The 2016 Yellowstone Limited Edition was comprised of both 12 year old and 7 year old bourbons which were then married and finished for a period of time in new wine barrels that were toasted rather than charred. The Yellowstone 2017 Limited Edition Kentucky Straight Bourbon is similar to last year’s model with one exciting addition. The 12 year old and 7 year old whiskeys are joined this year by some of the first four year old straight bourbon produced at the Limestone Branch distillery. It took a while, but the Stephen and Paul Beam are now actually producing the whiskey for a brand a distant relative established more than 140 years ago. As someone who enjoys the history of all this almost as much as I enjoy the whiskey…I find this fairly satisfying. Also of note, Limestone Branch had the toasted barrels from 2016’s edition sent to Kelvin Cooperage where a light char was added to the toast. These same barrels were then used to finish the 2017 edition…a unique final step to be sure. This roughly 8000 bottle limited edition has been packaged in the same excellent David Cole Creative design work as the 2016 model and was released in October of 2017.
The Nose: Wow. Heady, rich, and rugged…and no, I’m not referring to myself. While this has its sweet side, it’s the darker earthier notes that shine. There’s Demerara sugar, spiced orange, and a little authentic butterscotch. Close behind that, there’s smoky vanilla bean, roasted chestnuts, faint pipe tobacco, and a little oiled leather. The wood is present and strong. but not at all overbearing – both old polished oak and new sawn boards with nicely integrated tannins. Spice notes of Vietnamese cinnamon, sweet clove, and Tellicherry peppercorns round things out.
The Palate: More wow. Almost instantly, there’s a lively, wonderful depth to the palate. More dark sugars, perhaps even burnt crème brûlée, along with more spiced juicy orange and a bit of dried red fruits. There’s more earthy vanilla bean, and some toasted walnuts. Leather and tobacco leaf notes carry over from the nose, but they’re more subdued on the palate. A bit more spicy rye comes through here, but it’s still fairly subtle. The oak is solid and weighty, but again well-integrated. Mouth-watering, grippy tannins, clove, hot cinnamon, a little nutmeg, crushed peppercorns, and charred wood lead to the finish.
The Finish: A bit of burnt caramel at first, but mostly there’s just lingering notes of old oak and leather, slightly peppery, with a bit of slightly burnt popcorn and barrel char towards the very end.
Thoughts: This is a beautiful, expressive, complex bourbon. There’s a unique, earthy complexity here that was instantly appealing. This manages to be robust and rugged, and nuanced and composed at the same time. Its barrel-forward flavor profile makes it feel a little older than it is, though it also maintains enough of a youthful brightness to keep things balanced. An exciting, satisfying, well executed piece of whiskey-making. Highly recommended.
*Sincere thanks to Irish Distillers, Jameson, and Ketchum for the sample.
In a distillery/whiskey production setting, the word “dog” can be used for several different things…or really just two very, very different things and then a few variations on the theme. There is, of course, the four-legged kind of dog (Canis lupus familiaris), who often proves to be a welcome and jovial companion to those lucky few working at a distillery. Pictured at right are two such dogs that I met at the Knockdhu (anCnoc) distillery a few years ago. Their names are Tosca or Meg or something else I’ve forgotten. Dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) like these are, the vast majority of the time, not that great at holding liquor.
In contrast, the other kind of dog you’ll find in a distillery/whiskey production setting is a small thin vessel, usually made of copper or stainless steel, attached to a length of chain. I’m not sure if there’s a classifying latin term for this kind of dog. A whiskey dog such as this has served a few purposes over time. The chain and slimness allows it to be dipped into a cask of maturing whiskey to draw out a small measure. In the context of the whiskey we’re looking at here, this “blender’s dog” allows the blender to collect samples from maturing stocks to aid in the creation of an expression of whiskey. Many years ago, this kind of dog was reportedly also employed in a far sneakier fashion by thirsty, yet dishonest workers who would slyly dip into a cask, and then dangle the filled-up dog and chain down their pants to bring home a little of the good stuff undetected. While this kind of whiskey dog is relatively excellent at holding liquor, the vast majority of the time it does not make for a welcome and jovial companion. Unless of course you like dangling cold metal tubes down your pants legs. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, you do you.
