“It doesn’t taste like Irish whiskey… you know, sweet and fruity.”
So went the spoken disclaimer offered with one of the samples pressed into my hand. While reading this might have prompted some forehead slapping from the more experienced members of the Malt readership (particularly those from the Emerald Isle), circumstances still render it unfortunately necessary.
Those of us on this side of the Atlantic have a growing-but-still-relatively-restricted selection of Irish whiskeys from which to choose. The flagship store of Chicago’s dominant liquor chain has perhaps four linear feet of shelf space devoted to Irish Whiskey, while rye whiskey gets triple that footprint. Bourbon and Scotch are an order of magnitude ahead.
When Irish whiskey isn’t being ignored by Americans, it’s being consumed once per year with the type of abandon that has Chicagoans tuning in to the police scanner for chuckles. Furthermore, the dominance of the Jameson brand in the American market means that many consumers’ Irish whiskey experience starts and ends with that famous green bottle.
While none of these factors is itself sufficient to kill off serious interest in a category, the combination thereof creates a “horn effect” – the opposite of a halo effect – in which a negative pall is cast over the entirety of Irish whiskey. Add to this the fact that an expanding list of domestic craft distilleries are constantly vying for American whiskey lovers’ limited time, attention, and money, and it’s all too easy for Irish whiskey to be swept aside.
I’m happy to report that things are slowly changing. More and more of the “serious” whiskey folk I know are at least making themselves conversant with some of the premium offerings from the more prominent brands that we see on shelves. Beyond Jameson and Bushmill’s, regularly encountering Teeling, Redbreast, and the eye-catching Spot range seems to have piqued the curiosity of whiskey lovers in my circle. It became clear to me that it was time to do a more thorough survey of Irish whiskey, prompted by the donation of several better-quality samples.
To pivot for a moment: we have several “stock” review formats here on Malt. Our mainstay format is the deep dive on a single expression, relying on the author’s knowledge to explain the history of the brand and contextualize the release among offerings from that distillery or region. There’s also the in-depth interview with a distillery owner or distiller, in which the people making the whiskey are allowed to tell the story in their own words. Sometimes we publish a personal journey-type review; occasionally, we indulge the good old-fashioned rant.
For matters of expediency more than style, we’ll periodically have a deck-clearing review, in which an author will tackle a stack of samples that have piled up. The generosity of our supporters meant that I had to undertake this exercise recently when I found myself with an embarrassment of rye whiskey.
Then, there’s the “fish-out-of-water” review, in which a reviewer with domain expertise in one region or style will approach a different type of whiskey from the perspective of a novice. Graham’s recent consideration of a handful of bourbon whiskeys is a good example of this type.
These latter two seem to be Malt’s most controversial review formats. We occasionally get requests for them, but we also receive criticism after we publish them. Usually, we’re derided as being lazy or insubstantial for failing to provide a deep-digging, hard-hitting probe of the type to which our readership has become accustomed.
In our defense, I will say that part of the Malt mission is to be useful to consumers. Now, some of our readers may be at a point in their whiskey journey where the meticulous details about production processes and raw materials are useful to them, and we are happy to focus on those a majority of the time. However, others might find themselves discovering the contours of a new style for the first time; these readers may actually benefit from a more basic approach.
From an editor’s perspective, I always want our contributors to write about what is grabbing their interest. None of our prior editors ever told me I shouldn’t or couldn’t write about non-American whiskey. I appreciated the freedom to follow my passion where it took me, even when I was not the ultimate authority on the subject of my reviews. Paying that courtesy forward, I would be loath to curtail even a rudimentary exploration of a whiskey outside a reviewer’s traditional bailiwick.
So, acknowledging that I am an American interloper with a relatively cursory understanding of the Irish whiskey scene, I’ll beg your forbearance in advance. As noted above: there will be more of us Yankees taking an interest in Irish whiskey, so I’d advise anyone feeling resentful to get acclimated to the idea of lots of dodos like me sniffing around the place.
I’ll begin with a cask-strength bottling of “The Legendary Dark Silkie Irish Whiskey” from Sliabh Liag (pronounced “sleeve league”) Distillers of Donegal. This was shared with me by Phil, who reviewed the mainstay 46% version on this site. Please consult that review for specifics about the makeup of the blend.
Phil’s initial look at Sliabh Liag knocked the labeling for sowing confusion about whether this whiskey was actually distilled by Sliabh Liag in Donegal (it isn’t). It’s evident that the boom in “sourced” American whiskey is seeing its parallel in Ireland, with a lot of same-y stock dressed up as something unique and different.
Bottled at 64.5%, this was an Irish and UK-exclusive limited release of 210 bottles. Though sold out now, asking price from Sliabh Liag was €80.
The Legendary Dark Silkie Cask Strength – Review
Color: Medium-pale tarnished gold.
