*Thank you to the good folks at Gemini Spirits & Wine for the sample!
I can’t hear “Connemara” and not think back 11 years ago to a family trip through Ireland and a fateful, death-defying horse-drawn trip through the Gap of Dunloe. Ok, fateful and death-defying might be pitching it a bit strong, maybe cramped and somewhat nerve-wracking would be closer to the mark. Still…there we were the four of us, reeking of a three Guinness lunch, brokering the services of a delightful reigns-man who, along with his trusty steed, offered to guide us through the beautiful Gap. What could be finer, a beautiful sunny day, trotting amicably along with a horse doing all the work, us doing almost no work at all, seeing more of the countryside…win, win. I’m sure this is what our guide had in mind as well, the horse…not so much. First off, this fellow’s rather worn cart was really more of a two-seater and seeing as there were five us, five reasonably thin people at that, it seemed difficult to imagine it accommodating our five seats. We four somehow managed to squeeze in, with our guide insisting he’d just sit on the edge after running alongside the horse to “get her started”.
Now, I am no equestrian, but even to me this seemed strange. I was under the impression that horses liked to walk, trot, run, canter, etc., running along side to get the ol’ girl going sounded like something you’d do to a vintage John Deere tractor. Turns out I had nothing to worry about, the ol’ girl loved to run, and without much urging from our now nervous looking guide, she took off, us hanging on for dear life, the guide sprinting worriedly alongside, pulling on the reigns for all he was worth. After an exhilarating 50 yards or so, the horse was under control (sort of), the driver perched precariously, and we were pointing out anything distracting to keep our minds from thinking about how much it was going to hurt when the cart inevitably overturned and we were ground to nothing on the coarse, white gravel below.
This scenario repeated itself several times, the horse striking out on its own, the guide barely regaining control (“Whoa lassie!”), the passengers losing faith by the second. “She’s willful,” our guide informed us, “part draught horse, part Connemara Jumper.” Connemara Jumper…a wonderful, evocative name for a breed of horse, but at the time, a very worrisome one for us personally. Every time the horse took off, no doubt driven by some devilish urge to terrify Americans, our guide would say, “I’ll give her her head, I’ll let her run…give her her head, now!” as if he had any control over the situation whatsoever, which of course he did not. Needless to say, our guide’s offer to “let her run” was increasingly met with pleas of “DON’T!” from us poor saps in the back.
The above has relatively little to do with Cooley’s Connemara Peated Single Malt Irish Whiskey…ok, it pretty much has nothing to do with Cooley’s Connemara Peated Single Malt Irish Whiskey. Unlike most Irish Whiskies, this one is only double distilled and is Cooley’s homage to whiskey back when whiskey was made a bit more secretively and provincially, using whatever was at hand (peat, of course) to toast the malting barley. Along with this bourbon cask aged flagship of the line, there are Cask Strength, 12 Year Old, and Single Cask expressions as well as the new, heavily peated Turf Mór.
The Nose: Stewed prunes and prune juice (in a good way) along with honeyed, vegetal peat – think wet hay…plus a little wet horse…perhaps wet Connemara Jumper. There are nice, soft toasted grains, and subtle wood notes here, a little oak, a bit of spice. There is smoke but it’s not too strong and has an interesting savory, faintly smoke-house twist to it.
The Palate: A zippy, crisp entry with slightly rye-esque toasted bread notes quickly turns spicy, peppery, and hot in a way that belies the low ABV. Mild, green, earthy peat grows stronger as things move along with some clove and fennel notes straggling behind, but this never gets to be big, Islay-level peat.
The Finish: Longish, with gamey woodsmoke, dirty peat, and nice subtle, sweet licorice notes lingering as well.
Thoughts: The clean, sweet smoothness of Irish whiskey mixed with the complex pungency of peat makes for an interesting whiskey. The peat’s decidedly not of the maritime variety, it’s a little earthier and not too strong, allowing nice grain notes and fruit to come thru. It does have a bit of that “two halves” thing going on that I’ve noticed in peated Speysiders, the sweet grain and the peat not integrating perfectly, but they do work pretty well together. Cooley’s managed to strike a good balance between the lighter Irish style malt and the darker complexity of the peat. Definitely worth a try if peat’s your thing, I’m looking forward to trying other expressions, especially the recently released Turf Mór.