Jameson’s “The Blender’s Dog” Irish Whiskey is the second expression of three in Jameson’s The Whiskey Makers Series to make it to the U.S. The series is part of Jameson’s line-up overhaul, designed to be a trio of super premium whiskeys that celebrate three key figures in the brand’s production. The first release to hit U.S. shelves, the Cooper’s Croze was created by Ger Buckley who is the head cooper for all of Irish Distillers. The Cooper’s Croze, named after the tool that grooves the ends of staves so the barrelhead fits perfectly, is a blended whiskey aged between 12 and 16 years in a combination of ex-bourbon American oak, virgin American oak and ex-sherry casks. The release that hasn’t yet made it to these blighted shores is the Distiller’s Safe. This one was put together by Jameson’s master distiller, Brian Nation, and is named after the spirit safe, that magical apparatus that helps distillers make their cuts during distilling. The Distiller’s Safe is a younger blended whiskey, around five to six years old, that has been matured completely in ex-bourbon casks. The Blender’s Dog is the creation of Irish Distillers’ master blender Bill Leighton. It’s a blend of whiskeys, presumably grain, malt, and pot still, between five and twelve years old, that have matured in a variety of casks. Whereas the Cooper’s Croze showcased the effects of barrel on a whiskey, and the Distiller’s Safe highlighted the distillate character, the Blender’s Dog is all about creating harmony between the different types of whiskey, types of cask, and different ages of whiskey..
The Nose: A balanced, pleasant, mildly robust nose. There are sweet notes of pineapple, floral honey, and poached pears, with some slightly earthier notes of fig paste, vanilla bean, and toasted barley. Behind that, a subtle pleasant hint of dandelions and damp cotton sheets hung out to dry. Sturdy oak notes of sanded wood with cinnamon, candied ginger, and a touch of cedar.
The Palate: Slightly oily mouthfeel with more tropical fruit that floats over the entire palate. Both pineapple juice and pineapple rind are joined by navel oranges and a bit of guava. More vanilla bean and sweetened grain with the addition of some semi-sweet chocolate notes and a little almond extract. There’s a subtle but present bit of spicy grain hinting at the pot still whiskeys used. Weightier, more tannic oak with cinnamon & sugar mix, more candied ginger, a little clove, and a bit of fine ground pepper.
The Finish: Just long enough and very mouth-watering. That slight pineapple rind sweetness lingers with the cinnamon, clove, and grippy oak following behind.
Thoughts: Really very nice. This stuff is almost dangerously drinkable. The appealing, persistent fruitiness that runs throughout is countered by the grain and oak as well as a few earthier notes. True to its name, this is expertly blended, balancing and integrating different whiskeys and different casks while allowing the character of each to come through. It’s both easy drinking and complex and rich. Yes, the ~$70 price tag seems a bit high, but what else is new these days. A well made and very enjoyable Irish whiskey. Recommended.
*Sincere thanks to MGP Ingredients for the sample.
Prohibition in the US had the curious effect of making criminals out of people who might not otherwise have been criminals, and making legends out of criminals that might not otherwise have been legends. George Remus is the rare example of both. Before he was swayed by the dark side of illegal booze selling, Remus’ story was a rather stereotypically American one. He and his family were hardworking German immigrants who settled in Chicago and owned a pharmacy. George was put in charge at an early age (14), and by the time he was 19, he’d become a certified pharmacist. He’d go on to purchase a second pharmacy before leaving that trade altogether to become a lawyer in 1898 at the age of 24.
Remus quickly became a well-regarded (and well-paid) criminal defense lawyer. When Prohibition began, he soon realized that a lot of people (namely his clients) were grabbing a lot of money by flouting the new law of the land, and that he, too, could be grabbing lots of money if he came up with a brilliant scheme. With his lawyer’s eye, Remus combed the Volstead Act for opportunities and sold his lawyering practice in order to embark on a new career that would eventually require a fair amount of lawyering on his behalf. He began buying up whiskey shares and certificates that were being sold at rock-bottom prices by investors who had the market fall out from under them as soon as Prohibition began. In 1920, he moved to Cincinnati, a city relatively nearby quite a few distilleries and warehouses, to put his plan in motion. Now armed with even more spending money, Remus began buying up many of those distilleries and their stocks, notably Fleischmann, Pogue, and Squibb Co.
