“About a week ago I saw a post on Twitter by a whiskey reviewer, @2DramsofWhiskey of Westmeath Whiskey World, in which he showed a picture of some vials of whiskey and informing us that he was going to be doing a blind whiskey tasting. I replied to his tweet asking what was a blind whiskey tasting and how does one go about doing it. Not really expecting an answer, I was more than pleasantly surprised when I got a reply telling me that it could easily be arranged!
This was followed with some private messages in which I then had to admit that I know next to nothing about whiskey (which may surprise some of you, considering I sell whiskey stones but how and ever…)
That didn’t put the reviewer off and before I knew it, here I was with 3 samples of whiskey to try out.
I have to admit, it took me a few days to get around to doing it and a certain amount of mental preparation (don’t know why but I was quite daunted by this task!).
Anyway, today was the day. I got out the samples, I found three glasses, got a spittoon glass at the ready and a bottle of water to clean my palate between tasting.
I got a pen and paper out ready to make some notes and cracked open Sample D. I poured some into a glass and first took note of the aroma, which struck me as quite sweet. I sipped and let it rest in my mouth, closed my eyes and thought for a moment about the flavours. The two flavours that struck me the most was citrus and wood. I then added a wee drop of water to see what flavours this would release and the sweetness became more intense. I found this sweetness too much for my liking to be honest.
I washed my mouth out with some water and proceeded to try out Sample E. Again, the first thing I noted was the aroma. This time I could almost detect the freshness of the sea. (probably not remotely a technical whiskey tasting term but it fits for me). This whiskey had a very pure taste and I found it very pleasant indeed.
On to Sample F I went. As soon as I opened the bottle, I could catch a hint of peatiness. I like peat but not too much of it so I was wary. However, this was not overbearing at all. I tasted. Wow, what an explosion of flavour in my mouth. There was an almost orange tang of it but it was a little sharp for me. Having said that, I think this would be an amazing after-dinner tipple.
I gathered my notes and what you have just read is my semi-coherent interpretation of them.
So, there you go. My first whiskey tasting. I actually really enjoyed it and it was a good challenge to write about it too!”
Many thanks to Irish Whiskey Stone Company for sharing their thoughts.
The Chapel Gates I’m referring to are not the ones in the song of emigration & belonging.
I worship a different kind of spirit.
It too travels all over the world – yet also has a belonging. A place called home – from where it was born – and where all those imbued relationships & history can be awoken by taking a relaxing drink of the noble liquid.
Founder Louise McGuane – like many other Clare folks – left her homeland to seek a career. Now she has returned to the family farm & resurrected the old Irish tradition of whiskey bonding by naming her soon to be released blended whiskey after local grocers J.J. Corry.
An advert for the original – now long defunct – grocers still hangs proudly in the lovely local Crotty’s Pub in Kilrush.
Mrs Whiskey and myself took a trip down to Cooraclare to drop off a few items – and in return received a guided tour of the premises & generous sampling of some whiskey casks.
Whiskey bonding used to be the normal way the brown spirit travelled from the distilleries to the consumer.
Distilleries would sell the spirit to the bonder – usually a grocer – who would then mature that spirit in casks of their own choosing before blending & bottling the results under their own brand names for the ultimate satisfaction of the drinker.
Louise has been quietly buying up her stocks of whiskey for the last few years. Some of it came already casked & others she filled in casks sourced by herself through contacts built up over many years in the drinks industry.
My first sample was from one of those casks.
New make spirit – Louise has & is buying new make from a number of new Irish distilleries – was put into a ‘juicy’ 1st fill bourbon barrel for 1 year. After removing the bung & using a valinch – or whiskey thief – to transfer some of the softly golden liquid into a glass I took a sniff.
At 63% this was powerful stuff indeed. Yet the the rich vanilla & caramel notes from the bourbon cask came through clearly & the overall experience immediately captivated me.
