*Sincere thanks to Tyrconnell and Savona Communications for the sample.
Along with being a well-known resort, a popular stop for transatlantic cruise ships, and the birthplace of the inimitable Ana da Silva of the Raincoats among other things, the Portuguese archipelago of Madeira is the only place that can legally (according to the EU) produce Madeira, it’s namesake fortified wine. Madeira – the wine – can trace its origin back to those heady days of exploration of the 1400’s. Located in the Atlantic over 320 miles west of Morocco, and over 620 miles south-west of Portugal, Madeira during this time had increasingly become an important re-supply point for Atlantic explorers. As exploring is thirsty work, these adventurers wanted, nay…needed booze. Wine was easy enough to come by, but during serious bouts of mid-Atlantic exploring, the storage holds of these ships tended to get a little hot and damp, which, as any vinophile and any thirsty Age of Exploration explorer will tell you, is not the greatest environment for wine. So to preserve the wine better on these long journeys, the sailors would fortify it. These intrepid explorers and the suppliers that supplied them discovered that a bit of brandy added to wine would stabilize and preserve it. And lo, with Port from Portugal, Sherry from Jerez, Marsala from Marsala, or Madeira from Madeira, the retail category of fortified wines was born.
What sets Madeira apart from other fortified wines is its adherence to the tradition of subjecting the wine to heat in order to oxidize it. Now, as we all know, oxidation is generally a very big no no in the wine world, but it’s a defining characteristic of Madeira, adding to its general flavor profile, and playing a big part in this wine’s ability to be cellared for over 100 years. The vast majority of Madeira is made from the red grape, Negra Mole, with four different white grape varieties, Malvasia, Bual, Verdelho and Sercial making up the vast majority of that remaining small minority. These grapes are usually harvested earlier than most wine-making grapes, resulting in fruit that’s much higher in acidity, a quality which helps the wines survive all that oxidation. Once the wine is produced and the fortifying spirit is added, there are two methods of aging Madeira – Canteiro and Estufa. Canteiro is typically the method used in creating higher quality wines, aging them in oak casks outdoors or in heated warehouses. Because the Canteiro method heats and oxidizes the wine more naturally and slowly, these are usually the oldest and most expensive Madeiras you can find. The Estufa method is just a little bit more artificial and rushed. Typically, Estufa produced Madeiras are “aged” in heated steel tanks for three to six months resulting in wines that fit the oxidized flavor profile but compared to Canteiro wines, lack the complexity and high price tag.
Speaking of complexity, breaking down the different styles Madeira could lead to an excessively long and somnambulant read that I’m not sure anyone needs at the moment. So, in the spirit of brevity (if there’s any left) and outright blog-reading excitement, let’s just briefly run through the major styles and move on to some whiskey, shall well? Basically, Madeira falls into two general categories, vintaged or non-vintaged. Vintage Madeiras are usually labelled as Colheita (5 years of older) or Frasqueira (20 years or older), and are often single grape variety wines. Non-vintaged Madeiras range from Rainwater and Finest (3 years old and inexpensive), to Reserve (5+ years old), Special Reserve (10+ years old), and Extra Reserve (15+ years old). Non-vintaged Madeiras are usually blends of different grape varietal wines.
So now that we are adequately well-versed in Madeira, we can take a look at the Tyrconnell 15 Year Old Madeira Cask Finish Irish Single Malt Whiskey. This is, as the name strongly implies, a single malt that’s been matured in American oak for 15 years, and then finished in ex-Madeira casks for three months. What kind of Madeira casks were used? Your guess is as good as mine. We know that only the better Madeiras, produced with the Canteiro method, are matured in oak, so can we assume that these finishing casks once held high quality Madeira? When whisk(e)y makers use sherry casks for maturation, they very often use casks that have simply been “seasoned” with sherry. This means they’re filled with a lesser quality wine for a short period, then emptied and turned over to distilleries to fill with spirit. Less often do distilleries buy casks that once held high-quality/long matured sherries. The sherry industry is large enough to create and supply these “seasoned” casks. I don’t know if the Madeira industry is that prolific. My guess would be that the finishing on this Tyrconnell was done in casks that once held some of the good stuff.
The Nose: An intriguingly complex nose filled with fruit, sugars, and baked goods. Juicy honeycrisp apples, a hint of pineapple juice, and orange blossom honey are joined by Walker’s shortbread and tart cherry cobbler. There’s a nice bit of milky salted caramel as well, along with sticky dried fruit and vanilla bean. The oak is oiled and smooth with a bit of allspice and other integrated, mild baking spices.
The Palate: Really nice creamy mouthfeel. There’s more citrus and tropical fruit here, pithy orange and underripe pineapple, along with a hint of peach lambic, apple peel, and touches of dried red fruits. Behind that, roasted, sugared nuts and bittersweet chocolate with malt syrup and toasted grains. The oak is more prominent, smooth still, but fairly tannic with cinnamon, vanilla, clove, a little cardamom and a subtle catch of mint towards the end.
The Finish: Nicely lingering, with integrated notes of red fruits, brown sugar, grippy oak, baking spices and that appealing mentholated catch towards the very end.
Thoughts: Man, this is really, really good whiskey. Complex, rich, easy-drinking, I enjoyed this one very much. The Madeira finishing certainly left its mark here with the red fruit and nutty, slightly saline quality, but the finishing was not so heavy as to wash away that older Tyrconnell malt and oak profile. That still manages to come through nicely and manages to play well with the finishing. Tyrconnell’s younger single malts that have been finished in different casks have usually been very solid whiskeys. It’s great to see their slightly older malts get the same kind of treatment and attention. Not inexpensive at around $100, but definitely recommended.
- “Canteiro Process of Producing Madeira Wine.” Madeira Wine and Dine, http://www.madeirawineanddine.com/making-madeira-wine/canteiro-process-producing-madeira-wine/.
- “Madeira.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madeira.
- “Madeira Wine.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madeira_wine.
- Opaz, Ryan and Gabriella. “A Beginner’s Guide to Madeira Wine.” Food and Wine Tours in Portugal and Spain, catavino.net/introduction-madeira-wine/.
- Rohrbaugh, Jackson. “What Is Madeira Wine? The Rare Island Wine.” Wine Folly, 27 Mar. 2015, winefolly.com/review/what-is-madeira-wine/.
- “Single Malt Irish Whiskey.” The Tyrconnell®, http://www.thetyrconnellwhiskey.com/.
- Szabo, Chris. “Madeira Wine.” Madeira Wine Company, http://www.madeirawinecompany.com/about-us/madeira-wine.html.
- “The Making of Madeira Wine.” Wine Tours | Madeira Wine, http://www.discoveringmadeira.com/the-making-of-madeira-wine.