Once that he had the liquor, Ol’ George needed a way to legally get it out of the bonded, government-watched warehouses. He accomplished this by buying pharmacies and establishing legal, but mostly bogus wholesale pharmaceutical companies and starting his own trucking firm. That way he could transport and sell the whiskey legally for “medicinal purposes.” He could also orchestrate raids and thefts of his own merchandise to sell illegally. Basically Remus was legally selling himself alcohol, and then hijacking himself so that he could bootleg it for a lot more money. It didn’t take long for him to become very rich very fast, reportedly making around 40 million dollars in the span of a couple of years.
That Remus was a successful, powerful bootlegger seems to have been a secret to no one. He was rich enough to pay off the police and government men, at one point even bribing the U.S. Attorney General to keep him safe. So thoroughly did Remus line officials’ pockets that the biggest threat to his business really just came from other bootleggers. His tenure as “King of the Bootleggers” is riddled with stories about shockingly lavish parties and tales of gun battles and armored cars. He had built quite an empire and become quite a character, even referring to himself in the third person. Remus thought that Remus was invincible. But, alas, these halcyon days of illegal whiskey, ridiculous amounts of money, and a near complete disregard for the rule of law were not to last for George Remus.
Such was his rapid rise in wealth and fame, that he landed in the crosshairs of three “untouchable” officials as early as 1921. U.S. Assistant Attorney General and all-around powerhouse Mabel Willebrandt, and Prohibition directors Sam Collins of Kentucky and Burt Morgan of Indiana, eventually put together a case that resulted in Remus being tried, found guilty, and sentenced to prison in 1922. Appeals of course were made, but the Supreme Court finally put an end to it all by refusing to hear his case. In 1925, Remus began serving a two year sentence for a whole truckload of violations of the Volstead Act.
George Remus’ bootlegging career has become the stuff of Prohibition legend, but his story doesn’t end with the end of his reign. Before heading off to the pokey, Remus had basically turned over his estate and his power of attorney to his wife, Imogene Holmes, the woman he left his first wife for. While in prison, Remus met an undercover man named Franklin Dodge and told him of this transfer of wealth. Dodge, knowing a golden opportunity when he saw one, set about seducing Holmes as soon as possible. The new couple converted nearly Remus’ entire estate to cash and then hid that cash as best they could. Knowing this was bound to piss ol’ George off, they also tried to deport him and allegedly even tried to have him killed (neither worked.) Shortly before his release in 1927, Holmes filed for divorce. In October of that year, Remus’ tracked down Imogene Holmes and shot her in front of her own daughter, ultimately killing his wife. The ensuing celebrity trial for murder seems to have been something of a farce. In the beginning of 1928, Remus was found guilty by reason of insanity. He served a ridiculous sentence, barely half a year in an asylum, before he was released.
At this point George Remus pretty much faded away, relatively speaking. He remarried a former secretary and went back to work on the straight and narrow. Remus died in 1952, but his Prohibition exploits and larger than life character have lived on. There’s been a Cincinnati Historical Society exhibit on his life, he’s a character in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, and in some circles there’s thought that he was one of the inspirations for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby character (probably not, but who knows?) Picking the Remus name to represent a bourbon seems a bit of an odd choice to me. After all, while he was a lot of things, a teetotaler, a criminal, a murderer and an unfaithful husband among others, one thing he never was was a whiskey maker. But I suppose it’s not a bad choice when looking to capitalize on our current romantic, soft-focus fascination with Prohibition.
