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.
Welcome to their Dha Chasca Single Malt – exclusively released for the Musgrave Group of groceries.
It’s a sherry cask matured single malt finished in heavily charred bourbon casks – and it’s all West Cork Distillers liquid.
Originally founded in Union Hall & now based in Skibbereen – it should come as no surprise that a couple of the original West Cork team came from a fishing background. There is an emblem of a trawler proudly displayed on the simple yet attractively designed bottle labels to denote this.
Fishermen are a hardy lot. They have to be resourceful, adaptable & highly self-reliant on the open seas.
Couple those skills with a friend grounded in food research & development and you have the kernel of West Cork Distillers.
There was no fancy Frilli stills from Italy for these lads – nor a lengthy order time for Forsyth’s finest from Scotland.
These lads largely built their own kit! It may not be pretty – but it is effective.
West Cork Distillers have been quietly and industriously honing their distilling skills over the last few years. They have also invented & fabricated their own barrel burner to char the casks to their own specifications. And if you want to see it in action read the Whiskey Experts excellent blog on West Cork here.
Dha Chasca is one of a few recent expressions that only contain their own distillate – which attests to the journey they have taken in becoming a fully fledged Irish whiskey distillery.
There is a strong sherry note on the first sniff – mellowed by sweet bourbony notes of vanilla & caramel from the charring.
On tasting the warm notes of vanilla dominate to begin with. The dry sherry slowly makes it’s presence felt before a welcome hint of spiciness.
The bourbony notes fade to quite a dry mouthfeel with the spices tantalising & teasing the tongue as it slowly fades.
Unlike some of their earlier releases, Dha Chasca has no added caramel. This seems to mirrored in later West Cork expressions and could almost be a defining feature of the new generation of Irish distillers & bottlers. Teeling, Hyde, Pearse Lyons & JJ Corry have all eschewed the common practice of putting e150 in their offerings – unlike most of the multi-nationally owned established distillers.
Whether this trend will be the start of something more seismic – like the introduction of the Coffey Still in establishing blended whiskey – remains to be seen. It’s a move I’d be pleased to see growing & I welcome West Cork Distillers embrace it.
Despite what the industry says – I believe you can taste the difference.
The Dha Chasca is clean, crisp & fresh.
I suggest you get down to your local SuperValu or Centra to try it out for yourself.
By fortuitous chance – and a little rearranging of travel plans – my trip to Oz coincided with Whisky Live Melbourne.
I couldn’t let such an opportunity pass by so booked my ticket online even before the flight plans had been finalised!
Held in the fine looking St Kilda Town Hall – I arrived early to find a queue of fellow whisky fans eagerly awaiting the delights inside. Having previously attended a similar show in Dublin last year I made sure I was well hydrated and fed before the event.
My original plan to sample as much Australian whisky as I could had to be revised as browsing the pre-show website it became clear not many Aussie distilleries were attending. They didn’t need to! Their limited releases usually sold out very quickly leaving little stock leftover for sampling at shows.
The only representative of the new crop of Aussie distilleries happened to be Melbourne’s own Starward whisky where I reacquainted myself with Paul Slater who had so eloquently guided me through their portfolio during his Starward Talk &Taste evening at Pilgrim Bar the night before.
The lovely Apera and Wine Cask releases were on display at Whisky Live – but Paul had something under the table new to me – New World Projects X .
The contrast between your minds perception of what a clear spirit should be like – and want you actually experience on tasting – is certainly an interesting experience. It’s definitely whisky – if a little more oily and sweet than the Solera release on which a 3rd distillation has removed the colour to obtain Project X.
In a similar vein, Glendalough – one of 3 Irish stands at the show – had their Sherry Cask Irish Poitin which I tried in an almost mirror effect to Starward. In this case the unaged spirit has rested for a short while in sherry casks to give a lovely rich brown colour to the liquid which upon tasting gave a sweetness to the rather young spirit in the bottle. I found both these expressions a rather novel approach which would certainly be a talking point if offered to guests from the drinks cabinet!
Leaving Australia behind, India was the next nearest whisky producing country to exhibit with Paul John Distilleries being the sole representative.
I’d read lots of rave reviews about their whisky so eagerly accepted an invitation to be guided through the range by an enthusiastic ambassador who passionately informed me of the manufacturing process as well as the greedy angels in Goa which result in the wonderfully rich fruity & very tasty single malts before me.
