Belfast Whiskey Week: Connacht Irish Whiskey

Isn’t it refreshing to actual celebrate something in whisk(e)y for a change that actually involves opening and drinking the stuff?

I’ve become increasingly disheartened by the actions of many in the whisky sphere. The Waterford drive-through for the Pilgrimage release – they might as well have let the auction vans do the deed and load up. The nonsensical prices around Bimber and any other young whiskies. The proud announcements on social media that hey! I have a bottle, only to feature it unopened and destined to be flogged on the secondary market.

The bottom line is why should someone who hasn’t had a hand in creating, designing and distributing a bottle, actually make more (dramatically so) than everyone else? The reality that people have worked extremely hard to create the juice: they’ve put their passion, soul and possibly their own mortgage into creating a mere liquid. I don’t question distilleries for putting up prices when they see what’s happening. You cannot blame them as a new breed of buyer is dabbling in whisky for their personal gain.

So, it is somewhat refreshing to experience a new beginning and a sense of positivity.

We all have experienced the restrictions of COVID-19 and the impact on our respective daily lives. For the organisers of Belfast Whiskey Week, the easiest and most sensible option would have been to defer till 2021. The normal 7 days of shenanigans across various pubs and venues in Belfast were unobtainable. The ability to converse with friends and strangers over a pint of overrated Guinness, or a burger, was forcibly closed. Instead, they ploughed ahead and took a week of tastings online.

All credit to their determination and madness. A love of whisky that propels them to laugh in the face of COVID-19 and stomp on the difficulties of lockdown. That’s worth celebrating and acknowledging, as we wouldn’t have a week of tastings ahead of us including an array of whiskies from across the world, including an old Scotch event, hosted by my good self, without their hard work. For full transparency as well, our Phil is also involved in helping with the event week and he joined me in his usual grumpy demeanour for the launch of a debut whiskey from a new distillery. Tickets for this tasting cost £43.71 and continuing our mantra of transparency, both Phil and I, paid our own way.

Connacht distillery will be a new name to many of you, I presume and is pronounced conn’oct. Keeping up with all the new distilleries is a thankless task nowadays. The distillery itself is situated in the town of Ballina in County Mayo. And the main attraction of the tasting was the launch their debut Single Malt Pot Still Irish Whiskey along with 5 other whiskies that showcase what the distillery team are focusing on.

I should have started this with the line have you heard the one about the 3 Irishmen and an American that wanted to start their own distillery? Hindsight is a wonderful thing, as are families, even if they are separated by the mere presence of the Atlantic Ocean. Back in 2012, a Stapleton conversation hatched a cunning plan to build their very own craft distillery. Thanks to the expertise of friends – one of whom is a distiller – you have the prospect of an Irish distillery with strong American roots. You can read more about those involved and the distillery team here although it seems the distillery manager is pretty shy.

The distillery itself offers the ability to do everything on-site including bottling. The previous occupants of the site were bakers and now yeast is played with on a different scale. The stills themselves were built to the master distiller’s specifications at Specific Mechanical Systems in Canada, before being shipped over. German firm ROLEC, who are normally associated with beer, has provided the necessary equipment for the remainder of the production process.

You can watch the broadcast above and relive the evening, before jumping into our reviews:

Spade & Bushel 10 Year Old – Jason’s review

This sourced whiskey is available from Connacht for €34.31 and comes in a 35cl bottle.

Colour: lemon juice.

On the nose: exactly what I hope for in a young Irish whiskey with buttery apples, lemon peel, pear drops and fragrant vanilla. There’s a clean and lightness to this. A Refreshers chew, green mango, limescale and a touch of alcohol to remind you of its age.

In the mouth: a sugary sweet emphasis backed up with lemons and apples. A little alcohol on the finish comes through. Some bashed mint, sharp in places and eucalyptus, boiled sweetness, oakiness, melon and a buttery aspect.

Score: 5/10

Spade & Bushel 10 Year Old – Phil’s review

Colour: pale gold.