In 2014, a company named Queen City Whiskey was founded by a trio of entrepreneurs and the George Remus line of bourbon and ryes was launched with limited local-ish distribution. All of Queen City Whiskey’s whiskey was sourced from MGP Ingredients in Indiana. In late 2016, in a somewhat surprising move for the usually camera-shy company, MGP bought the brand and set about re-tooling it to be sold nationally. This isn’t MGP’s first foray into releasing their own whiskey, but it will be the most widely available. In late 2015, MGP releasing a limited bottling named Metze’s Select. The George Remus represents their first, full-fledged “core expression.” I have to say, after providing so much good whiskey to other brands and companies, it’s very satisfying to see MGP sourcing their own whiskey. It would be even more satisfying to see “Proudly Distilled in Lawrenceburg, Indiana by MGP Ingredients” on the back label instead of “Distilled by G. Remus Distilling Co.,” but that’s okay, small steps, we’ll take it slow. George Remus Straight Bourbon Whiskey is reportedly made from MGP’s high rye bourbon mashbill (60% corn, 36% rye, 4% malted barley) and has been bottled at a somewhat hefty 47% ABV. This one does not carry an age statement, though as it’s a straight bourbon, we all know that means it must be at least four years old, right?
The Nose: A youthful, rugged bourbon nose. Maple extract, brown sugar, cherry cough drops. orange pith and blood orange pulp. Beyond that, there’s vanilla bean, and sweet corn ice cream along with stone ground wheat crackers and subtle hints of toasted rye bread. There are substantial oak notes, sawn and dusty, with nutmeg, a little cinnamon, and a faint hint of mint.
The Palate: A bit more fruit on the slightly lighter palette, more juicy orange, a bit of Meyer lemon, a little cherry juice. There’s also some dark brown sugars, floral honey, vanilla bean, and cocoa nibs. Nice, toasty, peppery rye notes come through and balance that fruity sweetness. As with the nose, there are strong oak notes, grippy and rough edged, with black pepper, raw ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, and barrel char.
The Finish: Lots of lingering tannic, dusty oak with some residual sugars and fading spice – black pepper and mint.
Thoughts: Very good. And I would expect nothing less from MGP at this point. In general, this is a relatively woody bourbon, but not in an over-oaked kind of way. Instead, the barrel and accompanying spice play a major, almost dominant role and are well balanced by a nicely complex combination of sweetness and grain. The slightly higher than average ABV makes this a robust sipper right out of the bottle, but it also works well with a bit of water or over ice. The price, around $40, feels a little high for a no-age-statement whiskey, but I’m wondering if that’s even worth mentioning anymore as I probably sound like a broken record at this point. Still, very happy to see MGP releasing their own whiskey, and a good one at that. Recommended.
What the hell, it feels like I was just writing last year’s stocking stuffer post a few weeks ago. Time flies when you’re having fun, I guess. In any case, here we are again, running headlong into that wonderful pagan holiday season that’s been co-opted by some other group that now gets upset if you don’t wish them a merry something-or-other. Far be it for me to give advice, but were I asked, I’d say stop worrying so much about what other people call your holiday and just give other people some gifts, or a card, or even just a warm smile. Fuck it, how about just giving each other a goddamn hug, is that too much to ask?
Yeah, probably. So we’re back to gifts then. Here’s my annual small but hastily carefully curated list of whisky-related stocking stuffers. Shop til you drop, you beautiful animals…
If you thought books would lead off this list, then you thought right. So many good books this year about spirits, cocktails, and music…and at least one about cats.
Fionnan O’Connor’s A Glass Apart is a beautiful tome devoted solely to Irish Single Pot Still Whiskey. While this book is relatively inexpensive, please be aware that halfway through you’ll find yourself in desperate, undeniable need of Redbreast, the cost of which is not included in the book price.
Moving away from whisky, Fred Minnick, that half human, half-researching/writing machine came out with a wonderful primer on rum this past summer. Rum Curious is a great guide to navigate the oft-confusing waters of this wide-ranging spirit. You’re allowed to drink whisky while reading this one.
One might say that there are enough books with cocktail recipes in them. Seriously, please…enough. Jim Meehan’s Meehan’s Bartender Manual is yet another that has recipes, but what makes this one so worthwhile is the insightful look at what makes a good drink, a good bar, and good hospitality.
Cats! There simply haven’t been enough books about whisky and cats…or really any, for that matter. Until now. After tackling such concrete, above-ground subjects like Bitters and Amaro, Brad Thomas Parsons decided to plunge into the dark, unmapped world of cats and their role in various distilleries in the aptly named Distillery Cats. Heady stuff, I’m sure.
