As a native Celt, expertise in the world of whisky is an integral part of my genetic inheritance. Right?
Recent insights ahead of ‘World Whisky Day’ on May 16 about ‘uisce beatha’ (Gaeilge for the ‘water of life’) has made me realize how silly that notion was.
Embarking upon an enjoyable tasting exploration of the sector, my eyes were opened to the sheer diversity of distillers and the complexity of the whisky-making process including key flavour components of barley, the importance of terroir and cask selection and the distinct differences between single and vatted malts.
While I cannot (yet) call myself a connoisseur, I am certainly much more knowledgeable than I was, and much happier. For whisky and its merry makers throughout Ireland and Scotland granted me some truly memorable escapes, which in the midst of physical lockdown, have made my inability to travel easier to accept.
To help you ease some of the stress caused by the coronavirus, here are some top-notch brands offering sensory delights ahead of global whisky celebrations later this week.
Established by a group of friends in the picturesque Wicklow Mountains, outside Dublin, known as ‘the garden of Ireland,’ this distillery has launched a special 17-year-old malt with officials saying no other Irish whisky has spent so long – two years – in Japanese Mizunara oak, after 15 years in a first-fill bourbon cask.
Described as having “vibrant, citrus notes over the long, sweet honey and vanilla,” the master distiller adds, “The smoothness from the initial aging carries you through the depth and intensity of the wood spices, incense and earthiness within, while the sweetness of the bourbon cask creates harmony with these drier, woodier notes. Exotic and aromatic, the unique Mizunara flavours are complex, yet ordered and seamless on the tongue.”
Six thousand bottles were released last year, all in engraved wooden boxes. The distiller also produces a 25-year-old single malt, with officials saying it is the first Irish single malt ever to be aged in an Irish oak cask, and a seven-year-old single malt finished in a craft porter cask from 5 Lamps Brewery.
Located on a 300-year old estate in Sligo, on western Ireland shore, this distillery produces one million litres of triple distilled whisky annually. Its Hazelwood Estate sits lough-side near Dartry Mountain, home to Irish legends such as Fionn and the Fianna, Diarmuid and Grainne, Maeve, Queen of Connacht, the Wells of St. Patrick, the Lake of Tears, the Wail of the Banshee and Tír na nÓg.
No surprise then that Lough Gill is releasing three ‘mythical trilogies,’ known as ‘The Creation Trilogy’ over the next three years, namely Athrú Annacoona, Athrú Knocknarea and Athrú Keshcorran 14-year-old single malts, each limited to 6,600 individually numbered bottles, all finished in different casks, all crafted by Billy Walker, former World Distiller of the Year. Athrú is Irish for ‘change.’
Creative packaging replicates first edition books, retelling tales from Celtic mythology, as documented in the Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland, spanning from the Deluge to 1600.
Lough Gill Distillery dedicates three pot stills to production with most casks being sherry, which adds rich notes of dried fruit and spices, a contrast to the vanilla and toffee notes from ex-bourbon casks.
Scotland-born Professor David Thomson cherished a vision and together with his wife Teresa Church, they turned that vision into reality, transforming derelict historic buildings of a 19th century distillery in Dunfries-shire into a prized ultra-modern one.
In doing so, they have reintroduced high-quality peated and unpeated single malt scotch whisky into the south of Scotland, a task achieved through precise sensory analyses of around 60 single malts by twelve professional assessors working for a sister company, MMR Research Worldwide.
The result: non-chill filtered single cask, single Annandale Malts, including the highly acclaimed, smoky-peated ‘Vintage Range’ ‘Man O’Sword’ as well as the fruity, unpeated ‘Man O’Words.’ The distillery has also created the ‘Founder’s Selection’ as well as a ‘Nation of Scots’ blend and a ‘Rascally Liquor’ in honor of national poet, Robbert burns.
Formed in 2003 by childhood friends, John O’Connell, Ger McCarthy and Denis McCarthy, operating in a room at the back of Denis’ house with two small stills bought from a schnapps producer in Switzerland, West Cork Irish whisky is now sold in almost 70 countries worldwide.