It was certainly youthful & punchy – but there was no nasty burn or smell of rotten fruit I associate with new make spirit – and I’d have bought a bottle as it is. But as 3 years is the minimum age for whiskey in Ireland – it will have to mature for another 2 years. This will alter that initial hit of sweet vanilla & honey with more woody & balanced notes that longer maturation develops – for a bit of explanation read here.
We then moved onto a single grain cask. I got my chance to pull out the bung & fill the glass but compared to Louise’s easy looking example earlier – I broke the bung & left a lot of the precious liquid for the angels to share before getting it in the glass.
The single grain was an altogether softer, fruitier & more balanced tipple still with a healthy bourbon barrel flavour flowing through it. Even Mrs Whiskey enjoyed this one!
On the other side of the rackhouse were some more mature barrels.
An 18 year old aged & worn looking sherry hogshead produced a very fine well balanced mature sherry single cask whiskey – a bit too well defined for my tastes – although Louise said this was one of her favourites. She did profess to knowing the flavour profile of each and every single one of the casks in the shed individually & had even developed a relationship with them all. She would find it hard to part with them for her upcoming Gael blending session the very next day!
My final tasting was from an ex-Bushmills cask acquired from John Teeling at GND in Dundalk. At 26 years old the exact history of the cask was unknown – but clearly peat had played a part as that familiar waft of smokiness made it’s presence felt even before the sample entered the tasting glass.
Rich, warm & well balanced. The soft smokiness never dominated the more subtle flavours yet left a wonderfully long finish on this fabulous malt.
Unlike the brashness of the youthful 1 year old which enthralled me with it’s loud delivery of a few notes – this 26 year old gently developed a full orchestra of flavours to amuse & entertain my palate.
Like the fabulous spirit – the building which contain the casks is a combination of old & new materials uniting to create a thoroughly modern example of an old tradition.
The nearby visitors reception & office are still being finalised from the old cattle sheds of the farm by using the original walls & fittings yet containing up to date facilities & warm hospitality.
The energy, drive, enthusiasm & above all passion for whiskey which Louise exhibits is clearly evident in her ability to create such a wonderful facility in the beautiful Clare countryside of her birth. At times it has been an up-hill struggle to almost re-invent the wheel of whiskey bonding that once was such an intrinsic part of the industry. The current generation of tax inspectors, coopers, blenders & bottlers, town planners & developers are re-learning the skills of a generation that went before.
When JJ Corry The Gael is eventually released in September – it too will encapsulate all that lost history, taste & sense of belonging.
After having had the opportunity to sample some of the raw ingredients – I’m sure it will be a stunner.
The limited run of 7,000 bottles will be non-chill filtered with no added caramel & presented at 46%. Most of the run is destined for America – with limited release to some choice outlets in Ireland.
I suggest you secure your bottle now – it won’t hang around for long!
My thanks to Louise McGuane for her hospitality in showing us round the rackhouse & generous samples.
We wish all at Chapel Gate Whiskey future success.
It’s that time of year when the great and good of the Irish whiskey world gather together in a celebration of distillation. This years event takes place in Tullamore with a visit to the new Tullamore Distillery and an awards evening in the Old Bonded Warehouse on October 20th.
As part of the process to pick the winners – members of the Celtic Whiskey Club and the Irish Whiskey Society were invited to a blind tasting of the competing expressions.
I made my way up to Dublin for the day to add my scores to the collective pot and found myself in a basement hotel room carefully laid out with 38 identical whiskey bottles – along with a half dozen barrel aged beers – to rate.
The bottles were arranged in their respective categories;
Irish Blends up to 60.
Irish Blends over 60.
Irish Single Pot Stills.
Irish Single Casks
Irish Barrel Aged Beer
The only way of differentiating them was the bottle code for scoring, the colour and the very subjective taste preferences of the judges.
All entrants have to be commercially available in Ireland in October. Other than providing the required sample bottles to The Celtic Whiskey Shop by the allocated date there is no entry fee and ticket sales for the evening are forwarded to charity.