Honestly, I’m tempted to just fill this whole list up with more books, but in an effort to appear diverse in my gift giving, I’ve found a couple of other things that might strike some fancies. This hydro-formed flask from AreaWare for example, is pretty cool, especially the white version. They also have an awesome axe-shaped bottle opener, because who wouldn’t want to open their beer with a fucking Viking battle axe? Nobody, that’s who.
I also always seem to include glassware on this list because, let’s face it, drinking whisky out of a cupped hand or a red plastic solo monstrosity is about as uncouth as it gets. I will always recommend the Glencairn Glass as a great, all-around nosing/sipping glass, but I’ll be the first or maybe second to admit that sometimes a person doesn’t really need to be so analytical and formal about drinking a little whisky. Thanks to my Dad, who likes to stash these babies at various points around the US so he always has appropriate glassware at hand, I’ve grown quite fond of these weighty, elegant tumblers from Williams and Sonoma.Now that I think of it, while we’re on the subject of glassware and re-hashing previously posted gift ideas, and with Blade Runner Two out and about in theaters, seems only fitting to mention that you can still get these incredible (and incredibly expensive) glasses from Firebox.Just like Deckard used to drink from. “I need the old blade runner, I need your magic.”
Speaking of expensive, how about a bike frame made out of old barrel staves? Yeah, you heard me. It’s not exactly a new idea, the earliest bikes were made out of wood, and Craig Calfee has been making frames out of bamboo for quite a while, but these days carbon fiber gets all the hot press, while steel stays real for the purists. There are a handful of companies out there making wood bike frames, but to date, only one has partnered with the whisky world. Back in 2016, Portland’s Renovo started working with Glenmorangie to make this fairly stunning (and stunningly expensive) bike made partially from whisky barrels.
Finally, this. While it seems a little disingenuous and poseur-esque to buy a t-shirt from someplace you may or may not have ever been, if that place didn’t want people to buy them, then that place shouldn’t have made them so awesome. Brooklyn’s esteemed metal bar, Saint Vitus would probably be a home away from home if it weren’t so far from home. Their signature T-shirt/hoodie design proudly proclaims, “Satan is Great, Whiskey is Super.” I can think of no better whiskey related clothing to wear to your next Christmas party.
*Sincere thanks to Quaker City Mercantile for the sample.
With the category of Irish whiskey booming, it’s no surprise that people are trying to jump in at all levels. There are a lot of non-distilling producers out there at the moment, making up new brands or reviving old ones. The interesting thing is that, relatively speaking, there’s a fairly narrow range of whiskey to work with if you’re looking to buy sourced product. While Ireland has seen its own craft distilling movement begin, outside of the two or three big ones, there’s just one or two other distilleries that can supply the needed quantity to a company looking to launch a sourced whiskey brand. What that means is that it’s becoming difficult to convince consumers that a new brand is something special and worth the relatively high tag that most of them carry.
Prizefight Irish Whiskey is the brainchild of a man named Flor Prendergast. In an effort to find a unique angle for his product, he teamed up with Steven Grasse, the founder of Quaker City Mercantile and Tamworth Distilling. Together they formulated a plan for an Irish Whiskey with an American twist. The matured whiskey has been sourced from Ireland’s West Cork Distillers, and then brought to the United States to be finished in ex-rye whiskey barrels from Tamworth Distilling. The prize fight aspect with the two old-timey boxers sizing each other up on the Quaker City Mercantile designed label was inspired by a pair of Irish-American bare-knuckle boxers, Yankee Sullivan and John Morrissey, that were quite famous and/or infamous in the mid-1800’s. As tempting as it is, I will refrain from delving too far into the fascinating lives of Sullivan and Morrissey. Suffice it to say they really captured the desperate brutality and incongruous, casual criminality of the USA at the time. Not sure I’d want to feature the two on my whiskey label, but that’s just me.
Prizefight does not carry an age statement, but I think it’s safe to assume it’s relatively young. Though the label and marketing material doesn’t specify, I think it’s also safe to assume that this is a blended Irish Whiskey. West Cork has been around for close to 14 years. According to their website, all spirit is triple distilled only in pot stills, and is only made from grain grown in Ireland.
