’m looking forward to trying it soon. Post your impressions in comments here if you’ve had a chance to try it. Suggested retail is $24.99

Check out their promotional video. It has some nice footage of Cooley’s Riverstown, Co. Louth distillery in operation. There’s also an intro to the whiskey from Cooley’s Master Blender, the ever-affable Noel Sweeney, Cooley Brand Ambassador John Cashman and the Vineyard’s John Concannon.

In The Wood
Back to time-in-the-wood again, this time with Knappogue Castle’s Twin Wood 17-year-old single malt released in late January.

Quite logically, of course, it follows on the KC 16-year-old Twin Wood from last year, which was aged 15 years, 3 months in bourbon casks, followed by 9 months in Oloroso sherry butts. If you do the math you’ll see that the 17-year-old spent 15 more months in the sherry wood. Both are limited releases. Best guess is that they are distilled at the Old Bushmills Distillery. I’ll be hunting the 17-year-old down soon for a tasting. Retail is around $100/bottle.

Getting Our Irish Up
The US Distilled Spirits Council last week reported that Irish whiskey sales in 2011 in America outpaced those of single malt Scotch whisky. Irish whiskey sales rose 24 percent last year to 1.7 million cases, compared to a 9.5% rise to 1.4 million cases for single malt Scotch. IDL/Pernod Ricard’s push on Jameson sales is a big reason for that, as is increased consumer awareness of the category. Yes, that is very good news and matches what we see out there in the market. But remember that total Scotch sales are closer to 9 million cases, including blended Scotch whiskys that account for 90 percent of all Scotch shipments worldwide.

Whiskey/whisky sales overall are on the rise. All boats on a rising tide, as they say, and Irish whiskey justifiably is both a main reason and a chief beneficiary.

Worth Chirping About
Red Breast sales in the US alone are expected to post a 50 percent increase this year to 15,000 cases from 10,000 in 2011. It is the quintessential Irish Single Pot Still whiskey in America, as Green Spot, Powers John’s Lane Release and Midleton Barry Crockett Legacy are not available at retail in these parts. The widely available 12-year-old and its 15-year-old brandmate are now being joined by the 12-year-old Cask Strength. We’ve had spottings of the Cask Strength release in the Boston area last week. To badly paraphrase a more nobly stated sentiment, some people look at Red Breast cask strength on the shelf and ask “if”.  We look at it and ask “how many.”

Go get it. It’s wonderful stuff.


If you need more authoritative validation of this advice, Whisky Advocate magazine named Red Breast 12-year-old Cask Strength as the Irish Whiskey of the Year.

There’s much more to report, including the last and next Irish Whiskey Society of America tastings, but we’ll stop there for now.

Sláinte!