Night is always darker before the dawn and life is the same, the hard times will pass, every thing will get better and sun will shine brighter then ever.
A thought-provoking quote from Ernest Hemmingway to kick off this exploration with J.J. Corry. Prompted by a recent personal loss, the COVID-19 era, and unfortunately, being unable to actually attend the live stream itself. A shame, as with a bountiful week of events online, the Belfast Whiskey Week is the best festival you’ve missed out on in 2020. And I’m not trying to be wise, as many festivals have fallen by the wayside this year. It truly was that refreshing, all-encompassing, organic and alive.
By that, I mean, organised by whisky enthusiasts like you and me. A disregard for profit maximisation and extracting every last penny out of punters. They put on a week of events, which were well priced and unassuming in this age of scripted online tastings. The packs themselves were wonderfully designed, and from those, I’ve seen, generous pours. Postage? Often the bane of any online tasting and an invisible wall to participation and interaction. Nah, they beat that as well, with friends astounded to receive their packs within days of shipping to far-flung destinations such as California and Canada. This felt like a festival run by the people, for the people and for this we should be thankful.
The beauty of it all was that if you purchased a ticket for 1 event, then you were granted access to every live stream across the whole week. In between tastings, the festival vibe was amplified with comedy sketches and live musicians. It felt like a festival; you felt included.
I’m sure other organisers would do well to look at what Belfast Whiskey Week achieved in such a short space of time. I’d be interested to compare the experience against a more corporate, industry-focused and commercial approach adopted by The Whisky Show 2020, which plans to offer virtual passes for £20 plus a £1 booking fee. The Whisky Exchange team seem confident they can deliver, perhaps taking some inspiration from the efforts displayed in Belfast? Size isn’t everything, neither is the presence of Dave Broom. It’s about connecting and involving your audience. That’s the challenge. I felt, as did many, compelled to log on and see what was on offer during the Belfast Whiskey Week, regardless of whether I had a tasting pack or any knowledge of the liquid at hand. And that’s the ultimate endorsement from those fortunate enough to discover the festival.
The virtual Whisky Show has decided that purchasing a tasting pack won’t give you access to their week of online events, you’ll still have to purchase another ticket and this feels like a misstep. However, the ticket potentially will unlock discounts, early entry and exclusive access to some show bottles. Meaning for many, that it’s £20 well spent. And for those companies wanting to participate, the rumoured fee is a mere £2200 + VAT, which is several times more than other online festivals. Big expectations for such an outlay and so far, there are around 70 brands signed up for the event, including some that are fairly new.
From my own point of view, before purchasing anything, I need to know what makes the Whisky Show so worthwhile and unique compared to other online events, given the success of the Belfast Whiskey Week. Thankfully, there was an evening test/preview last week to iron out some technical gremlins and get a feel for things. A good idea, as there were some issues initially, but the chat function worked well and Billy was running his own session away from the main stage. What’s clear is that this is a new frontier for the team – much like 2020 for all of us – and they have a little time still, to put together the schedule and platform.
Part of the Belfast enjoyment factor was that the tastings weren’t the traditional endorsement we’ve seen multiplying in recent months. You know the type. Where the ambassador gives you the script and then takes you through each dram. Instead, your hosts ushered you into a relaxed, friendly environment. The drams were there and tasted in order, but it was the relaying of experiences and tales that brought things to life. Nuggets of information, interaction with other attendees and the team behind the scenes releasing photographs and downloadable information as the tasting cruised along. The interactive element was underlined by the ability to vote on each dram (an understandable scoring system based on 1-10), and if you missed out then the tastings, bonus materials, music and comedy sketches, these are all being uploaded to their YouTube channel.
When faced with a treasure trove of tastings, the question is how do you whittle down your choices, in tandem with protecting your liver and bank balance? A key driver is always a personal interest, but also bringing some overdue coverage to Malt. We’ve been meaning to return to J.J. Corry for some time now, even trying to organise an interview via Justine. So, with both boxes ticked, this was an obvious opportunity to catch-up.
J.J. Corry The Gael – review
Colour: white gold.
On the nose: light, summery and inoffensive. Elements of fruit and grain. Degradable Packing Peanuts – those green plastic things you sometimes get in packages. Limes, green apples, unripe mangoes and a bar of quality white chocolate. Some elements of damp wood, white grapes and an alcohol sharpness. Adding water brought out a creamy aspect and dock leaves.
In the mouth: more lightness and a pleasant mouthfeel. Subtle in parts and a pleasing lick of alcohol keeps you awake. Inoffensive. More apples, some vanilla, wine gums and lime on the finish. Candied orange and the addition of water brought out more spirit and a backwards step.
J.J. Corry The Hanson – review
Bottled at 46% strength, this is a blend of three casks of Irish Grain Whiskey from different distilleries. Between four and ten years old and all ex-bourbon barrel matured. This better not be bottled as a tribute to Phil’s favourite band.