On the nose: apples, pears and pineapple cube sweets. Vanilla and apricot but also a touch spirity with a herbal, pine needle note rounding things off.

In the mouth: Sweet and a bit floral too – apples, banana, peach schnapps and sharp oak. A hint of eucalyptus and some mild spice. The finish is short with a spirity overtone.

Score: 3/10

Spade & Bushel 12 Year Old – Jason’s review

This sourced whiskey is a limited edition, featuring a finish in premium select first fill bourbon casks for 2 years on site. It is still available for €57.84.

Colour: apple peel.

On the nose: slightly spicer than the 10, more wood emphasis now and less spirit. Honey, some cinnamon, almonds and a creamy caramel. Cooking apples, ripe pears and polished oak. It feels denser on the nose, clay-like and robust.

In the mouth: that additional wood spice now comes through, there’s a good mouthfeel to it. Toffee, more apples and ripe pears, white chocolate, a splash of cider vinegar in places, potato peel, cinnamon and some lemon rind.

Score: 5/10

Spade & Bushel 12 Year Old – Phil’s review

Colour: olive oil.

On the nose: quite clean & fresh although a tad darker than the 10 yr old. Apples, pears, light toffee notes along with nutmeg and oak spice. There is a still a green, herbal note underpinning everything.

In the mouth: slightly darker & spicier on the palate too – oak influence more apparent here although the mouthfeel is pretty watery. Vanilla, honey, orchard fruit, coconut and milk chocolate. There is a sharp, prickly heat mid-palate with lemon pith too. The finish again is short with lingering pepper heat and lemon and pink grapefruit bitterness.

Score: 5/10

Spade & Bushel 5 Year Old Amarone – Jason’s review

Initially matured in bourbon casks for 4 years, it is then finishined in artisan Amarone wine casks from the Veneto region of Italy. It is still available for €48.05.

Colour: a light honey.

On the nose: white grapes, honey and tangerines. A twist of lemon, faint apricot, mace, cotton, vanilla and a sugary shortbread. All very delicate and subdued it must be said but pleasant.

In the mouth: citrus elements, orange peel, apricots and a yeasty dough. A touch of rubber but gentle and ok, eggy? Some gentle dryness as well.

Score: 5/10

Spade & Bushel 5 Year Old Amarone – Phil’s review

Colour: copper.

On the nose: fudge, rosewater and bubblegum. Underneath that we have apples, pears and stewed berries with nutmeg and fresh cherry and blueberry with a note of cask char too.

In the mouth: brown sugar, grenadine, strawberry laces, cherry and orange along with clove and cinnamon spice mix. The finish is really short, passing very quickly leaving just a faint trace of red berries and brown sugar.

Score: 5/10

Spade & Bushel 14 year old Marsala Finish – Jason’s review

This is finished in sweet marsala wine casks from Sicily, for an additional 2 years. Expect to pay around €68.99 for this bottle.

Colour: bashed copper.

On the nose: sweet and woody with plenty of apricot, tobacco and red apples. There’s plums, strawberries and pink peppercorns. An inoffensive nose. Adding water unlocks lemon and coconut.

In the mouth: pleasantly average with figs, more peppercorn and orange segments. Tobacco leaves come through on the finish with some rubber. Adding water reveals more rubber and lemon peel.

Score: 5/10

Spade & Bushel 14 year old Marsala Finish – Phil’s review

Colour: tawny brown.

On the nose: underlying orchard fruit of apples and peach covered in sticky toffee sauce & toasted almonds. A light tobacco note along with morello cherry and sandalwood.

In the mouth: Tarte tartin. Caramel, dried apricots, raisins and citrus peels. Crushed walnuts and Brazil nuts, menthol and stem ginger. The finish sadly is relatively short with coffee grounds and black liquorice.

Score: 6/10

Connacht Double Distilled Single Malt new make – Jason’s review

Colour: like my bank balance after a visit to Cadenhead’s.

On the nose: lemon peel, floral and plenty of vanilla. Clean and light and inoffensive. Green apples and sweet liquorice.

