Writing a blog about the future of Irish Whiskey with a headline photo of a trio of Scottish Single Malts released by the supermarket chain Lidl may seem a little askew – but it highlights an issue pertinent to the current Irish Whiskey industry.
Imagine I’m a supermarket chain of similar standing.
I want some Irish Whiskey.
Perhaps a single pot still, a single malt & a single grain to show off what Ireland has to offer.
I have the branding ready to go.
I have the bottling plant primed.
I have the customers.
Can Irish Whiskey deliver – like yesterday – to capitalise on the Scottish release?
Brian Nation‘s speech at the recently held Irish Whiskey Awards 2016 held in the fabulous surroundings of the Old Bonded Warehouse in Tullamore certainly piqued my interest.
A number of points were raised that particularly caught my attention.
The first was the spectacular rise of Irish Whiskey in the global market and how everyone associated with ‘BRAND’ Irish Whiskey – from producers to publicans, distributors to bloggers – had a duty of care to promote and protect the integrity of that brand.
Was my first thought.
I’ve just been branded myself!
But what is Brand Irish Whiskey and who defines it?
Before I could process those thoughts another key word leapt out at me.
There certainly has been some wonderful innovation in the Irish Whiskey scene lately.
The new entrants into the market have been at the forefront of this in my opinion.
The multi award winning Teeling Whiskey Company use rum casks to finish their Small Batch blend and Californian wine casks to add flavour to their Single Grain. Neither casks being commonly used. Single Grain is also unusual. Before Teeling Single Grain was released Greenore – now renamed Kilbeggan Single Grain – was the sole representative in this category.
Both these Teeling expressions won Best in class awards on the evening with Kilbeggan Single Grain winning Gold.
West Cork Distillers are also new entrants and have been making spirits often under the radar of the mainstream.
The bold design of their Pogues bottle together with the brand association attached to the famous/infamous group – depending on your preference – was certainly innovative.
Criticism has often been attached to the quality of the liquid inside West Cork produced offerings yet winning a Gold Award for the Galway Bay Irish Whiskey release certainly raises their game and puts them in the spotlight.
Midleton themselves -the brand owners of Irish Whiskey during the years they were the only players in the field – haven’t been caught napping.
Using whiskey casks that have previously held beer for the growing Irish Craft Beer scene to mature Jameson Caskmates has certainly been a hit that is now being expanded into other markets.
The new Makers Series offer some innovative stories to the spirit although I did find the liquid rather ‘safe’. Nonetheless 2 of the releases won Gold Awards.
The most exciting innovation of the evening however almost made me re-enact that famous scene from ‘When Harry Met Sally’
MIDDLETON ARE GROWING RYE IN IRELAND!
Now it won’t be harvested until early spring 2017 and a further minimum of 3 years at least before any spirit can be released – but as a confirmed lover of rye – I can’t wait!
Luckily for me I didn’t have to.
A couple of kind gentlemen from across the pond had informed me beforehand they had brought over something special.
Whilst the Corsair Triple Smoke blew me over it could be categorised as an ‘extreme’ whiskey. I did love it however.
The Emerald release from Ransom Spirits of Oregon was far more approachable however and much more pertinent to the Irish Whiskey brand.
Made using barley, oats and rye to an 1865 Irish Whiskey recipe uncovered by some research this stunning whiskey is satisfyingly smooth yet rich in mouthfeel coupled with a delightfully long rye spice finish.
Emerald to me have captured the PAST of Irish Whiskey in a bottle of the PRESENT.
When you know Brian Nation and his colleagues are poring over old Jameson recipes from the early 1800’s that included rye and oats – as well as currently growing rye in the fields around Enniscorthy – then couldn’t this be a representation of the FUTURE of Irish Whiskey?
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.
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.