Colour: elderflower drink.
On the nose: grain lightness and floral, uncluttered if I’m trying to be positive or simple fare as some might say. Juicy fruit chewing gum, dulled vanilla, lemon drops, grainy, cooking apples, sherbet, cone wafers and an old newspaper. Adding water brought out a popcorn element.
In the mouth: more light qualities and vanilla. This is clean, fresh and summery. Grains unsurprisingly with alcohol, cardboard and lemon. Water changed the texture to a nice effect but little tangible benefit otherwise.
J.J. Corry The Banner County – review
Bottled at 46% strength, this is a limited release of 168 bottles, only available in their Native Co.Clare. The whiskey comprises of 70% single grain bonded in 2010, 10% Single Malt bonded in 2016 and 20% Single malt bonded in 2006.
On the nose: apple peel, crushed grapes and a grainy poly filler aspect. Some Chardonnay and a perfume note in places and cider vinegar.
In the mouth: light and palatable. Ok, bland in places as well. Barley sweets, some lemon and vanilla. More sharpness from the alcohol with elements of cider vinegar, and fresh lime. I wouldn’t have queued for this with alcohol lingering on the finish.
J.J. Corry The Sonas – review
Bottled at 50% strength, this blend is available as an exclusive from Master of Malt for £59.95.
Colour: apple juice.
On the nose: more apples, a light sprinkling of cinnamon and a hint of smoke. White grapes, barley sweets, pineapple, white chocolate and rusks. The grain is also noticeable alongside a tin metallic note – water isn’t beneficial.
In the mouth: fuller on the plate than what we’ve had so far and more density and body. A creamy vanilla, apple peel, pears and lemon. Some grapefruit and a buttery finish. Water I felt is best avoided as the whiskey loses its texture.
J.J. Corry Gold Rush – review
Something new in the form of a 9 year old mezcal finished single grain whiskey, limited to just 250 bottles.
Colour: 8 carrat gold.
On the nose: sweet elements with syrup and driftwood. Sour green jelly sweeties, a doughy aspect and toffee. Time reveals more herbal elements with tarragon, green tea, aloe and vanilla. Water unlocks mint leaf and tablet.
In the mouth: sharp green apples and plenty of grain obviously, but still vibrant. Lemons, cider vinegar and green tea. Adding water reveals more of the herbal elements on the nose but not much development thereafter.
J.J. Corry 2016 Single Grain Cask Strength – review
Colour: a light morning haze.
On the nose: more delicate than anticipated and less punchy. Traditional grain elements such as vanilla, coconut and clean cotton sheets are present. Beyond this, it’s hard to define much more. Icing sugar and Fox’s Glacier Mints and adding water unlocks white chocolate and a very light, runny, honey.
In the mouth: sweet and sugary with elements of apple and lemon sherbet. Hot and uncouth in places this seems like an odd choice to showcase your skills. It does take water well, but the trade-off is that the sprinkling of definition, evaporates. Still, drinkable but little to hold your attention.
This tasting certainly gives a good snapshot of J.J. Corry and what they are producing as blenders. The opening drams were flaccid and light, inoffensive and what you’d expect to open up such a tasting.
Looking at the prices for the opening half, I cannot recommend them as purchases. There also does seem to be a secondary market attraction to anything they bottle on a limited basis. This is the way of things for many bottlers today. Banner County just felt like something thrown together to mark an occasion without too much longevity. The trick for any bottler is to combine availability with pricing and tangible experiences. So, by the time of the Banner, my own thoughts of J.J. were one of hype over content. Then, we moved into the second half…
And then more of the same; highlighting a potential issue with cask supply? How much variation can you bring when you’re relying heavily on young grain and malts? At least the Gold Rush tried something different with the mezcal finish. I was really looking forward to experiencing the cask and it did leave an impression. Not as robust as the tequila cask deployed with the Boutique-y Balcones release, but the influence was apparent. Unfortunate in my mind that the original grain prior to the finish must have been pretty mundane.
I suppose that’s the thing if you’re a blender starting out from scratch. Self-taught and going about things the hard way, as opposed to bringing in an experienced full-time master whatever [see the lead comment below]. For J.J. Corry it seems trial and error and that’s character building, but also means some of the whiskies have a similar nature and are vapid. I’m quite surprised by this outcome, as, given the hype from some quarters, the expectations were high. But that’s the advantage of tastings such as these and being able to sit down with a variety and form a solid opinion.
Rounding off the whole tasting was the cask strength grain. It seemed odd to bottle such a young grain, coming in at 3-4 years in age. Grain needs time, more so than malt. There are always exceptions, but this isn’t it and left me confused by its inclusion. In retrospect, it sums up my thoughts on the whiskies here overall. As more Irish whiskey becomes available and independent blenders establish themselves and their skills, hopefully, we’ll see an improvement. Can do better. And I expect we’ll see that in the coming years.
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