In the mouth: fruity with more of those liquorice overtones, fruit sugars, barley drops but mostly apple based.

Connacht Double Distilled Single Malt new make – Phil’s review

Colour: clear… duh.

On the nose: caramel covered digestive biscuits, bran, fresh citrus peels and cream. Copper and a trace of salinity.

In the mouth: cereal upfront, cocoa bitterness, pepper spice along with the salinity from the nose. Very creamy with apple and a light strawberry note.

Connacht Triple Distilled Single Malt new make – Jason’s review

Colour: like my conscious.

On the nose: this is much much lighter, cleaner. Tangerines, dried hay, bananas and golden syrup. Not much definition or pose.

In the mouth: very decliate, a flat beer almost with lemon, poppy seeds and aniseed. More of those barley sugars and a minerality, almost chalky aspect.

Connacht Triple Distilled Single Malt new make – Phil’s review

Colour: see above.

On the nose: lighter and fruitier than the double distilled. Sugar syrup, banana, pear, peach and cheesecake. A slight sour yoghurt note along with copper and light salinity.

In the mouth: definitely lighter than the double distilled. Barley sugar, flint, copper and grapefruit with lemon oil. Strangely the fruit of the nose struggles to appear on the palate.

Jason’s Conclusions

Well, anyone can knock out an array of sourced stock in Ireland nowadays, but I was pleasantly surprised here. There are more care and attention displayed and the 10 is what I’d expect from an Irish whiskey, namely vibrant, some fruitiness and just enough detail. In comparison, the 12 feels a little more bourbon-like and heavier on the wood influence. Still enjoyable, but I’d reach for the 10 given the choice. The Amarone is too timid and a gentle finish. Some might want more of that Amarone influence as it is a delicate whiskey overall. In comparison, the Marsala finish doesn’t really take me anywhere. There’s some rubber, apricot and sweetness. Overall, it didn’t move me in any shape or form.

But we’re here for the main attraction and that’s a sense of what Connacht will be as opposed to sourced stock. Both new make samples suffer from the 45% sample strength, so it is just an indication. I expect higher strengths would have more pungency, oils and texture. As it stands, the double-distilled is the one that has more to say at this stage. The triple feels a little more stripped back, bare and timid. I’m looking forward to seeing how these turn out when it comes to whiskey.

Phil’s Conclusions

Let’s start with the sourced material first.

The 10 year old is just lacking on all fronts for me. No real punch to the nose, palate or finish and has a spirity overtone through all three too. I think rather than refill maturation this expression really could benefit from first-fill bourbon maturation or even a decent spell in some virgin oak. Certainly not a malt that I’d recommend you explore.

The 12 year old was fine, nothing mind-blowing with little more to report than that which possibly says it all. The 5 year old Amarone certainly has potential but I think it’s too young and needs a few more years. The nose is lovely but the flavour delivery is all too brief….literally blink and you miss it and the finish is practically non-existent.

The 14 year old Marsala cask is a solid dram only let down by me with another weak finish….it just doesn’t linger on for very long at all. If the finish had of been better then I could easily have scored this a 7. Saying that, this is a dram that I could easily sip on with mates for an evening of craic….when we are allowed to do that sort of thing again.

Now, we come to the new makes. It certainly is exciting that we are seeing a rebirth of distillation on Ireland’s West Coast with many other distilleries recently having come online and more soon to follow.

Of the two new makes the double-distilled is the one that speaks to me the most. Oilier, thicker and probably has the potential to stand up to maturation in fortified wine casks well. The triple distilled is noticeably lighter both in terms of mouthfeel but also in character and lives up to the ‘traditional’ Irish malt stereotype especially nose wise. The palate was interesting in that the fruity side of the nose didn’t follow through and instead I got a slight funk and bitterness to it and so this was a slightly less successful spirit for me. Of course, the real proof of the pudding will be when we get to try the matured spirit which is seemingly just round the corner

Images kindly provided by the distillery, with the tasting pack photograph taken by the author.


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