On the nose: This starts with an almost wine-y fruitiness; picture a melon ripe to the point of beginning to rot. The alcoholic burn momentarily crowds out and additional aromatic development, but soon enough a green, juvenile woodiness starts to emerge alongside a note of key lime. I get a smooth and fruity note of orange creamsicle, as well as a floral perfume overlay that comes across as slightly intrusive. Some whiffs of sarsaparilla, white pepper, and aloe vera round out the presentation, which overall comes across as a bit sickly.
In the mouth: Much better than the nose; this starts with a warming, smoky note expressing the confidence of the peated malt in the blend. There’s the tart and rich fruitiness of Meyer lemon as this moves toward the middle of the mouth. At the top of the tongue, a piquant note of ginger appears as an interesting accent. There is some oaky sweetness and another tart fruit note as this moves toward the finish, where the peat smoke once again asserts itself as the dominant flavor. Through the finish, there’s a drying texture and an off-bitter note of dark chocolate as counterpoints to the smoke which persists without ever turning acrid.
There are all-purpose whiskeys, and then there are whiskeys which are a very specialized tool for a particular job. This falls into the latter camp; it is a warming, fortifying dram for cold weather. The nose is pretty challenging (not in a good way) but, fortunately, the palate brings a much-needed focus and balance to the experience. The smoky flavor is constant throughout, but it wanes to allow other nuances to be noticed before waxing again into and through the long finish. Overall, this whiskey is a pleasurable (if unspectacular) drinker, with flaws that are outweighed by its charms. As a consequence, I am scoring it a point above average.
Moving along, I have here another generous sample given to me by Phil. This is the cask strength version of the Dunville’s 12 Year Old PX Cask, which was very positively reviewed by him when he first looked at the Dunville’s range. This is Batch 1, of which 300 bottles were released at 55% ABV. Phil pegged the price at £100+.
Dunville’s 12 Year Old PX Cask Strength – Review
Color: Medium-pale tarnished gold.
On the nose: Soft, supple, and floral nose of potpourri, with a heaping helping of creamy vanilla yoghurt, and a chalky stone accent. Underripe bananas and pineapple aromas mix with a subtle note of celery, an effervescent aroma of young Champagne, and some raw bread roll dough. There’s an echo of Ginger Ale in here. Light but not insubstantial and very, very cheery.
In the mouth: That spicy nip of ginger ale makes an immediate reappearance, though this fades in favor as it moves toward the middle of the mouth. There’s some candied sweetness of a vague nature, as well as a woody note that blooms and keeps blooming, until the astringent flavors take on a bitter quality. The finish is enlivened by a cinnamon-accented nip of apple cider, with a lingering flintiness that is accompanied by a drying texture.
This is nice, which I mean in the way that unremarkable, non-threatening people are called “nice.” There are some pleasant notes here, especially on the nose, but I don’t feel like the palate fulfills that promise. In light of this, and taking into account the price, I am giving this an average score.
The third and final of the samples Phil shared with me is the W.D. O’Connell PX 18 Cask Strength. I absolutely love the level of detail provided to us by O’Connell: “This 18-year old single malt whiskey was distilled at Cooley Distillery and initially matured in 1st fill bourbon barrels. We then created a small batch, recasked and aged it for a further 13 months in PX sherry casks.”
Would you look at that! Mention of the source distillery and specific details about maturation and finishing time! I’m positively inclined toward this already, before even having tasted it. A few additional details: 363 bottles were produced at a strength of 58.16% ABV. Going rate for this appears to be around €140.
W.D. O’Connell PX18 Cask Strength – Review
Color: Medium-pale maize.
On the nose: An immediate note of ripe Red Delicious apple, a touch of cinnamon sugar, and some freshly-baked sugar cookie aromas provide a warm welcome. The apple notes transition to the green Granny Smith variety, as sweetly spicy notes of nutmeg creep in. With time, some more brooding notes of embers and sandstone make themselves evident.
In the mouth: Upfront, this presents a charming marriage of warmly woody notes and a tart fruitiness. There’s a drying, tannic feel to this as it moves toward the midpalate, where the fruit pivots to a citric bite and the mouthfeel takes on an almost effervescent texture. The finish has an unmistakable and surprising note of peanut butter; a radiant heat combines with more of the wood notes to create a drying sensation across the roof of the mouth.
I’m not quite sure where this fits in the classification of Irish whiskey, but I’m also sure I don’t care. The nose on this is as cheery and inviting as any I can remember. The whiskey tacks more stern in the mouth, but there are still plenty of pleasant fruit notes to balance some sharper flavors imparted by the casks. Quite successful overall; I’d buy a bottle of this if I saw it at retail price.
Finally, we’ll be finishing off with a pair of Redbreast whiskeys. I’ll be starting with a dram of the 12 Year Old Cask Strength expression. A short history of the Redbreast brand was provided to us by Phil; kindly consult that review (of Batch #B1/16) if you’re interested in more of the background. The majority of the Redbreast range is available with surprising breadth here in America; to give a sense, I once picked up a bottle of a 12 Year Old Cask Strength Redbreast in a gas station liquor store in Michigan!
