St. Patrick’s Day is coming up, and that means not only wearing green, or drinking green beer, but also paying attention to the wonderful world of Irish whiskeys.
Ireland occupies a founding place in whisk(e)y history; it’s thanks to Irish monks making Uisce Beatha (a translation of ‘aqua vitae’ in Latin, or ‘Water of Life’) that whiskey as we know it exists.
Irish whiskey is now enjoying a revival after a long decline that saw many distilleries close over the years for a variety of reasons.
The patent of the Coffey Still – invented by an Irishman – in the mid-19th century led to a boom in Scottish blended whisky, ironically muscling out the Irish. Creation of the Irish Free State in the 1920s led to a trade war that hurt the industry, and Prohibition in the U.S. also was a significant problem.
Things got so bad that by the mid-1970s, only two Irish distilleries (New Midleton and Old Bushmills, both owned by Irish Distillers) were in operation.
Fortunately, the situation has slowly improved. Between then and 2012, only two more distilleries opened, Cooley and Kilbeggan. Pernod Ricard’s takeover of Irish Distillers in 1988 also led to new marketing campaigns focused on Irish whiskey, increasing its global profile.
Those two distilleries, by the way, produce loads of Irish whiskey brands, including Jamesons, Paddy, and many more.
Within the past five years, however, many new distilleries large and small have opened. Sales for Irish whiskey keep climbing, with the value of exports quintupling between 2003-2016, accounting for more than a third of all Ireland’s drinks exports. The current distillery count stands at 16 in operation, and 14 more under construction.
Which brings us to Knappogue Castle (Gaelic for "Kissing Hill"), a whiskey brought to the U.S. by Castle Brands, a New York-based company with Irish roots. It’s also a real castle in Ireland, built in 1467,
These guys are a rare breed. It’s not often that you find independent bottlers of Irish whiskey. (Castle Brands also handles loads of other kinds of booze.) While responsible for some well-regarded vintage bottlings, more recently it has released a core range of three whiskeys. Though I am told officially that the whiskey comes from an ‘undisclosed third party distillery’, rumor has it they’re produced at the Old Bushmills Distillery, which happens to be the oldest surviving licensed distillery in the world.
So in the good name of St. Patrick, it’s my duty to taste these and review them for your benefit. Samples were sent to me by the company to try, though opinions on the whisky are my own. I include the links to the prices that I have found for these whiskies in the U.K., but this can easily vary in different websites and stores.
The Knappogue Castle core range.
Irish whiskey is triple distilled (contrasting with most Scotch whisky, distilled twice), which usually leads to a cleaner, lighter taste than a Scotch. It can also create a more sterile, lifeless flavor if the casks used to age the whisky don’t make up for this ‘cleanness’. This 12 year old whiskey aged in American bourbon casks to me falls short on both nose and palate for this reason. The bourbon casks provide some of the usual cream and vanilla that you can expect, and it’s indeed a smooth drink. But there’s a rawness that I find unpleasant, with hints of disinfectant. It works in one of my favorite peated Scotch whiskies, Laphroaig, but doesn’t work here. However, not a few likely would disagree with my assessment as this is actually a multiple award-winning whisky.
This I find much better. The 14 year old twin wood marries whiskeys aged in both American bourbon and oloroso sherry casks. The sherry element here brings body and balance into an enjoyable, gentle whole. Vanilla and cream shine much nicer on this whisky than the last one, especially with fruity elements of apples and strawberries. It actually tastes a bit like boozy strawberry fruit yogurt, the kind with a slightly metallic artificial tang, but succeeds here. This whiskey is another prizewinner, claiming Whiskey of the Year at the Irish Whiskey Awards just last year.
Also called Twin Wood, yet has a different maturation style. Where the 14 Twin Wood mixes two different kinds of casks together, this whiskey is aged in bourbon casks for a minimum of 14 years before the contents are shifted into Oloroso sherry again until the whiskey is at least 16 years old. This is my favorite of the three, as heavier elements such as bread-like doughiness and nuts come through more than in the 14. Also, I find more of a rich toffee/caramel element here also quite enjoyable.
Overall, the three whiskies do show both the good and the bad sides of Irish whiskey. Triple distillation means that sometimes your drink is almost vodka-like when done really badly. But if matured in good casks, a flavor texture emerges that’s hard to find in whisky from any other country.
In any case, sharing any of these on St. Patrick’s Day is likely to win you a few kisses in gratitude.
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