Two particularly interesting whiskies are its peat and bog oak charred varieties. The former is triple distilled, single malt matured in sherry casks, then finished in peat charred casks for a further 4-6 months. The peat is harvested from the local boglands of Glengarriff. Taste is described as ‘smoke, and slightly sweet’ and the aroma ‘slightly sweet, dried fruit.’
The latter is matured in sherry casks before finishing in bog oak charred casks for a similar amount of time. Taste is described as ‘intense spice, malt and cracked pepper’ and the aroma ‘spice, dried leather with a sweet dried fruit undertone.’
Located at the waterfront in the town of Clonakilty in Cork, southwestern Ireland, the Scully family, founders of Clonakilty Distillery, have farmed this coastal land for nine successive generations, over 300 years.
The barley is grown on their farm in the shadow of the Galley Head lighthouse, and their belief is “pure clean air, transported across thousands of miles, from wild Atlantic storms, to tranquil sea mist and soft rain, provides a freshness unspoilt by human intervention.”
Their award-winning whiskies include their flagship single batch, double oak, matured in ex-bourbon casks, finished in virgin American oak; and shaved, toasted and re-charred in ex-red wine European oak casks. The nose: soft spices, vanilla, fresh cut grass, slightly perfumed, ripe apple/pear notes. Fresh leather tones.
The finish: vanilla sweetness and spices lingering on the palate. It won ‘Best Irish Blended’ in this year’s World Whisky Awards.
Terroir plus traceability and transparency, these are the three of the most important aspects of single-malt whisky making, says Mark Reynier, CEO of Waterford Distillery. And, of course, pure Irish barley, with 97 flavor compounds, from 72 Irish farms, including organic and biodynamically run, on 19 distinct soil types.
Not only but the distillery, unlike many that use mainly American bourbon casks as first fill, also utilises American virgin oak, French premium and sweet fortified wine casks, which Reynier describes as an ‘unprecedented wood policy,’ amounting to around 30 per cent of production costs. As the distillery is only 12km from the sea, he also believes there is a strong marine influence. And no color additives, E150 or caramel. In effect, says Ned Gahan, head distiller, “good spirit, good wood, good whisky.”
Waterford Distillery, on the banks of the river Suir, on Ireland’s sunny south-eastern coast is constructed on a state-of-the-art Guinness brewery built by Diageo in 2004, converted to distilling five years ago. The first bottles will be on the market in June, says Mark Newton, head of communications, plus an organically certified whisky this autumn.
Following the success of its Silkie whisky blend, Sliabh Liag Distillers on the famous ‘Wild Atlantic Way’ in Donegal, northwest Ireland have just released a rich smoky peated version, ‘Dark Silkie,’ a mix of selected whiskies.
Founder and managing director, James Doherty, said, “it is the first addition to the Silkie range and adds a smoky overlay to the signature Silkie style. It has always been my intention to bring peat smoke to blends and this is the first time we have been able to source the right smoky whiskies.” At its core, Dark Silkie has a triple distilled peated single malt matured in sherry casks blended with a double distilled single malt matured in bourbon barrels and soft grain whisky matured in virgin oak casks. The brand name ‘silkie’ derives from the name for a mermaid-like mythical shapeshifter. Sliabh Liag Distillery is the first distilling company in Donegal for over 175 years.
Faithful to the ‘single-site, field-to-bottle’ concept, this Scottish distillery was created from an old barn on the 2,000 acre Arbikie Estate on the east coast of Angus, which the Stirling family has farmed for four generations.
Ingredients for the spirits are planted, sown and harvested beside the distillery and the mountain-filtered water is taken from an underground lagoon.
Records show a distillery on the land dated back to 1794 and the distillers say “the field-to-bottle approach of ancient times inspired our own ethos, with authenticity and provenance at the heart of everything we do. And as a family business, we have the flexibility to be innovative and original.”
It’s copper pot distilled Arbikie Highland Rye Single Grain Scotch Whisky is described as a ‘single grain’ – grain whisky produced at a single distillery – aged for four years and matured in first-fill charred American Oak casks and enriched in Armagnac barrels. Only 1,220 bottles are available globally. The whisky is made from Arantes rye, Odyssey malted barley and Viscount wheat.
