Prizefight Irish Whiskey – Review

*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.

Prizefight Irish Whiskey, +/-2017

43% ABV

Score:  82





Drifting Away From Whisky?

Am I?
Yeah, you.
Away from whisky?
Never. Never.
Not even just a little?


Well, yeah, okay, a little. Maybe a little more than a little. I don’t think I’ve grown tired of whisky, or tired of drinking it, or learning about its past, or writing about it. I have grown a little tired of the fallout from its surge in popularity – the rising prices, the homogenization, and the unstoppable tide of marketing bullshit, but for all intents and purposes, I still like whisky quite a bit. I would say, though, that over the last year and a half, I’ve found myself equally (if not occasionally more) interested in a few of the other branches of this great gnarled tree of booze. Yes, there’s been dabbling in Rum and Armagnac, and perhaps quite a bit more than just dabbling in Gin, but what’s really piqued my interest of late is lower alcohol spirits: Amaros, apéritifs, vermouths, sherries, and those odd, provincial liqueurs that everyone ignores until some bartender says they shouldn’t ignore them anymore.

So consider this a warning. There’ll probably be more than a few reviews of this kind of thing in the coming months. As with whisky, I’ll be taking a look at the associated histories, both real and concocted, and jotting down needlessly verbose, yet slightly repetitive tasting notes. Some of these spirits are more geared towards cocktails, so I’ll try to place them in that context when that context calls for it. I hope this all sounds as exciting to you as it does to me. If it sounds less exciting to you than it does to me, then I don’t know what to tell you. I’ll probably just keep plugging away regardless.

Coming up in the next two or three…or ten months provided that I get around to posting the posts:

  • Several bitter, herbal things including locally produced Minnesota-made amaro from Tattersall Distilling.
  • A couple of very affordable, very common, very good London Dry gins.
  • Some easy-to-find, inexpensive vermouths because why not.
  • Some Pastis because it is Summer after all, and I’d forgotten how much I love Pastis.
  • Beer? Fuck it. Sure, beer too, what the hell.
  • And just to prove I haven’t abandoned whisky, or whiskey, some new indie bottlings from those Single Cask Nation guys, probably some bourbon, some incredibly ubiquitous blended Scotch, and most likely that semi-obscure corn whiskey that everyone needs a bottle of if only for the label.

Happy Summer, people. Please drink moderately and responsibly.


Brenne Estate Cask French Single Malt Whisky – Review

*Thank you to Allison Patel and Brenne Whisky for the sample. 

brenne-estate-caskBrenne Estate Cask French Single Malt Whisky was first launched in the fall of 2012. This whisky was the brainchild of whisky connoisseur turned astute whisky-making pro, Allison Patel. In a market where the more novel whiskies are often a relegated, small minority, Brenne has succeeded with its terroir-driven ingredients and its decidedly non-traditional whisky making process. While reading up on what makes this whisky rather unique, I realized that I knew very little about the booze that it has roots in. So while it may not be the most exciting thing to read, here’s what I hope is an adequately accurate glimpse into the process which makes Brenne stand out.

In searching for a producer to help realize her vision, Patel looked to France, specifically the Charente region which is of course the home of France’s most famous homegrown spirit, Cognac. Certainly an interesting place to seek out a whisky-maker. While the country is a leading consumer of the stuff, whisky-making has never really been a popular sport there. There are some areas where it’s becoming a bigger deal, mostly in the north where there’s more of an embedded tradition of growing, brewing and distilling grain, but in the Charente, Cognac is still king by a long shot. Nonetheless, Patel found a Cognac producer that had recently begun making a whisky, and working closely with them, carved out a plan for the Brenne brand.

Charentais Alembic Still
Charentais Alembic Still

The Brenne Estate Cask is distilled from two types of organic barley grown on the producer’s estate but milled and malted elsewhere. The rather chalky soil of the region, which helps cultivate the meager grapes that end up producing France’s most famous spirit, also produces a somewhat different grain. Other than the use of barley, Brenne’s whisky has much more in common with Cognac than it does Scotch whisky. Using a yeast more common to Cognac production, the wort undergoes a relatively long fermentation process, and is distilled in traditional Charentais alembic stills. These all-copper pot stills differ from Scottish stills in that there’s established rules dictating the shape and function. Alembics have an onion/bulb-shaped head atop the main boiler, and the condensing arm is much thinner than the Lyne arms on Scottish stills. While I’m not sure the Brenne process includes this, one interesting aspect of the Charentais still setup the “chauffe-vin,” a large, copper, bulb-shaped, energy-saving container that holds the wine prior to it going into the still. The condensing arm from the still passes through the chauffe-vin, and the residual heat from the distillate pre-warms the wine.

