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Monday 23 February 2015

Come Fly With Me: The Redbreast Mano a Lamh, Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey

As we speed away from Burn’s night and head towards St Patrick’s Day, it’s time to start cracking open some Irish whiskey.

Once long forgotten, the rise of Irish whiskey has seen a plethora of new distilleries opening up, with plenty more in the pipeline. In our recent visits to Ireland to see either brand-spanking new facilities or those out in the market drumming up support, one thing has made itself very clear: Ireland will become more serious about Pot Still than any other style of whiskey.

Scotland is a fairly simple place when it comes to whisky-making. You’ve got your single malts, with only one distillery fully triple distilling (nb: Springbank occasionally utilising their three still to triple distil, and Mortlach using bamboozing marketing terminology to say they distilled more than twice).

Then you’ve got your grain whisky, mainly matured in bourbon casks. Add them together and you’ve got your third type, blends. Simple, hey?!

Over in Ireland, it isn’t quite so simple. With a much smaller pool of distilleries, the fame of Irish whiskey grew up around their main ideal of triple distillation. But there is so much more to Irish whiskey than the third still, for across this tiny network of distilleries they make single malt twice distilled (peated and unpeated), single malt thrice distilled, grain whisky, pot still whiskey (from a malted and unmalted barley mix), and of course blends... but blends not just of grain and malt whiskeys, but blends of all of these. Jameson Black Barrel even takes some whiskey from a pot still and runs it through the column still before maturation... I mean, what kind of voodoo is that?!

Currently the fastest growing category of dark spirit in the world, Irish whiskey is on a roll (driven by the popularity of Jameson in markets such as the USA) and with each new release from across the countries different distilleries, clarity is beginning to fall on the various production styles and flavour profiles.

One of the most sought-after releases, and a real favourite of ours here at Caskstrength HQ, is Redbreast. A wonderfully well matured whiskey, we have always been a fan of the 12 Year Old. When the 15 Years Old appeared, fleetingly, at the start of the last decade, we got very excited indeed (in fact I seem to remember nearly an entire bottle being consumed at one of the Toucan pubs in London with a group of writers and employees of some of London’s finest whisky shops) and even more so when it came back as part of the permanent range. 

With the addition of a Cask Strength 12 Year Old and then the fantastic 21 Year Old, the range seemed to be taking shape with a real personality and DNA of its own. And now the folk at Irish Distillers, producers of Redbreast, have just launched a limited edition version. A No Age Statement, although in answering questions on their social media outlets had it pegged at carrying an age statement of 13 years old, if it were to have one) the whiskey has been solely matured in ex-Oloroso sherry butts. This one sounds right up my street.

When I heard that this whiskey was available, but only 2000 bottles were being released, I headed over to the Redbreast website to buy a bottle. And the verdict?

Redbreast – Mano a Lamh – Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey – All Sherry Limited Edition – 2000 bottles only – 46% abv – 65 euro here

Nose: Marzipan and Battenburg Cake rise from the glass with a surprisingly large amount of vanilla for an ‘all-oloroso’ offering. This has some spirituous notes but this is one of those occasions where this is a positive as it provides a platform for the lovely, sweet flavours to play. Light and airy but with hidden depth.

Palate: This is a smooth whiskey with a sweet back palate, some frozen red berries and hot vanilla sauce on top. It is terribly easy to drink, as you would expect from a Redbreast, but a block of ice really takes this up a level to a longer, more sipping whiskey. The flavours from the nose deliver on the palate too.

Finish: Sweetened vanilla custard, almonds and some milk chocolate praline.

Overall: Well, there we have it folk... the rise of Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey doesn’t seem fleeting, or limited to core expressions. It seems to be strong, and rising.

Saturday 21 February 2015

Great Odin's Ravin'

The history of 'Truly Great Limited Edition Whiskies' is few and far between really. 

Odd ones pop up getting consumers frothy and excited, then every other brand decides to follow suit in some way, before we all end up gazing forlornly at an overpriced Whisky Auction Site: either regretting missing out on a sold-out purchase, or regretting drinking and finishing a matured investment. Sad really.  

It's like the words 'Landfill Indie', a phrase that we bring with us from our time in the music business. One band would spring out of nowhere, redefining a stagnant music scene.

Then every company would rush out something that sounded similar and looked vaguely the same.  Arctic Monkeys?  True Game Changers.  Milburn... Hmmm maybe not so much.  

But when it comes to a limited edition series, the search for excellence becomes even more difficult.  

The difficulty faced by whisky companies is keeping the attention of the whisky consumer.  Balvenie and the Tun 1401 series started off rather splendidly, before a few fans and collectors began to trail away, disappointed they either couldn't afford or find the editions they wanted, as they were spread across the global network of off-trade and Global Travel retailers.   

Magnus Series. Pic courtesy of The Whisky Exchange
Conversely, when Highland Park released the Magnus Trilogy, they got everything right:  The liquid was excellent, the price points spot on and the outturn, not too outlandish to make fans feel like they were being taken for a limited edition ride.  

Then came the Valhalla Collection: Four whiskies, over four years, each one representing a different norse god -  the liquid being tailored to the supposed personality and character of the god or goddess.  

The initial release, Thor, was quite a stunner. Bold, powerful, smoky and muscular, it was a whisky that had everything you could want in a bottle of HP. 

Next up was Loki: the trickster, the shapeshifter. Unusually fruity and fragrant upfront, with a totally different profile on the palate, which lived up to the unhinged genius of its namesake.

The fairer, more gentle side of the brand was explored with Freya:  Etherial, light and floral. It perhaps didn't have the same impact as the first two releases from a liquid perspective and in our opinion, was the least likely Highland Park to be recognised as a true HP.  Still, it adhered perfectly to the character profile.

This week saw the release of Odin, the conclusion of the series. As the leader of the gods, Odin demands respect -  especially given that he supposedly fathered the mighty Thor. Will this be a reflection of his namesake whisky?  

Highland Park - Odin -  16 Year Old - 55.8% - £180

Nose: Initially a little closed and quite one sided, but given a few minutes in the glass, you're immediately in HP territory:  Fragrant fruity smoke, honeyed malt, some citrus notes and a little waft of dry sherry wood.  So far, so good.  It's powerful and the you can definitely tell that the palate will be quite a challenging experience.  

Palate: Super lively and spirity -  in fact as fiery as they get at this strength.  But then it dies down and you're into lemon and lime zest, a wonderful malty backbone, a little rubber note (not that off-putting though) and a huge swathe of smoke.  Not perhaps as smoky as the last Hp release, Dark Origins, but certainly bolder than any of the regular expressions.  

Finish:  The finish sees lingering notes of sherry, some very dry sherry cask wood and a little sweet honey, but a surprising absence of the smoke... as if the great god himself has disappeared in a majestical puff of the stuff.  

Overall: A solid conclusion to the series.  In our opinion, the bar was set stupendously high with Thor and as a result, it's hard to outshine that particular expression purely from a liquid perspective, but what this proves is that once again, Highland Park are the real thought leaders in presenting innovative, creative bottlings. A fond hurrah to a great, consistent series.  

Mere mortal companies would have fallen hard and fast after the first two, but HP?  Well, they must have Valhalla on speed dial, with Gerry Tosh and whisky maker Max McFarlane sitting in a car with the engine running, waiting to kidnap another unsuspecting member of the Underworld. We look forward with excitement to the next series.