I started with the entry level blends.
What struck me straight away was the uniformity of colour on display.This saddened me. The variety and differences in blended whiskey are what excite me – both visually and taste wise – yet presented here to all intensive purposes were 15 bottles of identical dark golden brown liquid.
My fears of added caramel were confirmed as in one expression after another the dominant – and at times overwhelming – note encountered was sweet. My poor scores reflected this disappointment. A few did have some pleasant fruit notes coming through together with a welcome spice. Some were rough – most were smooth – but there wasn’t much that excited me.
I expected a noticeable increase in flavour and quality in the blends above 60 category as experienced last year. Despite the average scores being slightly higher at 66 as to the former’s 63, that all important “more bang for your bucks” wasn’t forthcoming. At least the colour variation was more pronounced.
Oh dear! Perhaps my 3 weeks in Australia tasting some knockout single malts, ryes, bourbons and wheat whiskies had jaded my palate.
I moved onto the barrel aged beers.
Now I must admit to a benchmark brew in this style which all others are judged on. Trouble is – it’s not Irish! There was one dark beer that came out close however. It had a noticeable whiskey nose together with less carbonation giving it a more heavy feel – much to my liking.
I should point out my method here. Out of an average 3ml sample I possibly tasted and swallowed half. The other half ended up in the spittoon after having been swirled round the mouth for further evaluation. In between each sample a full measure of water was consumed to cleanse the palate and rinse the glass. I must have drank about 2 litres of uisce during the process. A hearty lunch and some hot tea also split the session in two and aided to my relative sobriety at the end of the day.
It was after that lunch I attempted la creme de la creme of Irish whiskey – the Single Pot Stills.
Using a combination of malted barley and unmalted barley in the mash, I was looking for – and happily found – the signature soft spice together with some rich fruity notes. The variety was much more pronounced in terms of colour, flavour profile as well as strength. I distinctly thought one entrant was simply a watered down version of another! The average scores rose to 73 for the packed field of 13 entrants.
Only in the big reveal on awards night will all my hunches be either confirmed – or more likely dashed. The new Redbreast Lustau release was rumoured to be in the mix somewhere. Was it one of my winners?
For me however – the best was yet to come.
The Single Casks had only 5 entrants. All scored highly with a 77 average and one stood out.
Fuller of flavour and richer in style, I dispensed with the spittoon to immerse myself in their beauty. My winning dram on the day happened to be the smokiest entrant and I fear I’m turning into a peathead!
A further sample of this expression went down equally delightfully as the first – well – I did have to re-check my initial scores!
The craic agus ceol was mighty during the session. Judges came and went but all added their penny’s worth to the growing banter and collective scores.
If you haven’t already joined either the Celtic Whiskey Club or Irish Whiskey Society – isn’t it about time you did?
Who would have thought that an invitation to taste – sample and rate some of the best whiskeys that Ireland has to offer for the Irish Whiskey Awards 2015 ceremony to be held on October 15th in Dublin could end up being such an arduous task?
As Faith No More sang – We Care A Lot.
I maybe should have taken a leaf out of former President Clinton’s advice when it came to hard drugs – “I didn’t inhale”. Well I sniffed whiskey and swallowed. Pretty dam good it was too – but after about a 30 sample score for the day – it had the potential to be messy – which thankfully it wasn’t.
I would however recommend – both for my future health as well as anyone else who cares to indulge in these events – the correct use of the spittoon.
Sniff – Slurp – Swirl – Spit – Score.
For an informative and entertaining blog on attending whiskey events click here.
The particular event I attended was hosted by the Celtic Whiskey Shop who advised on the scoring method to be used.
Sniff the whiskey – score out of 25 for aroma..
Slurp the whiskey – swirl round the mouth for taste – score out of 25.
Spit the whiskey out into the spittoon – score out of 25 for the finish.
Finally give another score out of 25 for overall impressions and balance.