Brenne is twice-distilled using this Charentais process, and then heads for the barrels, which also differ from the nearly ubiquitous American white oak (Quercus Alba) casks used pretty much around the world. For cognac to be legally called Cognac, it must be aged a minimum of two years in barrels made from “French oak” that comes from either the Limousin or Tronçais forests. Predominantly, the oak species used from these forests is Quercus Robur and Quercus Petraea. These European white oaks, particularly Quercus Robur, differ from American white oak by having higher amounts of tannins and lignins, which adds a more complex, less vanilla-oriented spice to whatever they are maturing. The cooperage of Cognac casks differs from that of American-made bourbon barrels as well. The wood is “cured” outdoors for up to three years before reaching the cooper’s hands. Instead of the heavy charring done to finished bourbon barrels, Cognac coopering bends the staves by repeated dampening and heating during the construction process. This repeated toasting eventually creates what is more or less a light char, but nowhere near that of bourbon barrels.

So with all that in mind, here’s a look at the brand’s flagship, the Brenne Estate Cask. This one is aged for five years in new French Oak barrels, then finished in ex-Cognac barrels for approximately two to three years. There is no age statement on this expression because the period of the ex-cognac finishing can be variable depending on when Patel feels the whisky is ready to go. Initially, Brenne had very limited distribution, occasionally done by Patel herself via bicycle. These days, Brenne is distributed by Classic Imports and is available in 29 states as well as in its home country of France, and is available through many online retailers.

The Nose:  As whisky goes, this is a fruity, floral, quite sweet, fairly unique nose. Notes of ripe apricot, floral honey, tangerine and bruised apples join candied tones of gummi bears, orange push-ups, and butter mints. Nice grain notes of toasted barley and perhaps even banana bread.  More depth is added with hints of soft white flower petals, the burnt top of crème brûlée, and candied fennel. The wood influence more subtle than expected, a bit of vanilla syrup, cinnamon-candied almonds, a touch of oaked chardonnay, and just a hint of sawn boards.

The Palate:  An almost barely-there, creamy mouthfeel, with that eiswein-like sweetness from the nose carrying right through to the palate. Initially there’s more apricot and orange, more gummi, and more honey. As evidence of the new french oak and cognac finishing slowly creep in, there are notes of butter cookies, marzipan, and cinnamon frosting. Towards the end, more woody spice notes appear: drying clove, vanilla bean, cinnamon stick, and a tannic bit of polished oak.

The Finish:  On the shorter side with nice touches of sweetness and spice mixing with a mouth-watering, slightly herbaceous dryness.

Thoughts:  A delicate, yet fairly elegant and distinctive whisky. My initial impression of Brenne’s Estate Cask was that its sweetness was too much, but in the span of a single glass, much more was revealed and I found myself enjoying it more than I initially thought I would. This is a sweet, almost ethereal whisky, no doubt about it, but it manages an interesting complexity (the nose, especially) within that sweetness. While palate and finish show more evidence of the unique maturation, and they hold on to enough from the nose to give it some progression and balance, they’re perhaps a little timid and thin compared to the nose. Brenne is nice to sip on its own, and I can imagine it being interesting to use in a wide variety of cocktails and pleasant over ice in the warmer months. As this is a single cask whisky prone to expected variation, I have to say I found this one lacking depth and strength compared to the other two Estate Casks I’ve tried. Still, certainly a creatively different whisky, and perhaps for that reason alone it’s worth trying.

Brenne Estate Cask French Single Malt Whisky, +/~ 2015

40% ABV

Score:  81


Robbie Burns Night…

robert burnsHere’s a bottle and an honest friend
What wad ye wish for mair, man?
Wha kens, before his life may end,
What his share may be o’ care, man?

Then catch the moments as they fly,
And use them as ye ought, man;
Believe me, happiness is shy,
And comes no ay when sought, man!

