Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Review: Two Single Malt Irish Whiskeys

You don't see too many single malt Irish whiskeys. Single malts are Scotland's thing. Ireland has traditionally gone for blending, not just of different grains, but also products of both pot and column stills; plus triple distillation. Scotch: rough; Irish: smooth. But single malt Scotches hold a certain appeal as a terribly authentic and pure tipple to a certain breed of customer. And lately, Ireland—whose whiskeys become more popular in the American market with each passing year—has been savvily getting more into the single malt game.

A big new entry in the Irish single malt category this year was Tullamore Dew Single Malt 10 Year Old. And it's been getting pretty high marks all around. It comes in at 40% and is matured in Bourbon, Dry Oloroso Sherry, Madeira and Port Casks. The result is very pleasing. It has a deep fruit nose, rich, with cherry, vanilla, toffee and caramel. On the palate, you get some iodine, tangy spice and heat, but also round fruit flavors of cherry, orange and apple. It has a prickly, tingly finish that stays with you. I haven't met a person who doesn't like it yet. It goes for $30.

Another single malt I recently tried is rarer still than the Tullamore (which send 400 cases to the U.S. in 2009), but made by a quixotic producer that's been at it for years. It's the Knappogue Castle 1994 Master Distiller's Private Selection. This Irish whiskey producer based in County Clare is known for its aged single-malts. American and single-malt enthusiast Mark Edwin Andrews started making them when no one else in Ireland was, buying barrels of single malt from Bushmill's and others, who were using the stuff for blending. It's first bottling was the 1951, put out in the mid-1960s, but mainly distributed among friends.

Knappogue started selling in Ireland in the 1970s. The last bottling was in 1987. Andrews died five years later. His son, also names Mark, started the business up again in 1997, buying barrels just as his father and putting vintage stamps on each. He achieved his father's dream of selling Knappogue Castle in the U.S.

Knappogue is now releasing a 1994. The source whiskey was triple-distilled one batch at a time in copper pot stills in February of 1994, aged in bourbon oak casks which were singled-out and selected by the master distiller last fall, and bottled in December of 2009.

The Knappogue has a bright, light lemon-orange color (no caramel coloring is added) and a lovely, mildly spicy, citrus and, yes, orange-licorice nose. Tasting it is quite an experience. I've never tasted a whiskey as orange-y as this. Miles and miles or ripe, sunny orange, tangerine, tangelo, orange zest—whatever round orange citrus fruit you care to mention. It takes some getting used to, it's so different. But once you do, you love it. There're other things in there, like vanilla and milky caramel, apple, banana, and every candied cherry, but they mainly serve to lend depth to the central flavor. It wonderfully mellow with a long, long finish. 

They only made 1,000 bottles of this. Even at that it only costs $100. I'd say it's worth it.

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