Giving a total score out of 100 for each whiskey tasted.
I’m a bit apprehensive about scoring my whiskeys as such. I find tasting such a subjective and personal experience rather than the objective and clinical approach that judging should be. It takes a lot of the whiskey tasting fun out of the equation – but nonetheless I was here to judge so that is what I did – and it soon became fun too!
For the sake of uniformity all judges were given a NEAT glass each with which to sample the whiskeys. Now I’ve not encountered this glass before – I tend to use a smaller version of the classic tulip shaped Glencairn glass – whereas the NEAT has a more flat thistle shape to it – handy for printing a logo on the bottom? – NEAT claim it enhances the aromas as well as delivering a controlled sample across the tongue – I’d agree with the latter but uncertain on the former.
I should also say that all the whiskeys were sampled blind. They were presented in identical clear bottles with only the colour variation to differentiate them before tasting and an alphabetical/numerical code to match the score sheet.
My first category to try was the Irish Single Grains. As there were only 3 competitors in this field it probably isn’t difficult to guess which expressions they are. My scores reflected my previous encounters with these lovely smooth whiskeys and only a point separated the top two – but are my tastebuds up to guessing which particular expressions they were? All will be revealed on awards night!
My downfall occurred during the very large Irish Blended Whiskey under 60 euro with 17 entrants. I started here as it’s probably the most likely category I’ll buy regularly.
To begin with I eschewed the spittoon wishing to sample as many fine whiskeys as possible. It quickly became apparent that not all the blends were actually fine – some were – some weren’t – and I’d end up exceedingly drunk if I swallowed the whole taster. So never before have I thrown away so much whiskey. I should have brought along an empty bottle to decant the remains into – but I didn’t – and by the time I thought of it I was mildly intoxicated and couldn’t be bothered.
Anyway I soldiered on. My scores ranged from a poorly 64 up to a nice 83 with most being in the 70’s bracket which I would call grand – in the Irish meaning way. I can’t wait to find out who I gave my top mark to!
A hearty lunch was called for to soak up the alcohol together with a large glass of water. I ventured forth into Dublin city centre which was basking in the brilliant sunshine that had eluded Ireland all summer. Pity I was sequestered in a hotel basement tasting whiskey – hence the title of this blog!
Suitably refreshed I returned for more categories. The 3 entrant slate for the Irish Whiskey Barrel Aged Beer lot started the afternoon proceedings gently followed by Irish Single Casks again with 3 offerings and then the Irish Blends over 60 euro.
There were also a few more judges about and discussion soon started comparing our experiences. I was reassured when 2 other judges also chose the same top scorer as myself for the Single Casks and in an interesting turnaround – my top scores were another judge’s bottom scores across 3 separate categories! At least there was consistency in our differing tastes and remarkably – our ratio of top to bottom scoring was also consistent! Perhaps there is something in an objective approach to scoring whiskey! I do think it has to be blind though as seeing the expression comes loaded with a whole set of previous assumptions and experiences of the brand.
Time was marching on however and aware I had a train to catch I resisted the large Irish Single Pot Stills category to go for another small field in the Irish Cask Strength Whiskeys.
Now I know I’ve expressed difficulty with cask strength before – how much or how little water to put in – but I had been encouraged by others that the entrants were very palatable and showed off their colours when tasted neat and I must state -neat, neat, neat is how I like my whiskey – cue another video.
Indeed loud music was how I was feeling with so much fine whiskey consummed – but after a dash for the train all I had on offer was my trusty ipod and some repetitive dance tracks to accompany my journey west. I felt devastated finding out there was no trolley service to quench my whiskey buzz. By the time I got home it was like the famous scene from Ice Cold In Alex – except it was the tea I was after!
So there you go. A day out judging Irish Whiskey. I’ll have to wait for the big event on the 15th October to find out not only which expressions I tasted – but which ones came out top in their class. Not only will it be a great showcase for the best in Irish distilling – but a test of my judging abilities.