– “A Bottle and a Friend” by Robert Burns

Sláinte mhaith

400th Post…

IMG_8392I wasn’t sure if I was going to mark the occasion of The Casks 400th post with something special, just another review, or…I don’t know, a video of me sabering a bottle of vintage Pol Roger Brut while doing an ancient clog dance last performed by a bunch of drunk Jacobites in Killiecrankie. My impulse was not to go overboard and try something fancy because, lord knows, it’s been tricky enough just to get another review out lately. Then again, I thought, that’s precisely why I should single out the occasion.

Certainly there are many other blogs out there with far more posts, posting with far more regularity, and regularly being far more in touch with the whole whisky scene, but that’s beside the point. When I started this thing, five and a half years ago in 2010, I didn’t really have any expectation as to its longevity or any sort of relative popularity. The blog has always been mostly a way to catalog my experiences with the whisky world and partly a half-baked, mostly pointless social media experiment. I’m happy to report that the social media experiment part has more or less ended without generating any conclusive conclusions. The cataloging part rolls on, though. I don’t drink as much whisky as I used to, and I don’t leap out the door every time I get wind of a tasting, but I still enjoy exploring the booze and all its related history…especially the related history. I recently discovered that I own twice as many books about whisky as I do bottles of whisky. Granted this was after trimming my “collection” down to a few dozen bottles, but still, it’s telling. All those books have been opened, by the way, I can’t say the same thing about the bottles.

Ruben from WhiskyNotes (Belgium), Marc from Whisky Brother (South Africa), and myself sneaking around Brora in the rain. Photo by Darren Rook.

The best and most unexpected by-product of having this blog has been meeting all the good people in and around the whisky industry/community. It has been great fun to watch (with a twinge of envy, too) several of the writers and bloggers who befriended and supported me early on, turn their passion in to their livelihood. Equally, it’s been a pleasure to forge relationships within the industry that, through their generosity and expertise, have helped me expand my own experience. I would never have guessed that grabbing a domain name and using a free blogging platform would have introduced me to so many great people and places. The stats for The Casks show that over the years, it’s been read by people all over the world…that is astounding to me and humbling.

Will I make it to 500 posts? I have no fucking idea, that’s the main reason why I thought it best to celebrate 400 posts. Thank you, sincerely, for coming along on this ride.

Once Again, Yet Another World’s Best Whisky…Again.

The circus comes to town once again...
The circus comes to town once again…

Back in November of 2014, Jim Murray “stunned” the whisky world by naming the Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 the “best whisky in the world”. Oh, the humanity! Suddenly the best whisky in the world was no longer from Scotland and Scotch was roundly chastised for having let high quality slip through its peaty little fingers. Article after article, and post after post from click-hungry sites like Business Insider, Forbes, Huffington Post, etc. dutifully burped out articles with headlines like “The Best Whisky in the World is No Longer From Scotland”, and “You’ll Never Guess Where the Best Whisky in the World Comes From”. Rather sparse mentions were made about this being just one man’s influential opinion, instead it was just treated as universal truth that a great upheaval had happened and all of our lives would never be the same…especially the lives of those poor Scots who had somehow lost their way. Never mind that the same kind of hubbub had happened just 10 months prior when the World Whiskies Awards named a Tasmanian whisky its best single malt whisky of 2014

Well, here we are again, just four months removed from that great Japanese whisky epiphany, and a year removed from that Tasmanian shocker, and the World Whiskies Awards have come out and dropped yet another bombshell. You may want to sit down, because…the best whisky in the world isn’t from Scotland! Yes, you heard right, this year the title of best whisky in the world goes to a relative young upstart from Taiwan named Kavalan!

Now, to be fair, the Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique Single Cask Strength was voted best single malt whisky not simply best whisky. However, that fact seems to have escaped most headlines and articles. The UK’s Independent titled their piece, “Kavalan whisky from Taiwan named best in the world” (and published a picture of the wrong whisky, but whatever). Time trotted out the eerily familiar, “You Won’t Believe Where the World’s Best Whiskey Comes From”. FoxNews grabbed everyone’s attention with the attention grabbing headline, “Whisky from Taiwan named best in the world.” It’s certainly worth noting that while those first two had somewhat misleading headlines, they did eventually mention the “best single malt” distinction in the article. FoxNews, on the other hand, misses that important point, which is surprising given that FoxNews is usually, uh, so very, very accurate.