The Nose: Initially, slightly hottish on the nose. There’s dark, floral honey, bittersweet chocolate, sticky vanilla bean, milky caramel, and dried apples. Behind that, a faint hint of yeasty bread and malty beery mash, along with laundered cotton on the line. There’s sanded, integrated oak with cinnamon, subtle nutmeg and clove, and a dusting of black pepper. There’s not much evidence of the rye barrels here, perhaps just a faint spiciness.
The Palate: At first, there’s a subtle, almost simple, sweetness – brown sugar, plain honey, and vanilla syrup with a bit of orange and passionfruit. Continued notes of dark chocolate and a hint of dried grass. The rye is more apparent on the palate with sharper, greener spice. The oak is weightier here and much more tannic. Lots of cinnamon, some of it hot along with crushed cloves, black pepper, and young ginger,
The Finish: Sweetly drying or dryingly sweet, I can’t decide. Vanilla caramel, and honey balance cinnamon, peppercorns, and grippy oak.
Thoughts: I found myself enjoying this. There’s a bit of youth and imbalance to contend with, the heat of the nose, and the relative emptiness early on the palate, but it makes up for that with an interesting flavor profile that combines complex sugars, and subtle earthier notes. The rye influence is slight, though more noticeable on the palate, mostly casting a subtly spicy shadow over things. This is a decent whiskey and a welcome, intriguing departure from the usual blended Irish fare, however, it seems pricey at around $45-$50.
Sincere thanks to JJY, JH, and Single Cask Nation for the sample.
Roughly seven years ago, as a new whisky blogger, I was asked to join a Whisky Roundtable of other bloggers. Back then, I have to admit that I was surprised there were more than a handful of whisky bloggers out there, and was even more surprised that someone was reading my blog and thought my opinion worthwhile enough to join any shape of table let alone round. It was a good group, and we managed to generate some lively discussion even if at times it was only amongst ourselves.
Two of my fellow roundtable bloggers have succeeded in trading in their amateur status and have gone pro. Jason Johnstone-Yellin and Joshua Hatton moved from blogging to establishing a private whisky society, to leading a bit of whisky tourism, and now finally to being full-on independent bottlers. Under the Single Cask Nation banner, their first retail available offerings hit the shelves in early 2017. I’m big fans of these guys and have shamelessly plugged their wares before. I been lucky enough to have tried several of their society-only bottlings, and looking back at all of them as a group, my overall impression is one of high quality. Their picks are pretty much always dynamic, vibrant whiskies that manage to both show off the distillery’s character and tell their own unique story. So with every reason to believe these chaps have stayed the course and selected good casks for these retail releases, I’m eagerly (if not a little slowly) diving into their range…starting with the one I’m most leery of. Glenrothes has never managed to wow me, and the younger ones I’ve tried have managed to not wow me even more than the older ones. This Single Cask Nation 2008 Glenrothes 8 Year Old was matured in a refill sherry hogshead that yielded 318 bottles
The Nose: A fairly bracing nose of youthful malt and sherry. A tempered sweetness is full of malt syrup, dark orange blossom honey, and candied spice cake fruit. Subtle, complex notes of both sugared and salted nuts, baker’s chocolate, slightly farm-y hay, and a hint of beery grain. There’s some youthful, rough oak along with warmish cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla bean, and red peppercorns. Adding a little water tones down some of that sweetness, integrates the oak and spice with the youthful sherried notes, and plays up the distillate character a bit more.
The Palate: A lightly oily mouthfeel that quickly turns very zippy and numbing. There’s more honey here, a bit of tropical fruit, and more red fruits – brandied cherries, current jam, and those fruitcake nuggets. Evolving from the nose, a more saline nuttiness, a youthful rancio, and more pronounced dark bitter chocolate. Continued sharp, grippy oak, along with hot cinnamon, raw ginger, pepper, and clove. Water definitely tames the palate, and gives the sherry influence, oak, and spice a bit more space to show off.
