The Irish whiskey sector is burgeoning, with more great brands entering the market. This year’s entrants showed off that point in style, writes Becky Paskin.
The 2014 Irish Whiskey Masters was a reflection of the interest currently seen in the category by both consumers and producers
Judging the Irish Whiskey Masters on the same day as The World Whisky Masters is an insightful way of comparing the category’s style and quality with that of others around the world. But with the Irish whiskey sector booming, and several new brands set to enter the market over the next 12-18 months, this may well be the last year the competitions are judged side by side.
It’s undoubtedly an exciting time for Irish whiskey right now, with sales forecast to double by 2020, and every time the Irish Whiskey Masters comes around, I certainly feel a thrill to discover what new entrants might be on the list this year.
Joining me at London’s The Fable to find out were Adam McCullogh, bar manager of The Cadogan Arms, Toby Quirk, freelance brand ambassador, and Charles Montanaro, group manager for 5cc.
To kick things off, the judging panel was initially presented with a large flight of Blended Premium whiskeys, the backbone of Irish whiskey, but despite its size and importance to the category overall, our judges were left somewhat underwhelmed. “These were all great whiskeys but all lacked any excitement or depth,” explained Montanaro. “They would however be fantastic for mixing, which is what I suppose their purpose really is.” The judges did however manage to award one Master in the round, to William Grant & Sons’ Tullamore DEW 12yo Special Reserve, which was described as “just delightful”. The flight also landed four additional medals, with relative newcomer Teeling Whiskey Small Batch Blend securing a coveted Gold.
While there were certainly a handful of gems in the Premium Blended round, three knock-out whiskeys practically blew the socks off the judges as we stepped up a price bracket into Super-Premium. A Master medal winner every year, Irish Distillers’ Jameson Rarest Reserve once again clinched the highest accolade with its rich notes of “vanilla, toffee and stone fruit”.
Coming in very close behind it were Jameson Gold Reserve and Tullamore DEW Phoenix, both of which secured Golds. Freelance ambassador Quirk, said: “One stood out head and shoulders above the rest for being extremely well constructed and so full of depth and complexity. But all the whiskeys in this round eclipsed every other Irish blend we’ve tasted today and put them in the shadows. Unfortunately, in this instance, spending more money on a bottle is advised; price doesn’t always equal quality, but in this case it certainly does.”
From one exciting category we flowed right into another: Single Grain. A burgeoning area of interest for Scotland, single grain whisky is seeing renewed interest in whisky-producing regions the world over, and having sampled the few new expressions created by the Scots, our panel were intrigued to discover what the Irish are bringing to the party.
Grain whisky by definition is generally softer, smoother and more delicate than malt – qualities Scotch producers claim will attract younger consumers to whisky in general. While those qualities certainly were present in most of the Single Grain entries, some exuded a rough, grainy texture and not as much flavour as our judges hoped.
Single Grain as a category within the wider whisky market is still relatively new, and while The Cadogan Arms’ McCullogh noted there is “room for improvement” among the Irish players, he added “it is nice to see the Irish are getting more into single grain like the Scots”. In the end, just one medal was awarded here, a Silver for Beam Suntory’s Greenore Single Grain, which was described as “smooth, sweet and very accessible”.
Moving on, our judges entered the Irish Single Pot Still round, a style of whiskey unique to Ireland featuring a marriage of whiskey distilled from malted and unmalted barley. Although there are very few players in this arena, the category usually attracts a wide variety of entries, from light, fruity styles to heavy, sherried whiskeys. The entries this year were divided into Premium and Super-Premium depending on price point. Those priced £45 and under were scrutinised first, and, as always, turned out a pleasing set of results. Three Gold medals were awarded to Irish Distillers for their Redbreast 12 Year Old, Green Spot and Power’s John’s Lane. “These represented some great value for money, premium whiskeys,” said Quirk. “There were some vibrant flavours, even at a relatively young age, proving that single pot stills lead the way for Irish whiskey.”
The standard grew even further as we moved into the Super-Premium round, and awarded a Master for Midleton Barry Crockett’s Legacy, again from the single pot still specialists at Irish Distillers.
Already at the penultimate round, we were presented with a range of Irish Single Malts, with expressions ranging from Premium through to Super-Premium and Ultra-Premium. Traditionally the category doesn’t perform as well as the rest of the competition, perhaps down to the high standards set by single malt Scotches or the relative supremacy of the other styles. But this year our judges were blown away by the category’s balanced, intense flavours, particularly among the expensive styles.
The judges left to right: Becky Paskin, The Spirits Business; Toby Quirk, freelance brand ambassador; Adam McCullogh, The Cadogan Arms; and Charles Montanaro, 5cc.
“I would love to spend more time enjoying these whiskeys,” said Quirk, applauding the craftsmanship of the Ultra-Premium entries. “There are so many complex flavours. They are a giant leap up from the Super-Premium level and are exactly the kind of quality Ultra-Premium should be. This is what people should be spending their money on.”
The Premium entries attracted three Golds and one Silver, a decent result for a round often dismissed to live in Scotch’s shadow. As the ages of the expressions, and subsequently the prices, increased, the panel became more and more impressed with this often disregarded category.
The Super-Premium range scored a Master and Gold medal for Bushmills 21 Year Old and Connemara 12 Year Old respectively, while three Masters were handed out to the elite group, all to whiskeys released by Teeling Whiskey Co. The growing company was founded to shake up the Irish whiskey market and offer consumers different and unique styles of whiskey, and by their achievements in the Single Malt category, they seem to have achieved their goal.
The final round of the day was one populated by the fewest expressions, but a popular and growing one especially in the US. Flavoured whiskey may be a contentious subject, but our judges agreed that this particular entry was proof that if done right, the result can be extraordinary. A Master was awarded to Bushmill’s Irish Honey, whose nose was absent of any residual sugar, rather a full aroma of a slightly sweet, blended whiskey. The palate however displayed more sweetness with a subtle hint of honey, although the flavour of the whiskey was still very much apparent. The judges described this as a “non-whiskey drinker’s whiskey”.
Bushmill’s of course isn’t the only flavoured whiskey. There are a few emerging from brands eyeing up a potential market share that American flavoured whiskeys currently dominate Stateside.
But as the Irish whiskey category expands over the next couple of years, more flavours and styles are sure to emerge to offer consumers greater choice, and I for one am excited to see what new innovations may join the Irish Whiskey Masters elite next year, and in the foreseeable future.
Click through the following pages to discover the Irish Whiskey Masters 2014.