The first Cork Whiskey Fest is a great opportunity to try some of the country’s best bottles
With so many Irish distilleries now operational and so many new brands on the market, Irish whiskey lovers are increasingly spoilt for choice. This can be exciting or bamboozling, depending on your grasp of whiskey styles and of who’s doing what. For producers, it’s hard to stand out on such a busy stage, but many are managing to set themselves apart, and plenty of innovative curiosities make a welcoming entry point.
Some distillers are experimenting with mash bills, aka the proportion of base ingredients distilled into the new-make spirit: typically barley (malted, unmalted, or peated malt), sometimes oats, and grains like maize (corn), wheat or rye. The latter’s spice notes have been popping up in interesting Irish takes on American rye whiskey. Several distilleries are focusing on the provenance and heritage of their grain, growing their own or working with local farmers to grow heritage varietals: think Echlinville Distillery in the Ards Peninsula, Ballykeefe Distillery in Kilkenny, Waterford Distillery and Clonakilty Distillery.
Others continue to experiment with the casks used to finish their whiskeys. Whatever grain you distill, it must be barrel-aged for three years and a day before it’s called whiskey. Typically, that initial maturation is in ex-bourbon barrels (US laws regarding single usage ensure good availability), but later stints in sherry, port, wine or even ex-peated whiskey casks can layer in distinctive nuances.
This base whiskey might be a brand’s own, distilled on-site, or it might be bought in from other distilleries and finished to their specifications. Louise McGuane at JJ Corry has carved a nice niche as a whiskey bonder who buys in whiskey to mature and blend at her west Clare bond house. The Killarney-based Wayward Spirits, producers of The Liberator port-finished whiskeys, has gone one step further with its recent Lakeview Single Estate Irish Whiskey ‘Coming of Age’ release, distilled with its own barley and matured on-site (see below).
The Liberator is just one of the many Irish whiskey brands and distilleries taking part in the first Cork Whiskey Fest in the city’s Victorian Quarter (March 24-26), which is a great opportunity to meet the makers, taste and learn. Another highlight will be the masterclass from Blackwater Distillery, where maverick Peter Mulryan is maturing 30 different pot-still mash bills. If you missed Blackwater’s recent Dirtgrain Irish Whisky Manifesto release of four 20cl mash bill samples and a 64-page book written by Mulryan, or couldn’t afford its €250 price tag, this will be one to catch.
Lakeview Single Estate Irish Whiskey, 46pc, €195
This single pot-still ‘coming of age’ release was distilled at Dundalk’s Great Northern Distillery using Lakeview Estate barley grown in Killarney and malted in small batches at Athgarrett Malt in Naas. It was then matured for three months in ex-bourbon casks and 40 months in Premier Cru Bordeaux casks at the estate’s 300-year-old stone bond house, with a fraction finished in ex-peated casks for one month. The complex result has Black Forest gateaux and nutty umami notes with a whisper of smoky brine. Selected independents, celticwhiskeyshop.com
Dunville’s Three Crowns Peated Irish Whiskey, 43.5pc, €60
From Echlinville Distillery in Co Down, this subtle introduction to a peated style has hints of bonfires, turf smoke and briny shorelines imparted by blending together in a peated Scottish cask a single grain, 10-year-old single malt and 15-year-old single malt finished in Oloroso sherry. . Selected independents, celticwhiskeyshop.com
Micil Inverin Small Batch Blended Irish Whiskey, 46pc, €45
This Galway distillery draws on five generations of poitín-making heritage. Its complex peated blend builds distinctive Connemara ‘fuisce’ character with a five-part small-batch base (incl 20pc peated malt) given a triple-cask finish. Think robust peat notes and honeyed spice. Selected independents, celticwhiskeyshop.com, micildistillery.com
McConnell’s Five-Year-Old Blended Irish Whisky, 42pc, €38.50
One of Belfast’s several heritage brands being revived, here at a new distillery and visitors’ centre due to open this autumn in the old Crumlin Gaol. This uses first-fill ex-bourbon barrels to layer notes of smoke, creamy vanilla, cigar box and orchard fruit. Smooth and easy drinking. Selected independents, celticwhiskeyshop.com
Powers Irish Rye, 43.2pc, €40
Once a classic Dublin whiskey,Powers is now produced at Cork’s Midleton Distillery. This is a fun introduction to the spicy character of rye whiskey. With aromas of honey and cereal, cloves and ginger, red fruits and citrus peel, it has peppery, radish-like spices on the palate and dried cherry, sweet cocoa and chilli on the finish. Selected independents, O’Briens, Dublin Airport, powerswhiskey.com