One of the highlights of my whiskey year is being able to participate in the annual Irish Whiskey Awards blind tasting sessions.
There are no labels, no brands and no preconceived ideas of what particular expressions you like. Just row upon row of identical bottles filled with varying colours of the brown stuff for you to sample & score.
The only markings are the codes to donate which category the whiskey is in and it’s number.
I managed to make 2 out of the 3 judging sessions that were held in Dublin back in late August, early September. Only after the Awards Ceremony itself in October are the names of the actual expressions revealed – and it has thrown up some interesting results!
Confession No 1. I’m not a trained whiskey taster.
Simply by being a member of the Celtic Whiskey Club or Irish Whiskey Society you get an invite to the sessions. By taking part you very quickly learn to spot which expressions you enjoy – or those that you enjoy less – and mark them accordingly.
Whiskey tasting for me is very subjective. It’s about what I like and enjoy. I’m not judging to spot a winner or to stock a bar – it’s just down to me and my palate.
Now the only ‘control’ at the session is a gentleman who happens to score diametrically opposite to me – his top scorers are my bottom markers, and vice versa. This pattern has remained consistent for the last 3 years. Which is reassuring.
The first days judging consisted of Irish Blended Whiskey under 60 euro and blends 60 euro plus. It proved to be a very packed field.
Confession No 2. Despite only sipping a small sample, using the spittoon & drinking copious water in-between – I got rather tipsy towards the end.
The session ended up being a bit of a ‘speed tasting’ event simply to get through all of the whiskey! I did recover after however with a hearty meal & a calming cup of tea.
I had a clear winner in the blends under 60 – Hyde No. 6 Special Reserve.
Now I know there has been a bit of controversy with this brand as to whether they are simply bottlers or a distillery – but they currently source their spirit from a third party and from my experience in trying out a few of their expressions – they do a good job in finishing the product.
There were a further 7 expressions up to 2 points behind this top scorer & interestingly for me – all of them were from new entrants into the Irish whiskey scene. Whether they be actual distilleries or bottlers, the careful selection of casks to mature the whiskey in combined with skilled blending clearly appealed to my tastes.
Obviously my tastes are a little bit leftfield as the actual winner on the night – Jameson Black Barrel – didn’t grab me.
In the blends 60 and over I had a tie situation with 2 clear winners. Now usually I would re-evaluate the scores with a head-to-head tasting but,
Confession No 3. I just didn’t have the capacity for anymore whiskey!
The winners were JJ Corry The Gael,
and Pearse Coopers Select.
Again I picked out the next generation of Irish whiskey entrants and was not in line with the winner on the night – although JJ Corry did get a Gold Award.
The second judging session found me in better form. I had a meal during the tasting which meant I had the capacity to re-appraise any tie situation – which happened to occur in the first Irish Single Grain category.
My eventual winner in this enlarged field over previous years was Hyde 1916 Single Grain.
I’m not surprised by this choice – this whiskey grabbed me on first tasting it soon after it was released.
The whiskey that just missed out happened to be the recently re-recipied Kilbeggan Single Grain. And it goes without saying I didn’t pick the actual winner – Glendalough Triple Barrel.
Now the 14 entrants into the Irish Single Pot Still category represent to many the creme de la creme of Irish distilling. Midleton distillery dominates this field with their Redbreast, Powers, Spots & Midleton releases.
So what did I pick as my winner?
Dingle Single Pot Still. The only non Midleton product in the field – & I pick it out.
My only tasting notes are a brief ‘different’.
And that to me is the excitement of what the new Irish whiskey companies are bringing to the market – difference.
Having said that – this was also a tied category which required a head-to-head duel. The one that just missed out happened to be the Midleton Dair Ghaelach Bluebell Forest release. Now that’s another whiskey showing something different by being matured in Irish Oak barrels.
So would the final Cask Strength category give me a full house of winners from the new breed of up and coming Irish whiskey companies?
Now this release is also a single cask – but I don’t know which one I tasted. It’s also a sourced whiskey for John Teeling’s new venture in Dundalk – the Great Northern Distillery – whilst his own new make spirit matures.
So there you have it.
I may not be able to pick out the actual winners on the evening.
But I have an uncanny knack of picking out what’s new & exciting in the Irish whiskey scene!
Interestingly all of my winners are non chill filtered, all produced for or by new Irish whiskey companies and as far as I can ascertain – none have added caramel.
In a blind tasting situation all you are going on is ultimately the taste.
I believe I tasted the future of Irish Whiskey.
My thanks to all the staff at the Celtic Whiskey Shop for organising the judging sessions as well as the Awards night itself.
My thanks also to all the entrants who gave freely of their whiskey for the judging.