After 4 of these fine malts were tried I found it hard to pick a favourite between the Bold Edition at 46% or the stunning Select Cask Peated at 58%! Both we’re delicious and deserve all the praise they have attracted.
Following on from my 4th of July blog I thought I’d further explore the American contribution to whiskey by starting with 2 distilleries new to me.
Appalachian Gap Snowfall is an unaged Vermont spirit made with a corn,barley and rye mash. The sweet corn influence took the edge off the 54% ABV together with a pleasant rye spice which I liked and a slightly oily mouthfeel. Their Kaffekask 44% release whereby the whisky is filtered through coffee beans in a Lincoln County Process style certainly brought a coffee kick to the table but was too sweet for my tastes. I declined the Kaffekask Liqueur.
Dry Fly Distilling from Washington State had a slightly more traditional selection using 100% wheat mash offerings at both 40% & 60% cask strength as well as a Port Finish at 43%. The combination of vanilla sweetness together with a slightly harsh finish didn’t endear them to me but the Triticale Whiskey I found much more appealing. Triticale is a hybrid grain derived from wheat and rye varieties and Dry Fly claims to be the first using this type of grain in a whiskey. The sweetness was still there but softened by a smoothness and slight spicy rye finish.
Woodford Reserve had a stall – but I found nothing of note.
Jack Daniels were next door with 5 releases for the Australian market. Not being a fan of Old No.7 I went straight for the No.27 Gold. At 40% this expression took me by surprise. The lovely pronounced spicy finish had me hooked. Even better than the Gentleman Jack release which I’m partial to. The Jack representative on the stall reliably informed me the double mellowing through 10 foot of sugar maple as well as additional barrel finishes provided the flavour boost. In this instance Sinatra didn’t sing for me!
Having called in at Glendalough I thought I’d better say hello to both Hyde and Tipperary.
Hyde had 3 offerings which I have tried before and enjoyed very much.
Tipperary meanwhile had eluded me with their Rising release so I gave it a go. Oh dear! Far too sweet for my liking.
My last port of call before turning to the largest contingent of the show – Scottish whisky – was to Sigrun, an Australian importer of Scandinavian malts. Mackmyra & Box from Sweden, Floki from Iceland and Teerenpeli from Finland were in attendance.
Sheep dung is used to dry the 100% Icelandic barley Floki is made with. It’s an unaged offering at 47% which gave a characteristic oily mouthfeel together with a slightly off-putting sour note for me. Pity – as I really enjoyed my visit to Rekyavik a few years ago. Maybe further ageing will mature it to my tastes.
Teerenpeli Rasi appealed to me instantly with it’s lovely well balanced light smooth taste. I must try out more of these Scandinavian expressions!
My remaining time at the show – along with staying hydrated from the water coolers placed handily around the hall and partaking in some tasty snacks from the centrally placed canteen buffet – consisted of Scotch.
I challenged my peat tolerance by going for the peat monster that is Octmore 7.1. Wow! Peat then spice and an explosion of flavour. Now I get it.
A trio of Finlaggan expressions from an unnamed Islay distillery – or even distilleries – were all very engaging with the cask strength coming out tops.
The Glenrothes rep impressed me very much by keeping a large audience enthralled with his sales patter as he went through a series of releases AND topping up all the glasses at the same time. By this point in the evening I couldn’t quiet keep up with him and my tasting notes were becoming illegible! Suffice to say the one that stood out for me – Glenrothes Vintage 1992 2nd Release had the most balanced nose complemented by a complex cacophony of taste – happened to be one of the priciest.
Despite there being a large shop at the back where eager whisky geeks could purchase rare or hard to find expressions – I simply immersed myself in the wonderful opportunity Whisky Live events provide in sampling a wide variety of styles, strengths and regions of whisky production throughout the world. Conversations soon flow as to the merits of NAS vs Age Statements, Bourbon vs Whisky, to chill filter or not and even to add water or not.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Whisky Live Melbourne.
If ever a Whisky Live event comes your way – make a beeline for it.
You won’t be disappointed.
Oh! Don’t over do it.
The combination of drinking plenty of water inbetween samples as well as topping up with a lovely goat curry from the wittily named iCurry restaurant on St Kilda Road afterwards ensured I woke up relatively bright and cheery to face yet another day of adventure in Melbourne.
Whilst he may know his IPA’s from his top fermenting ales – it seems his knowledge of single pot still whiskey and triple distillation were a little lacking.