This is not meant to be a jab at the award-winning whiskies mentioned, all three I’m sure are deserving of high praise. It’s these awards and the ensuing media frenzy that are getting more than a bit tiresome and more than a little comical. Many of these whisky awards are simply grinding PR/money-making machines that thrive on the free advertising of hyperbolic, often inaccurate articles written by and for people far enough outside the industry that it’s fairly clear they don’t really know what they’re talking about. I know people involved will defend the “process” and the judging of these awards, but that’s not the point, the issue is with the underlying purpose of them all. With what seems like a bi-annual or even quarterly crowning of a new “best whisky in the world ever”, we’re basically seeing the same things said over and over with only the brand name changing. It all ends up feeling more or less like a pile of vapid, ever-mounting crap whose sole purpose is breeding misleading hype just to sell bottles.

As a perfect, and I’m sure all too common little example of how this all goes wrong, not long after Tasmania’s Sullivan’s Cove French Oak Cask won the 2014 World Whiskies best Single Malt Award, I was in a liquor store, taking a look at one of that companies other bottles when the following (approximate) conversation was had with a kindly gentleman who was carrying a couple of expensive bottles like prized cats:

Kindly Gentleman: (pointing to the bottle in my hand) “That one just won best whisky in the world, right there!”

Not-so-kindly Blogger: “Best single malt, actually, and this one didn’t win the award, I think it was the French Oak Cask…” (knowing full well that even the French Oak Cask the store had was not the same cask that won the award.)

Kindly Gentleman: (Interrupting me and walking away with his glass cats) “Nope, Sullivan’s Cove, right there, just voted Best Whisky in the World.”

Easily Exasperated, Not-so-kindly Blogger: (mumbling under my breath) “Gotcha, thanks.”

The validity or lack thereof of whisky awards and their accompanying hype might seem like an obvious thing to criticize, but I think there’s enough coverage of it all throughout the whisky community to make the criticism worthwhile. I don’t begrudge anyone trying to make a buck off of whisky, or whisky awards, or hastily written articles about whisky awards. But I also think this kind of fawning, mutually beneficial back-slapping bullshit is fair game, and deserves to be called out for what it is. So for the love of the whisky gods, please treat these awards with a grain of salt. Certainly wash over the ensuing semi-accurate, hyperbolic hype and coverage with a cynical eye. Just remember that while there’s a reason these whiskies are recognized – they’re often great whiskies, there’s also a reason the awards are hyped and covered so much, and that’s to sell whiskies, sell ad space, and make the award-givers more money.

April Fool’s Day Resolutions

Dürer's (probably) "Ship of Fools" from Brandt's tome of the same name.
Dürer’s (probably) “Ship of Fools” from Brandt’s tome of the same name.


  • I’m going to buy more bottles of $100+ whisky because they must all be worth it.
  • I’m going to start smoking cigars, because all that smoke really enhances one’s sense of taste and takes the edge off all those young $100+ whiskies.
  • I’m going to use Twitter more because it’s so productive, and because the company itself is doing WONDERFUL things for San Francisco.
  • I’m going to stop keeping all my money in a spirit safe because shit gets wet in there.
  • I’m not going to buy any more whisky books because, obviously, one can’t drink a book.
  • I’m going to read more whisky blogs just because.
  • I’m going to stop pretending that I can smell and taste all those different things in whisky because, as everyone knows, all those different things are not actually in whisky.
  • I’m going to buy more booze in Minnesota on Sundays.
  • I’m going to spend more time on whisky auction sites, because old whisky always tastes better whether it actually does or not.
  • I’m going to drink more whisky because of the health benefits I saw reported in such respected medical publications as Buzzfeed and The Luxury Spot.
  • I’m going to leave bottles open, taste them periodically, and then write a review when I think the whisky has really oxidized well because what the whisky is supposed to taste like and what I want it to taste like shouldn’t really be mutually exclusive…or should it?
  • I’m going to drink more hand-crafted spirits because I love the taste of hand.
  • I’m going to calibrate my palate more because it sounds dirty in a hunky-soiled-mechanic-meets-unfulfilled-housewife kind of way.
  • I’m going to start including more animal facts and Carl Sagan quotes in all my posts because…actually, I might really do this one.
  • I’m going to not write an April Fool’s Day post next year, because I keep putting them off to the last minute and frankly, I’m all out of ideas.

Eh, fuck it, I’m gonna go for a bike ride.