A month or two ago I received a message from the ever cantankerous Phil complimenting my recent ramblings on Irish whiskey, who would have thought it and suggesting that Malt-Review could benefit from another Irish voice giving their opinions on the ever-shifting dynamics of the whiskey world. And of course, being a dominantly review based website, the clue is in the name, it helps that I apparently have a decent palate, well at least I think I do.
So since then, I’ve been trying to select some samples worthy of reviewing for the ever-growing followers of Malt and to be quite honest, I’ve been trying to find a product that I am interested in tasting myself. I set myself some criteria, I want an independent product from a transparent producer with little to no marketing waffle and a distinct reliance on the quality of their whiskey to build their brand. W.D O’Connell Whiskey Merchants fits that bill, or ‘phils that bill’ if you want some terrible puns.
Daithí O’Connell, founder of W.D O’Connell Whiskey Merchants, is a man who hasn’t just fallen into the Irish Whiskey industry trying to capitalise on the recent growth, rather someone who is taking a calculated risk. He’s chosen to follow his passion by attempting to make an Whiskey project work which had proved intangible in a distillery format just a few years previous. His journey has been amply summed up in an interview with Phil, where Phil also enjoyed O’Connell’s previous two releases.
Now, with the objective of giving a more rounded insight into the Brands I am writing about, I must confess that I have worked directly within the Irish Whiskey industry for 8 years now, from a retail, hospitality and even from a Brand-owner perspective. I’ve had the opportunity to sit across the table from many of Irish Whiskey newest brands along with the dominant forces in the industry as a buyer, seller, Brand Ambassador and Industry consultant.
My first dealings with Daithí were as a buyer in the hospitality industry and the impression he provided has lasted with me since. He had a distinct awareness of what the on-trade(bars, restaurants, hotels) had to offer in terms of the success of his brand, admittingly he hasn’t really had to worry about it, as the majority of his stock has been snapped up by thirsty consumers nationwide, in Ireland thus far. Nevertheless he stated he wanted publicans and their staff to get to know his product, to taste it, to know the story behind it and for it to fit in to their recommendations based on its quality and transparency. He showed an awareness that the Irish on-trade is dominated by the likes of Pernod Ricard and Diageo when it comes to pouring agreements, menu placement and support for the venues but he still believed that if he could build a relationship with the publicans and the quality of his product is consistent then his Brand will be a success.
This is admirable for two reasons, firstly because many new brands are entirely focused on building export markets to the point that they don’t bother trying to make their mark domestically whatsoever. Now that may radically change post-covid, as gaining listing in new markets becomes more difficult however that is besides the point that, if you are an Irish Whiskey, you should have a presence in Ireland. Secondly, in the past decade it was the Irish Whiskey bars that gave many new entrants to the market their first opportunities, those coveted first listings, where you can send consumers who ask about your brand, where you can bring distribution partners to see your products on display. The support of these bars laid the very foundations for success for brands such as Teeling Whiskey, Dingle Whiskey and Green Spot before it went to export to name a few. A lot of new entrants to the Irish Whiskey market either don’t know these facts or choose to ignore them.
W.D O’Connell Whiskey Merchants have expressed a desire to become the ‘Cadenhead’s’ of Ireland which sounds like an excellent concept, as it is one thing which Irish Whiskey lacks at the moment. The Celtic Whiskey Shop, which has arguably done more for the Irish Whiskey category than any other retailer/distributor in the world, have the Celtic Cask range which focuses on spirit sourced from distilleries before being finished in Single Casks from wineries which they import for throughout the globe. The Celtic Cask brand has produced some absolutely phenomenal whiskeys, Celtic Cask Ocht for example, but has never been considered as anything other than retailer exclusives rather than a stand alone brand. Daithí’s focus on creating bottlings which showcase the source of the distillate along with their own touches of finishing casks or tinkering with bottling strength is almost identical to that of the Celtic Cask range, apart from his focus on building the brand in the on-trade.
Unfortunately for Daithí the on-trade is going through an incredibly dark time in Ireland with the restrictions due to Covid19 and he will have to rely on the quality of the whiskey and it’s sales in the off-trade to get him by for a little while longer at least.
So with all that being said it has absolutely no relevance to the whiskeys being tasted so let’s take a look at the two most recent Single Cask releases from W.D O’Connell and see if they can live up to the last.
The ‘Bill Phil’ cask strength edition is a heavily peated Triple distilled single malt from the Great Northern Distillery which has spent just over 4 years in first-fill ex-bourbon casks. This is the first bottling in the ‘Bill Phil’ series to be released at 59.6%abv cask strength and there will be 350 50cl bottles up for grabs on it’s release at €70 per bottle.
The PX 18 year is a continuation from the 17 year old PX finish released previously. This is a Double distilled Cooley Single Malt which has spent 17 years in first-fill bourbon casks before a 13 months finishing a in PX sherry Cask. Again bottled at Cask Strength of 58.16%abv there will be 370 50cl bottles released at €140 per bottle.
W.D O’Connell Bill Phil Cask Strength Single Cask- Review
Colour: Pale lemon, closer to Sauvignon than Pinot a la Phil.
On the nose: Relaxed peat with pleasant alcohol initially, there’s lemon, herbs, mint and liquorice with crisp pears coming through gently. There’s touches of iodine throughout with something reminiscent of a dusty mechanics cloth but the fruit underlies with gooseberry and mango notes.
In the mouth: Peat jumps forward on the first sip with a burst of smoked almonds and chili chocolate. Fruits from the orchard, apple and pear skins with a touch of white grape zinging the tongue. As it moves to the back palate there’s kindling, clove and a burst of hazelnut praline with a medium finish.
W.D O’Connell 18 year Old PX Finish Cask Strength Single Cask- Review
Colour: Copper with an orange hue.
On the nose: Rich, robust nose with mature malt spices, pungent raisins, marzipan sweetness, juicy plum and a touch of banana bread. There’s hints of resinous oak throughout but not overpowering, it flows to apricot sugars mixed with orange oils and retains vibrant biscuit malt.
In the mouth: Rounded with mouth-coating body, the richer notes from the nose are enhanced immediately but then reduce to succulent sultanas, peaches, kiwi and a bite of lychee. It’s got something I can only describe as caramel cover apricot with a unique rosemary-infused chocolate not bring you to a finish of white pepper and cinnabun. A drop of water makes it burst with dark chocolate and strawberries.
Firstly the ‘Bill Phil’ Cask strength. Another testament to the quality of the peated distillate which GND is producing and a great cask selection by Daithí in my opinion. It lacks the dirty, griminess of the initial batches of Bill Phil that set certain discerning palates alight, but for me, it’s balanced with plenty of layers to it and punches well above its 4 year, 2-month maturation, maybe a little refined for the #CaskStrengthCrusade to shout about it, but certainly not for me.
The PX 18 year old is a superb drop, fruit-driven, complex and certainly a winner at cask strength and/or playing with a drop of water. It retains that Cooley character and could easily be compared to some of the better Dunvilles releases which Phil reviewed recently, same distillate different casks. It’s better than the previous release of PX 17 year old but yet the only thing holding it back from a 9, for me, is that I feel these stocks will keep improving in the coming years. I’d suggest that they continue to release these as Cask strength Single Casks in the future if they asked.
All in all, an enjoyable tasting experience with W.D O’Connell’s latest releases, they certainly are an exciting young independent bottler, I only hope we start to see more distilleries entering their range in their pursuit of becoming Ireland’s answer to Cadenhead’s in the not too distant future.
Bottle and selfie photographs provided by W.D O’Connell.