The bench­mark



“Ir­ish whiskey is poised to make a strong come­back, with dy­namic new brands launch­ing off the shoul­ders of leg­endary whiskeys like Jame­son and Bush­mills.” Sean

John Jame­son started dis­till­ing whiskey in Dublin in 1780 and the brand is cer­tainly now the best known, ac­count­ing for 70 per­cent of Ir­ish whiskey sales world­wide, though Pow­ers and Paddy are more pop­u­lar in Ire­land. Here in Canada, this is very prob­a­bly the first Ir­ish whiskey any­one tries, a good bench­mark to start our tast­ing.

A triple-dis­tilled blend of pot-still and grain whiskeys, aged a min­i­mum of four years, Jame­son has been known to fox peo­ple in a blind tast­ing, some­times mis­taken for a brandy. The nose is cer­tainly more full of fruit than grain. Sean found plum, or­ange, pear and sweet vanilla, joined by toasted nuts and ce­real when he tasted it; Shane got honey and spicy cloves. “There’s tons of fruit,” said Char­lene, “or­ange rind and toasted marsh­mal­low. I al­ways think it tastes like a Ri­cola cough drop — round but not smooth.”

Caskmates is Jame­son that has been fin­ished in whiskey casks pre­vi­ously sea­soned with stout from Cork’s Fran­cis­can Wells Brew­ery, a good ex­am­ple of the mod­ern taste for novelty in the Ir­ish whiskey in­dus­try. That sort of treat­ment of­ten lends a creami­ness to the spirit, but not this time. Char­lene and Sean both ex­pe­ri­enced a sort of as­trin­gent grip—more a feel­ing than a flavour—and we all found the nose her­bal, like mint or even pine. The Jame­son fruit was still there, al­though Shane also dis­cov­ered hints of dark choco­late and trop­i­cal fruit but less of the spice he en­joyed in the Jame­son.

“At the heart of ev­ery Ir­ish whiskey, no mat­ter what else the spirit has been through, you taste the grain.” James

What does that vir­gin wood im­part to the Legacy? Plenty of oaky spice, to be sure, plus vanilla, co­conut, caramel, but­ter­scotch… “And plum blos­som,” said Sean, though that was the only fruiti­ness we found. And it’s el­e­gantly smooth, de­spite its strength at 46% al­co­hol by vol­ume (ABV); any hint of a rough edge has long since dis­ap­peared. In the mouth, its some­thing of a shape­shifter, start­ing out silky and light then grow­ing creamier, while oak tan­nins loom up, fade away and then re­turn for the long fin­ish.

I re­mem­ber the Very Rare from my visit to Mi­dle­ton’s mighty dis­tillery, just out­side Cork. There were only 50 casks of it and it was bot­tled in in­di­vid­u­ally num­bered bot­tles when­ever Barry Crock­ett deemed it to be “ready,” some­time be­tween nine and 12 years old. It re­minded me of Cognac at the time, with a hint of caramel corn and al­mond paste on the fin­ish. This time the aro­mat­ics seemed more like bour­bon, we all agreed, “with a fudgey feel,” added Shane. The light­bod­ied grain whiskeys in the blend con­trib­ute to the clean tex­ture while the pot­still spir­its add firm­ness and back­bone. Don’t look for flirty fruit or flo­ral notes; this whiskey al­most de­mands to be taken se­ri­ously.

“All the whiskey drinkers I know love Writ­ers’ Tears—or maybe I just keep get­ting gifted bot­tles be­cause we’re all melan­choly jour­nal­ists!” Char­lene

Sin­gle-pot-still whiskey is a par­tic­u­larly Ir­ish idea, made by dis­till­ing a mix­ture of malted and un­malted bar­ley. Said to have come about be­cause the Bri­tish im­posed ex­tra taxes on malted bar­ley in Ire­land, it gives a slightly oily tex­ture and a tell­tale lin­seed taste. It’s there in Writ­ers’ Tears, part of an in­tensely aro­matic nose which Char­lene found flo­ral and heath­ery but which re­minded Sean of caramel and co­conut. We all noted a cit­rus note, like Meyer lemon. “It’s so round, so sweet, so smooth,” pointed out Shane, “it’s more like a Cana­dian whisky than a spicy Ir­ish—which may be why it’s so pop­u­lar here!”

The Bush­mills Sin­gle Malt was def­i­nitely the odd man out in our tast­ing. There’s no peati­ness, of course, be­cause the bar­ley is malted with heat but no smoke, but there’s plenty of vanilla and a touch of bit­ter­sweet as­trin­gency from the 10 years in oak. “I get a nice mouth-wa­ter­ing acid­ity,” said Char­lene, “like bit­ing into a yel­low ap­ple.” “A caramel ap­ple,” added Sean. “The flavours are so in­tense, with that sweet malt ev­ery­where.” But the body is lighter than many sin­gle-malt Scotches be­cause the spirit is dis­tilled three times, not twice.

“Red­breast is like your favourite un­cle—the one who al­ways slips you five pounds. I’m happy to see it ev­ery time!” Shane

“Yes,” de­clared Shane, “46% is the sweet spot for Ir­ish pot-still whiskey, es­pe­cially when you’re us­ing it in a cock­tail. Di­lu­tion doesn’t di­min­ish it so quickly. I make a Black­thorn (whiskey and sloe gin) with the Pow­ers.” “There’s also a grapey Cognac note that makes me think it would be great in a Side­car,” sug­gested Char­lene. “Or an Old Fash­ioned,” said Shane, “made with or­ange bit­ters.” The age­ing is fin­ished in oloroso sherry bar­rels, which may ac­count for a ripe black­berry or black­cur­rant note in its af­ter­taste.

Oh, the fab­u­lous length of the Red­breast 21! And the com­plex­ity! The list of il­lu­sory aro­mas was the long­est yet, in­clud­ing mo­lasses, de­mer­ara sugar, figs, nut­meg, licorice, rum dun­der… “When Ir­ish whiskeys get old,” said Shane, “they go down the Christ­mas cake route. Red­breast 12 Year Old has a candy note; this is what it be­comes with nine more years.” A few drops of wa­ter opened up the Red­breast in a re­mark­able way, re­leas­ing a whole new range of earthy, dried-fruit im­pres­sions. Of all the whiskeys we tasted, this is the one I’d most like to meet for a night­cap, be­fore I turn in.

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