Located in the Old Mill House on an expansive estate in the foothold of the Wicklow mountains close to Dublin, this distiller was designed and commissioned by Forsyths, a 5th-generation family owned business from Scotland, manufacturers of distillery equipment since the 1890’s.
Fercullen (‘FeraCulann’ in Irish), named after the mountainous region around the estate, is produced here as 14 and 18-year-old single malts, premium blend and a 10-year-old single grain. The latter is matured in American white oak under the supervision of master distiller, Noel Sweeney, then recasked in fresh bourbon barrels. He describes the nose as “sweet vanilla, citrus, honey, spice, almonds, candy orange and oak” and the taste as, “smooth, sweet, crisp grain with complex combinations of oak, fruit, and sweetness.”
For it described how monks at Lindores Abbey in Scotland concocted aqua vita (the water of life) for King James IV in 1494. As Andrew’s grandfather had bought the abbey in 1913 (for 3,000 pounds), Andrew felt compelled to resurrect a little piece of history in Fife.
Attracting investors and hiring Forsyth’s of Rothes, which he describes as the ‘Rolls Royce of still-makers,’ and Gary Haggart, formerly of Cragganmore, as distillery manager, Andrew developed a multi-award-winning handcrafted botanical spirit using spices, dried fruit and locally grown green herbs such as Douglas fir, cleavers and sweet cicely, which grow in gardens amidst the grounds of the ancient Abbey.
Three years after opening, Andrew describes his AV as having “citrus notes and full of sweet and spiced flavours.” Additive free and vegan-friendly, the product was voted ‘Best in Scotland’ in the prestigious World Whisky Awards.
Dublin-based, this distillery opened five years ago, becoming the first new distillery in the capital city for over 125 years, close to where Walter Teeling first began his trade back in 1782.
Flagship for the company is its small batch, casks of grain and malt whisky fully aged in ex-bourbon barrels, then married together in central American rum casks for up to 12 months for a dried fruit profile. The result: ‘an inviting nose where vanilla and spice dance with bright sweet notes of rum.’
Under the title, ‘Trinity Collection,’ the company also offers single grain, single malt and single pot still, while its ‘Vintage Reserve Collection’ consists of ‘Renaissance Single Malt,’ eighteen-year-olds initially matured in ex-bourbon casks and an additional 18 months in ex-madeira casks; 24-year-olds matured initially in Bourbon casks then in ex-Sauternes wine barrels; and 30-year-olds matured in bourbon barrels, then in French white burgundy casks.
Established in the renovated church of St. James, and named after its founder, this distillery is located in The Liberties, an historic district of Dublin, a place pilgrims gathered before embarking on the route to Santiago de Compostela.
A blended five-year-old aged in bourbon barrels, is described by its makers as having “a slightly citrus note and a wisp of smoke, mellow malt tones with an aroma of light honey fruits with floral notes.”Also, the distillery’s first ‘Marriage of Malts’ was released last year and matured in Pedro Ximénez Spanish sherry casks. A vatted malt whisky, it combines its own with another from Cooley. Its nose is described as ‘rich malt, zingy citrus with a crisp minerality, lemon biscuit, fleshy fruit, fresh shaved wood, dry spice, vanilla, sweet apricot, caramelised pear, candied fruit.’ A ‘Marriage of Malts’ will be released every year in July to celebrate the distillery’s birthday.
Diageo’s first foray into Irish whisky since it sold its Bushmills distillery, Roe & Co. located in the iconic Guinness Power House, has created a blended malt and grain whisky, aged in ex-bourbon casks with a strong emphasis on first fill. Master Blender Caroline Martin says it “emanates notes of soft spice and mellow spun sugar along with warm hints of spiced pears and woody vanilla.” It is named in honour of George Roe, whose distillery in Thomas Street extended over 17 acres and was reputed to be the largest in Ireland in the 19th century. Neighbors for more than a hundred hundreds, George Roe & Co and Guinness were the two biggest names in Dublin’s historic brewing and distilling quarter.