Due to a number of reasons I have spent much of the last year traversing the Irish Sea to Belfast with the occasional meander over the border. To repay their hospitality it is only fitting that I finally get round to collating my tasting notes and deliver a broad but hopefully not too sweeping assessment of the whiskey I have so painstakingly tried. Roughly speaking I am going to start at the top and work my down geographically which means we will begin with Bushmills.
Firstly I must give praise to the distillery tour, having spent the last week going around a number of Scottish distilleries I really appreciated the quality of the staff, the general slick nature of the operation and the way it has managed to avoid the commercial theme park feel a number of these tours give you. I have no desire to sit through a 30 minute promotional video after I have already decided to visit your distillery! Visually and in feel it is very similar to its scottish brethren but doesn't miss a single opportunity to remind you of its own pedigree and how the Irish rather than the Scots gave the world whisk(e)y. Its claim to be the oldest distillery in the world, when investigated, seems somewhat spurious but a whiskey licence was granted to this area in 1608 and it appears the tourists like that sort of thing.
Now onto the malt, unusually for me my liking for this dram increases chronologically and no that is not due to one extended tasting. Bushmills was one of my first whiskey experiences and their 10 YO was one of the first single malts I recall purchasing. This is a good malt to begin with but to my current tastes lacking some weight which the 12,18 and 21 YO certainly give it. The lightness of the spirit itself may well be down to the triple distillation a process associated with Irish whiskey but also a number of lowland whiskys and a couple of other Scottish distilleries that do a kind of 2 1/2 or 3 ish distillation prcoess. The theory being that the more distillations that take place the stronger the final output but with a lighter character though this is not necessarily the case particularly with regards to Springbank and their partial triple distillation. With age the fruity nose on this malt manages to become both more complex and yet cleaner a bit like listening to a really great stereo not only are you able to hear more of the instruments but you are able to appreciate each performer with greater clarity. My only criticism would be some of the fudge-ier notes that get in the way a bit and these were even more apparent on the the single cask samples I have tried though I have been informed that I managed to select all the absolute duffers so maybe not a great sampling. I must also give praise to their blends the widely available black bush and 1608 which have long been favourites of mine and certainly my favourite Irish blends different and in many ways superior to a number of Scottish blends. 1608 particularly contains predominantly crystal malt with the grain actually appearing to smooth everything out, spice, malt, burnt sugar, layers and upon layers working harmoniously and with less of the toffee that gets in the way of the single cask offerings.
This distillery is odd in many ways, double distillation, location, look and the fact that its expressions do not bear its name but a range of products. I do like the fact that it is to my knowledge the only truly Irish owned distillery left with Diageo buying up and Bushmills and Irish distillers(Jameson etc) being acquired by Pernod Ricard.The recent growth in the diversity of the wider whiskey market has been great for the consumer in bringing drams like Tyrconnell and Connemara to the shelves of the duty free stalls and now even into supermarkets in the UK but Cooley also produces a range of interesting grain whiskeys that will hopefully be reviewed in the future.
Having read much about the single malts and hearing a number of praising reviews I happily acquired a few samples of each that unfortunately failed to live up to expectation. Beginning with Connemara a peated Irish whiskey a concept that for me doesn't quite come together. I think a heavier peating could certainly benefit the malt, the smoke is too soft and just doesn't sit comfortably with the rest of the spirit giving a confused restricted performance. The Tyrconnell, to not be overly critical, is by no means a bad dram and is priced very reasonably for a single malt, the weighting behind it I found far superior to the Connemara and the fruity citrus notes provide a fair amount of entertainment towards the finish. From what I have read the Tyrconnell is also deceptively young so I would certainly be interested in trying some of the older bottlings.
Also note that Kilbeggan though stored in the original warehouses of the historic distillery is in fact the product of the Cooley distillery who purchased the brand in 1988, leaving the old distillery itself, until recently as a museum to its past glory and utilising the excellent old granite warehouses to age the spirit. Now with new stills installed I hoping that one of the most picturesque of distilleries could once again produce something befitting its surroundings.
Jameson at this point is inescapable, iconically Irish and the world leader in sales it has somehow managed to do this with a real swagger of quality. I have read that in the past it was not what it is now and that we are appreciating a renaissance in the pot still character of these blends if so then excellent work lads, keep it up. Their entry level offering and the signature reserve both amazed me when I returned to them recently to reflect upon some confusing notes I had recorded but both again delivered with waves of juicy pot still brilliance both having a gentleness while avoiding the pitfalls of dullness and instead throwing in a number of surprising elements. This leads me nicely onto the single malt output of the distillery and I have yet to taste a drop that hasn't been excellent, anything with the words Green Spot or redbreast on it seems to reek of brilliance characterised by flavour clarity on arrival that makes you wonder why it has taken so long for these to gain any prominence, it appears difficult for distilleries to remain brilliant for extended periods, they either falter or become the stuff of collectors so buy up all that you can while it is still at more than affordable prices. Excellent offering for tastings with friends particularly when you are looking to stray outside of Scottish borders.