In 1972, Irish whiskey pretty much hit rock bottom. Bushmills had just been absorbed into Irish Distillers, thereby giving the company control of both distilleries (New Middleton and Old Bushmills) on the island. At the time, Irish whiskey was reportedly selling barely 500,000 cases a year (for comparison’s sake, Jameson sold approx. 4,000,000 cases in 2014). The style limped along on fumes until the mid-80’s, when a couple of things happened to revive it. In 1988, Pernod-Ricard bought up Irish Distillers and began to pour a lot of money and energy into their new brands, especially Jameson. In 1985, a man named John Teeling bought a potato vodka distillery (potatoes? In Ireland? Who knew?) and converted it into a whiskey distillery. By 1987, production was underway at the new Cooley Distillery.
Whereas Pernod-Ricard’s efforts re-established now ubiquitous brands like Jameson and Bushmills, Teeling’s Cooley Distillery breathed new life into formerly well-known brands, like Tyrconnell, and into throwback styles such as the peated Connemara. The only independent (and staunchly so) distillery in Ireland, Cooley helped raise the reputation of Irish whiskey past the cheap bottles everyone had gotten used to. It was a bit of a surprise when Teeling jumped out of the whiskey game and sold Cooley to Beam Inc. (now Beam Suntory), but luckily for Irish whiskey, his sons have picked up where he left off.
Stephen and Jack Teeling founded the Teeling Whiskey Company in 2011. Their long-term plan involves the first new distillery in Dublin in well over a century. If it hasn’t already, the Teeling Whiskey Distillery is set to begin production any day. In the interim, while they mature stocks of their own distillate, the Teelings are bottling expressions created from stocks purchased from their father’s former distillery. The initial offerings were very limited, usually quite old one-offs, but they have a larger “core range” available as well. Teeling Small Batch Irish Whiskey was first made available in the U.S. in April of 2014. Featuring a relatively higher malt to grain whiskey ratio, a slightly higher ABV, and being non-chill filtered to boot, the Small Batch goes one step further by finishing its married whiskeys in ex-rum casks. Put all that together in a great looking bottle, and you have a well-dressed, attentively crafted version of the standard Irish blended whiskey one sees pretty much everywhere.
The Nose: A somewhat restrained nose, sweet but nicely balanced by earthy spice. There’s brown sugar over buttered oatmeal, floral honey, dark toffee, lemonade, and a tart apple cobbler. Subtler notes of grass, both fresh-cut and dried, freshly laundered cotton, and old boards hover behind with quite a bit of youthful spice; Candied ginger, vanilla bean, cinnamon candies, and faint nutmeg.
The Palate: Weightier than the nose, a somewhat creamy mouthfeel begins with more brown sugar, even a bit of molasses. Citrus notes of orange-tinged honey are followed by almond paste and vanilla. Those earthy, grassy notes have retreated here, leaving more grippy oak, mild peppercorn, candied ginger and hot cinnamon. Grows a little harsh towards the end.
The Finish: Not the longest finish in the world. More brown sugar, vanilla extract, and cinnamon, both red hots and stick. A lingering young, edgy heat is a bit too prevalent.
Thoughts: A nice twist on a traditional Irish blended whiskey. The rum cask influence shows itself throughout, but never overwhelms. I typically have not been a huge fan of rum cask finished Scotch whiskies, but overall I thought rum finishing worked well with the Irish style. It’s integrated well, mostly adding layers of complex sugared sweetness to the proceedings. It’s clear that there’s a relatively high malt content here which is certainly good, but unfortunately, it’s also clear that most of the whiskies used were on the young side. I enjoyed this, but there’s a sharp, rough edge to the end of the palate and finish that kept me from liking it more than I did. Still, there’s certainly room for this kind of thing in the somewhat staid world of Irish blended whiskey. This is a good start, let’s hope they continue to mature the idea. A little pricey, value-wise (~$40), but if you’re an Irish whiskey fan, it’s worth checking out.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day.