I’ll confess: I’m an Irish whiskey neophyte. Unlike scotch whisky – where I was able to savor neat drams in charming pubs – my formative experiences with Irish whiskey involved shots of Jameson’s in the wee hours of the morning at some of planet Earth’s worst bars.
However, reading the effusive praise heaped on selected Irish malts (including a perfect 10/10 for the Redbreast 21-Year-old) has gradually softened my scepticism. Dipping a toe in the water of life, I enjoyed a small glass of the Redbreast 12-year-old at work Christmas party last year. Charmed, I made a New Year resolution to expand my whisky repertoire to the malts of the Emerald Isle.
Almost a quarter of the way through the year, I am making good on my promise today by reviewing a bottle of 12-year-old Special Barrel Release Single Malt Whiskey from Knappogue Castle.
Noortje previously reviewed the Knappogue Castle 1951, in which she did a commendable job detailing the history of this brand. I’ll not re-hash the details save to remind that this is a subsidiary of listed Castle Brands, founded in 1998 by Mark Andrews, who also owns Knappogue Castle (the actual castle, as well as the whiskey label). Castle Brands might be familiar to MALT readers as the parent company of Jefferson’s bourbon and The Arran Malt, as well as Celtic Honey and Brady’s Irish Cream liqueurs, which are not in danger of being reviewed here anytime soon.
The current Knappogue Castle whiskey range includes 12, 14, and 16-year-old expressions, as well as a 21-year-old “exclusive cask vatting” and a 12-year-old finished in Château Pichon Baron Bordeaux casks. The whiskey being reviewed today is a 12-year-old “Special Barrel Release,” produced from a “handpicked number of barrels,” per the label. The label further specifies that the whisky “is triple-distilled in copper pot stills and aged in first fill bourbon barrels. It is non-chill filtered.”
So far, so good, but where did the whiskey actually come from? I reached out to Knappogue Castle to inquire about their sourcing, maturation and bottling policies. They inform me that this whiskey was distilled at the Bushmills Distillery from a 100% malted barley mash bill. The maturation occurred in first fill B-1 bourbon barrels, with each barrel producing around 216 bottles (consistent with the size of this release). 50 barrels per year are released as U.S. store picks, though a cask strength offering is only available through the Irish Duty-Free channel.
So, that’s where this whiskey came from. As for how it got into my hands: I picked this up from my local sleeper whisky clubhouse, GNS Market. A sticker affixed to the label indicates that (like the Knob Creek single barrel I recently reviewed), this is a 3-way bottling for GNS Market, along with the pizzeria and delicatessen owned by the same guy.
Because I know when I’m out of my depth, I brought Phil in to help me review this (his notes follow my own).
This was bottled at 46% in a run of 216 bottles. I paid $35 for 750 ml.
Knappogue Castle 12 Years Old GNS Store Pick – Taylor’s Review
Color: Medium straw with peach glints.
On the nose: Ester, cereal, astringent juvenile green woody notes, mint, salted whipped butter, sugar cookies.
In the mouth: Starts with a very firm, taut woodiness. More grain notes and a heaping helping of yeast, before some richer fruit flavors of ripe Bartlett pear emerge at midpalate. There’s more of that green twiggy nuance. This lingers with more pear notes, some salinity, and another woody note – this one gentler and better-resolved than those that came before.
Malt and cask never seem to find balance. The high points are the sugary baked good aromas and generous fruit flavors that fight their way out of the St. Patrick’s Day brawl between spirit and wood. At least it’s comparatively inexpensive, though given Irish whiskey isn’t a staple item in my cupboard, I’d be inclined to pay up for something higher quality next time.
Knappogue Castle 12 Years Old GNS Store Pick – Phil’s Review
Colour: Virgin olive oil
On the nose: Creamy and buttery. Vanilla, light toffee notes and oak. Peach conserve, cantaloupe and papaya – a tropical fruit bomb of a nose. Candyfloss too. A dash of water releases caramelised dark brown sugar and vanilla custard.
In the mouth: Even at 46% this is pretty thin and lacks body. A little simple sugar syrup on arrival, malt biscuit, a little caramel before becoming very oak driven and surprisingly peppery. Lacks the fruitiness of the nose. Water makes things a sweeter on arrival but this again is soon overtaken by the dry spice of oak and pepper heat. Eventually, some fruit fights its way through in the form of peach schnapps. The finish is short with oak char, that pepper tingle and a slight bitter note.
Much better than the Quiet Man 12-year-old I reviewed many moons ago on Malt but yet again this is a bit of a letdown. It leads me to believe that Bushmills are not selling their prize casks to 3rd party bottlers. In fact, I’d say these casks would have been destined to be vatted into the 10-year-old Bushmills in the core range or possibly one of the older age statements given a few more years where the idiosyncrasies could be blended out.
Unfortunately, I think this is too cask driven, perhaps a 2nd fill maturation would have allowed the base spirit to shine through more and allow us to savour the tropical fruit found in Bushmills new make. As is the 1st fill barrels have pummeled it into submission. The nose is a lovely thing which is why the palate is a let down as the two just don’t marry at all.