I’ll be returning to that same Cask Strength expression for the penultimate whiskey in my flight. This is Batch #B1/20, bottled at a strength of 57.6% ABV. Going rate for this at retail is currently around $80, the price for which I purchased my bottle.
Redbreast Aged 12 Years Cask Strength (Batch B1/20) – Review
Color: Medium-pale gold.
On the nose: A rich but elegant balance of lusciously ripe fruit and fresh floral scents is the initial impression. Persimmon and Bosc pear meet the creamy and flowery perfume aroma of hand soap. There’s a roasty note of mocha here, as well as an herbaceous accent of eucalyptus. With time in the glass, I sense the emergence of the grainy smell of barley, which starts low in a very earthy register before ascending the tonal scale up to the aromatic heights of new distilled spirit.
In the mouth: Initially, there’s a deliciously sweet entrance of candied citrus fruit. Moving toward the center of the mouth, that citrus zest combines with more woody, earthy, and malty flavors in an intriguing mélange. The fruit subsides at the top of the tongue, leaving the barley to sing out momentarily as the heat blooms in a radiant cloud, the first textural indication of the high bottling strength. There’s a resurgence of the herbal eucalyptus note as this moves toward the finish, where the a sour citrus reemerges combined with spice, in a manner reminiscent of the peppery bite of pink grapefruit. The earthy and roasty notes linger longest, spreading out in an off-bitter and toasty wave around the periphery of the mouth as the whiskey leaves a tingle on the inside of the lips.
Fruity? Yes. Floral? Yes. Sweet? Yes… but so much more, besides. To pick out but two of the very many superlative aspects of this: the fruit and floral notes are pitch-perfect and exquisitely balanced, while the continual return (both on the nose and in the mouth) to the elemental grain notes adds a lovely reminder of the importance of raw materials to the process of creating flavor. I’m happy to concur with Phil’s judgment, and am awarding this a score indicative of its overall excellence (especially in terms of value for money) and its place as a perpetual staple of my home bar.
Finally, I’m at (what I hope will be) the top of the mountain. My expectations were certainly elevated sky high by Phil’s perfect score for this Redbreast Aged 21 Years expression. Given his (unfairly bestowed) reputation for being an ill-tempered curmudgeon, I weighted this lofty score especially heavily. With all that in mind: why have I waited so long to try this? Going back to the initial premise of the preamble: it’s Irish whiskey, and bottles of this retail for around $300. I seldom spend that amount on bottles of Bourbon or Scotch, which are definitely more in my comfort zone. Fortunately I had a sample on this bestowed on me by Troy, and I’d like to thank him for sharing this so generously. The whiskey comes to us at 46% ABV.
Redbreast Aged 21 Years – Review
Color: Medium golden brown
On the nose: In comparison to the 12 year old, this has an aromatic profile anchored in the darker end of the spectrum. Mocha, a piquant woodiness, hot fudge syrup, five spice, smoked meat, and charcoal briquettes all swirl in a serious, entrancing dance. The fruity notes are confined to a subtle bitter note of orange peel, as well as some tart gooseberries. With time, a decadent note of chocolate-covered cherry emerges.
In the mouth: On the entrance, this presents the uncanny flavor of ripe nectarine – complete with the texture of the fruit’s flesh – which spreads out to coat the tongue. This fruitiness is accented by a momentarily creamy flavor of vanilla as well as a subtly woody note as this reaches the midpalate, where some of the spicy and chocolate-y richness from the nose re-emerges. The finish tacks again toward nectarine, this time in a more tart, underripe form. There’s also a subtle smokiness to this, which plays well as a counterpoint to the fruit. The flavor of café Americano (made with an especially fruity espresso bean, of course) lingers after the last sip.
Though this was undoubtedly incredibly tasty whiskey, it fell a bit short of perfection for me. The positives were the seriousness and diversity of the nose, and the surprising turn towards ample stone fruit in the mouth. However, that mouthfeel is a bit one-note (no matter how delightful a note it might be). While the whiskey can be commended for retaining its fruitiness over such an extended maturation, I could have done with a bit more wood influence for balance here. Taking all that into account and in light of the high price, I am scoring this two notches above average.
Yes, there was fruit in each of these, but there was also a plethora of diverse aromas and flavors. As a consequence, these whiskeys defied easy categorization. Hopefully, the range of tasting notes and the generally positive scores have convinced some of my countrymen to approach Irish whiskey with the respect it is due. An abundance of compelling options await for those willing to suppress their preconceptions and open their minds.
Dark Silkie photo courtesy of Sliabh Liag. Dunville’s photo courtesy of Phil. W.D. O’Connell photo courtesy of W.D. O’Connell. Redbreast photos courtesy of Redbreast.