The Finish: The sweetness fades somewhat quickly, leaving more numbing and mouth-watering slightly savory notes of tannic oak, salt, spice, and grain.
Thoughts: My initial thoughts on seeing this one were, “a young Glenrothes? Ambitious…risky, but ambitious.” As I mentioned, Glenrothes’ somewhat funky character rarely knocks me out, and the younger expressions I’ve tried usually feel under-realized and harsh. This one manages to reign in that funkiness with lively oak and spice, and balanced sherry influence, and still finds a way to be proudly youthful by showing off a bit of the distillate character. At strength the nose is sweetly complex and interesting, the palate bold and and a little reckless. A little water toned down the palate nicely, but also quieted an expressive nose a bit. Overall, a deft, confident pick from a mildly challenging distillery that manages to showcase the spirit, the cask, and the youth all at the same time.
*Sincere thanks to Kilbeggan and Savona Communications for the sample.
So…Kilbeggan. Believe it or not, here we have another distillery with a long up and down history. Actually, Kilbeggan’s long up and down history is one of the longest histories in all of whiskey distillery history-dom. Its history is also, as far as distillery histories go, a steadfastly Irish one. A man named Matthias McManus founded a licensed distillery on the Kilbeggan site in 1757. McManus’ son took over for the father, but was later actually executed by the Crown for his part in the Society of United Irishman and the lead-up to the 1798 Irish Rebellion. In 1797, the McManus family sold a large stake in the distillery to the Codd family. While the Codd family experienced early success in the whiskey trade, a popular temperance movement begun in the late 1830’s slowed the distillery’s progress. In 1843, a man named John Locke purchased the now-failing business from the Codd family, and renamed the site the Locke Brusna Distillery. Locke is credited with righting the proverbial ship, but the greatest expansion and success came at the hands of Locke’s wife, Mary Anne Locke, who took over the business when her husband died. Mrs. Locke was reportedly a formidable business person, creating trade deals and upping exports of a whiskey that quickly gained the reputation of consistent high quality. Under her guidance, production more than doubled in less than three decades. Irish whiskey’s popularity was soaring in the last quarter of the 1800’s, and thanks to Mary Locke, Kilbeggan shared in those glory days. And then Irish whiskey ran headlong into a multi-faceted mess that nearly wiped out the industry for good.
Some of the mess had been brewing for a long time. Ireland’s whiskey industry was firmly rooted in tradition. Irish distillers generally recognized and cherished the quality of whiskey made from malted and unmalted barley and produced in pot stills. And while it was produced in Ireland, they considered the grain whiskey made in Coffey stills to be inferior. The Scots on the other hand, were pretty excited about Coffey stills and grain whisky and by the end of the 1800’s, Coffey stills and grain whisky were helping blended Scotch eat up some of Irish whiskey’s market share. In the early 1900’s both Irish and Scottish distillers turned to the Crown to settle the argument of what type of stills could distill whiskey. The Crown decided that whiskey could be produced in either Coffey stills or pot stills. This was a blow Irish distillers, but bigger challenges were looming.
Beginning in 1914, World War I made exporting very difficult. Two years later when the Irish Uprising began, many distilleries were damaged or “repurposed.” The Irish Civil War followed, and after that, a fierce trade war with the UK weakened Irish whiskey even further. Prohibition was the final nail in the coffin, effectively wiping out a large chunk of the industry’s biggest export market. After Prohibition, many distilleries held on for dear life over the next several decades, but it was a losing battle. According to Alfred Barnard’s The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom, there were 28 distillery’s in Ireland in 1887. By the early 1970’s, there were only two.
Back at Kilbeggan, Mary Locke’s sons had been given control of the distillery in the early 1900’s, and when they both passed away in the 1920’s, ownership was passed to Mary Locke’s granddaughters, Florence and Mary Hope. These two sisters inherited a distillery at a time when no one really wanted to inherit a distillery, and after 20 years of struggle, they decided to sell the business. A Swiss syndicate’s effort to buy the distillery resulted in an almost unbelievable debacle that’s worthy of its own post. Suffice it to say that a corrupt politician named Quirke was involved as were sneaky Russians and criminals, and there were public trials and the whole thing nearly shook the Irish government to its core. The distillery itself limped along and kept making whiskey through it all, but by 1954, customers had fled the brand and the shaky management and finances forced it to close.
