Saturday, October 16, 2010

Irish Whiskey By Cooley Distillery


(Note:  This review also appeared on the Drinking Made Easy Web site November 2, 2010)

A Friday night in mid-October doesn’t exactly put you in a mood for St. Patrick’s Day – nevertheless, I attended a tasting of Irish Whiskies from Cooley Distillery.  Cooley was represented by John Cashman, who served up a total of eight blended and single malt whiskies.  Cooley is unique because they are the only Irish-owned Irish Whiskey distillery in Ireland; surprisingly, there are currently only four in Ireland – one owned by the French, one owned by the British and the other two owned by Cooley. 


Cashman explained that 95% of all Irish Whiskies are blended and Cooley is unique because they are the only peated malt manufacturer among the Irish Whiskies.  Their peated malt makes that particular Irish Whiskey product almost taste more like a Scotch.  Cooley is proud of the fact that their Irish Whiskies are double-distilled, rather than triple-distilled as are many – this results in a sharper taste and higher alcohol content. 

John Cashman 

Cooley’s Irish Whiskey products include types that are known as single grain, single malt and single cask. The single grain Irish Whiskey contains a cereal that is not barley; usually, it’s something like 95% corn and 5% malted barley – the barley exists mostly for the fermentation process and doesn’t produce much in the way of taste.  It’s in the mash to help break down the enzymes to sugars.  Single Malts are 100% malted barley.  Single Casks are Irish Whiskies from the same vintage that are aged in the same barrel. 


This night’s tasting consisted of eight of Cooley’s Irish Whiskey products, some of which are rare and expensive, but there are others that are reasonably priced so as not to completely blow a hole through your alcohol budget.  Although the menu suggested the order in which the whiskies would be tasted, Cashman assured us that he would not follow the order of that menu because he wanted us to go in what he felt would be a better order – starting out with the mildest whiskies and working our way up to the real “feel the burn” types. 

We began with Greenore Single Grain Irish Whiskey.  Aged eight years in former Bourbon barrels, it’s 40% alcohol and is recommended to be good for any kind of cocktail in which a whiskey of some kind is used.  A light taste, this one could be sipped on its own, without any water or ice.  Consisting of 95% corn, it has a sweet taste to it due to the corn, with hints of vanilla as a result of being aged in a bourbon barrel. 


This was followed by Greenore’s next offering, which was aged 15 years.  With a slightly higher alcohol content – 43% – it is a much mellower whiskey, with a distinctly woody taste, suggesting the extra aging allows you to experience a bit of the barrel in which it lived.  Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your perspective on this matter), this has been discontinued and will soon be replaced by an 18 year old.  As a result, whatever bottles remain in the United States are the few that are left and there ain’t no more, so if you want to pick one up, I suggest you hurry – but be warned that this is more than double the price of the Greenore with only eight years of aging. 


Next up was Kilbeggan Blended Irish Whiskey -- “a traditional Irish Whiskey”, as Cashman put it.  This one is allegedly the biggest selling brand worldwide and considering it’s also 40% alcohol with an extremely reasonable price point, it’s no wonder why.   However – arguably the very best Irish Whiskey we tasted on this evening – was another Kilbeggan offering, its 15 year aged product, which is much more expensive … but deservedly so!  Voted The World’s Best Blended Whiskey with a 40% alcohol content, this one has an excellent taste.  One of the attendees perhaps put it best when he said, “It’s so smooth, it’s like drinking silk!”.  Cashman called this one something of a collectors’ item because it was an anniversary blend that has now been discontinued – so, if you are lucky enough to find a bottle, hurry up and buy one (but don’t drink it … at least, not yet, anyway … ).


We began the second half of the tasting with Tyrconnell Single Malt, which has something of a fascinating history (“Boardwalk Empire” fans, take note here).  In the days before America’s Prohibition Era, Tyrconnell was the number one seller when Irish Whiskey accounted for approximately 60% of the sales of spirits in the United States.  Cashman said that if you ever have a chance to see any old newsreels or documentary film footage that shows the original Yankee Stadium here in New York City, you’ll see that the advertisements in the outfield show signs for Tyrconnell.  Sadly, this time of prosperity ended when Prohibition began.  Perhaps most notable about the whiskey itself is the fact that it has a very strong finish; made of 100% malted barley contributes to the fact that it has a particularly spicy taste.  Cashman pointed out that there are few single malts at this price, making it a particularly good entry level product for people new to whiskey. 


For the final three of the evening, it is difficult for me to maintain any kind of objectivity about them because they are without a doubt my favorite Irish Whiskey – Connemara.  Starting off with the standard Connemara Peated Single Malt, this smoked grain hits you almost immediately.  Another one that’s 40% alcohol, one of the great things about this one – at least if you like peated whiskey (and as a Scotch lover, I certainly do) – is the fact that it hits your nose hard on even the gentlest sniff.  Upon then tasting it, the peat absolutely explodes on your tongue, followed by the sweetness of a vanilla flavor, which provides a great balance.  Interestingly, this one is a combination of four, six and eight year old whiskies. 

The evening’s penultimate tasting was Connemara’s 12 year old, also a 40% alcohol Irish Whiskey, which is the most expensive of the brand.  This one has more of a fully rounded taste to it, so if you find the standard Connemara a bit too much, this one you might like simply because of the fact that the extra aging takes a bit of the edge off the otherwise intense taste. 

We ended the evening’s tastings with Connemara’s Cask Strength, which has a considerably higher alcohol content, at a whopping 58%!  The Cask Strength Whiskey is bottled at whatever is the strength of the cask at that time, which can be anywhere from 50 – 65% alcohol.  Cask Strength has some considerable heat and burn (a good thing, for hardcore whiskey fans), but its aftertaste is milder and mellower – this one would definitely do well with a bit of water.  Like the standard Connemara, it mixes four, six and eight year old whiskies.