That was until he attended a special Whiskey Tasting Class at Flanagan’s On The Lake hosted by Dan Miller – who bears an uncanny resemblance to whisky guru Charles MacLean – of the local whiskey club who meet regularly in Flanagan’s.
Absentmindedly listening to the radio one afternoon my ears pricked up at the mention of whiskey. Rick and his co-host Cormac were broadcasting from Flanagan’s On The Lake and I duly made a mental note to visit soon.
My opportunity arose the next day when my better half suggested we go out to take advantage of the sunshine which had just appeared after 3 days of rain!
Situated in the stunning twin towns of Ballina, Co Tipperary and Killaloe, Co Clare. Flanked by the majestic Slieve Bernagh hills to the West and the Arra Mountains to the East. Nestled at the foot of Lough Derg. Flanagan’s On The Lake sits on the banks of the mighty River Shannon overlooking the 18th Century stone bridge which joins the two sides at this point.
Before we had even reached Flanagan’s herself insisted on stopping to take some pictures and promptly sent them to friends in London just to make them jealous of the majestical scenery.
The restaurant/bar itself sits on the Ballina side of the Shannon. We could have cruised down in our motorboat and berthed at the adjoining moorings beside Flanagan’s beer garden from our base in Athlone. Perhaps even spotting some White-tailed Sea Eagles that nest in Lough Derg on the way. That’s if we actually had a boat!
Architecturally the building was rather ‘Celtic Tigeresque‘ to me. It’s actually an old railway freight depot that’s been extensively remodeled in 2007. I wouldn’t be the biggest fan of all that was put up during those years – but the location is simply stupendous.
Inside was a hive of activity. The afternoon sun had brought out families and friends – all of whom were enjoying the diner service at Flanagan’s. Before I could even browse the extensive range of whiskeys displayed behind the bar we were ushered to our table. The view outside was a little curtailed and Flanagan’s could have been improved by the floor to ceiling glass walls that adorn our local Ritz Gastropub which allow you to feel part of the scenery beyond. I did think of suggesting we sit outside in the large beer garden – but as the rain had started again – I kept quiet.
Herself had a whole Sea Bass from the A La Carte menu whilst I plumped for the traditional Fish and Chips. Two large plates of tasty food soon arrived along with some wine from the funky looking glass wine-store. We shared a dessert too before retiring to the more relaxed and congenial surroundings of the Whiskey Tower area.
Sat in the luxurious leather seats a whiskey suitable for the setting was deemed necessary from the 140 plus expressions on offer. Luckily I’d spotted just the one I wanted when I entered.
Hibernia Distiller’s Hyde No.3 1916 Single Grain release is the latest whiskey from the award winning company. The No. 1 Single Malt Presidential Cask’s subtle sherry influence has grown on me whilst the No. 2 Rum Finished offering struck me immediately with it’s powerful nose.
Now I know single grain doesn’t have the same kudos as a single malt. Grain is usually seen as a lighter more sweeter spirit commonly used in blended whiskey and caused consternation among more traditional single pot still distillers when the Coffey Still first appeared in the 1830’s. Not being put off by such tattle and in the name of variety I eagerly seek out the exceptions and have found a trio of tasty Irish single grains to tempt the palate.
From the very first nosing of 1916 – I knew this was something special. A rich sweet bourbon influenced aroma greeted me emanating from the first re-fill Jack Daniel barrels used for maturation. A warm unexpectededly heavy mouthfeel excited me followed through by a slight spice on the long finish. Such a robust feeling whiskey was not quiet what I thought a single grain tasted like but nonetheless the Hyde 1916 release seems to have just done that. Bottled at 46% and un-chill filtered I would be so rash to say that for all the Hyde whiskeys – as in the Hot Chocolate hit – Every Ones A Winner
Flanagan’s On The Lake conduct whiskey tasting classes in the sumptuous upstairs snug of The Whiskey Tower. There are even more mouth-watering varieties of whiskey housed in glass cabinets including a fine array of bourbons – some rye – a bit of Japaneses, Canadian and of course Scottish. Somebody else will be the driver on my next visit!
Flanagan’s On The Lake is a winner too.
The whiskeys, the food and above all the absolutely stunning scenery.
Do yourselves a favour and give them a visit.
Preferably when the sun is shining so you can sit outside drinking a fine whiskey as well as drinking in the views.