The Locke Brusna/Kilbeggan distillery had been a very important part of the Kilbeggan community. Rather than abandon the site and let it fall into complete ruin, a group of locals kept up both the distilling license and the distillery equipment. By the early 80’s, the distillery had been turned into a museum. In the late 80’s, John Teeling converted an old industrial alcohol plant in Cooley into a whiskey distillery, and purchased the Kilbeggan site. Over the next couple of decades, Teeling’s Cooley distillery helped revitalize the Irish whiskey category. The old Kilbeggan plant was also pressed back into service, and starting in 2007, began producing spirit again as a smaller, boutique distillery. Teeling sold Cooley to Beam Inc. in 2011, and then in the beginning of 2014, Beam was purchased by Suntory. Today, Kilbeggan serves as the symbolic home of Beam Suntory’s Irish Whiskey family, with the former Cooley line of whiskeys now falling under the umbrella of the Kilbeggan Distilling Company.
Until recently, one of the more interesting whiskeys in Cooley’s line-up was the Greenore 8 Year Old single grain. Beam or Beam Suntory has opted to ditch the Greenore name and place its single grain whiskey under the more familiar Kilbeggan name. Even more recently, they decided to drop the age statement and replaced the 8 year old with this one, the Kilbeggan Single Grain Irish Whiskey. The whiskey was created as a tribute to the town of Kilbeggan, as a way to celebrate the distillery’s and the town’s history and passion for whiskey-making. It’s a no-age-statement whiskey distilled from 94% corn and 6% malted barley that’s been matured in ex-bourbon barrels, and then finished in a combination of ex-bourbon barrels and ex-fortified wine barrels.
The funny thing is, though, that the Kilbeggan distillery is only outfitted with pot stills and certainly doesn’t have the capacity to produce the amount needed for this type of broadly distributed, entry-level expression. So this Kilbeggan expression that honors Kilbeggan’s distilling past isn’t actually made in Kilbeggan. Furthermore, after reading up on all this history, there seems a bit of irony in honoring the town and the distillery by releasing a Coffey still distilled single grain whiskey, the very type of whiskey Irish distillers had little respect for in the 1800’s and one that ended up contributing to the downfall of Irish industry in general. But whatever, marketing is marketing. Drawing a bit more attention to the town of Kilbeggan and its long history and association with whiskey is not a bad thing. Although, It would be nice to see the official “literature” paying more attention to the contributions of the Locke women throughout its history. Right. Enough rambling, on to the whiskey…
The Nose: A light-hearted nose that’s compromised and buried a bit by some initial solvent-y notes. When you get past that, there’s fresh grain, malt syrup, vanilla wafers, and a little honey. Subtler notes of mixed fruit jelly and juicy, dark red grapes. Smooth and sanded oak that’s just a little sharp, and hints of cinnamon, vanilla bean, and toasted coconut round things out.
The Palate: More sugared than the nose, but also a little more substantial. There’s both malt syrup and vanilla syrup, along with more honey and light brown sugar. The fruit notes are more citrus-y on the palate. A little bittersweet chocolate and salted nuttiness adds depth. Like the nose, the oak is young and sharp, fairly tannic and grippy, but it does manage to show some restraint. Spice notes of cinnamon, ginger, vanilla bean and black pepper lead to the finish.
The Finish: Honey and cereal milk quickly give way to a lingering wave of grippy oak and those spices from the palate.
Thoughts: Years ago, I was an unexpected fan of the Greenore 8 Year Old. I found that one a pleasant, sweet but balanced, easy drinking single grain. I do find some of that same appeal in the Kilbeggan Single Grain, though it comes across as younger and sharper edged. There is a youthful heat to contend with, but once past that it’s a fairly balanced, straightforward whiskey. It’s hard to say what influence the finishing in wine casks has had, perhaps that slightly more complex fruit on the nose. This is fine over ice, but for me works better in cocktails. All in all, a decent young whiskey that, at around $25-$30, is a good value and provides an interesting alternative to the usual Irish blends.