While the whisky industry is dominated by headlines warning of Scotch in decline and Bourbon running scarce, Irish whiskey is receiving all the plaudits, as its performance in our Global Masters competition confirms.
The Global Irish Whiskey Masters 2015 demonstrates the category is continuing to go from strength to strength
Before prohibition hit the export market and forced many distilleries out of business, Irish whiskey was the most popular whiskey in the US – and more than 80 years later, despite a slight dip in recent years, the US remains the category’s top market, with key growth in the emerging markets of Asia, the Middle East, South America and Africa.
Irish Whiskey exports have risen by 60% over the last five years according to a report earlier this year by Bord Bia, keeping the spirit well on its export growth trajectory. Last year alone, seven million nine-litre cases of Irish whiskey were exported, and this looks set to increase after a surge in planning permission which will likely see Ireland’s distilleries almost double this year. With such a bright future ahead of a spirit steeped in history, a total of eight experts gathered at The Botanist in Broadgate Circle, London, and began the day as one body, assessing each whiskey individually before discussing their flavour, aroma and finish together.
Mariola Nowakowska, general manager of Chiswell Street Dining Rooms; Sara Smith, whisky writer at Summer Fruit Cup; Billy Abbott, web content editor for The Whisky Exchange; Garrick Whittaker, spirits buyer for Fine and Rare; Robert Chapman, director of Chapman and Gorn; Elliot Ball, co-owner of The Cocktail Trading Company; Adam McCulloch, bar manager of The Jugged Hare; and The Whisky Shop’s Tobias Gorn conquered flight-by-flight arguably some of Ireland’s finest whiskies.
All manner of Irish whiskey were scrutinised as part of The Global Irish Whiskey Masters 2015
The day started with a modest flight of just one Single Grain Premium whiskey.
“Single grain is still a very niche category,” commented Abbott, “but with new Irish distillers appearing, it will hopefully grow.” The solo offering, by Teeling Whiskey Company, claimed a Gold medal for its “sweet nose”, and “pronounced raw wood influence”.
Next, we embarked upon a round of Blended flights, ranging in price from the accessible Standard whiskies to the top-end Ultra Premium expressions.
We began with Standard, a small flight that saw Beam Suntory swipe a Gold medal for its “soft and grainy” double-distilled 2 Gingers Whiskey. It was deemed “excellent for the category” by Chapman, and praised by Ball for its “archetypically Irish nose”.
The Gold medals kept coming in the Premium flight – four in total, three of which were awarded to William Grant & Sons for three of its Tullamore variants: 15 Year Old Trilogy, Phoenix, and Cider Cask. The round also produced the first Silver of the day, in the form of Jameson, esteemed for its “soft and rounded palate”. It was Super Premium, however, which yielded the first Master medal, claimed by Jameson 18 Year Old, for its “delicate, soft, tropical palate” and “delightful” finish. Chapman said: “This is a hefty, fascinating dram worthy of the world stage.”
We ended Blended with a flight of Ultra Premium, the champion of which was The Irishman Cask Strength 2014 – gifted a Gold for its “firecracker palate”.
Abbott said: “Irish blended was impressive, especially as the mid-range bottlings were very good – the more expensive whiskies were comparatively disappointing, whereas the quality of the premium offerings was consistently excellent.”
Whittaker agreed: “The premium round in particular delivered a solid flight of whiskies. There was everything from menthol to furniture polish on the nose, and milk chocolate to pears on the palate.”
Billy Abbott and Mariola Nowakowska were among our expert panel of judges
Next up were the Single Malt offerings – two small flights that packed a punch with three Gold medals and a Master.
Teeling attracted two of the Gold accolades, one for Teeling Single Malt Whiskey in the Super Premium flight, and the pricier Teeling 21 Year Old Single Malt Whiskey in the Ultra Premium sector. Glendalough 7 Year Old Single Malt earned a Master for its “hot, elusive apricot note with smoke” on the nose, and “pistachio and dried fruit” detected on the palate.
Whittaker said: “This round really turned up the heat – rich, concentrated entries that delivered on texture, flavour and strength.”
Nowakowska agreed: “I expected great flavours and complexity, and the single malts delivered. All the whiskeys were fantastic, in particular Glendalough which had incredible complexity.”
The Single Pot Still selection proved to be the most disappointing of the categories – not for lower-priced whiskies, but for the Ultra Premium expressions, which sadly didn’t attract a single award.
Nowakowska said: “I expected to see complexity, exceptional flavours, and good body from the whiskies in the Ultra Premium flight, but each of them were lacking.”
Despite this, the medal winners in this category were certainly worthy of their title, in particular the Premium flight, which shone with a Master for Redbreast 12 Year Old, a Gold for Green Spot, and a Silver medal for Powers Gold Label. The Super Premium flight also went down well, with Powers John’s Lane Release and Redbreast 15 Year Old bestowed Gold medals, and the “fudgey” Green Spot Château Léoville Barton awarded a Silver.
Judges, left to right: Billy Abbott, Garrick Whittaker, Rob Chapman, Elliot Ball, Tobias Gorn, Mariola Nowakowska, Adam McCulloch, Sara Smith
Abbott added: “The range of flavour across the pot still category was huge, although the higher priced bottlings didn’t deliver the levels of quality that you’d expect. However, the more affordable whiskies were definitely worth a look.”
The final round of the day, Poitin, was a welcome challenge for our experts, described as “an exciting new category, bafflingly delightful,” by Chapman.
The historic spirit was illegal in Ireland for 300 years, and only made legal in 1997, so the market for this niche product is small. Each expression lived up to its reputation as one of the strongest spirits on the planet, today coming in at up to 65% abv.
Teeling’s entry attracted a Master medal, while Bán Poitín received a Gold and Glendalough Poitin a Silver. Ball said: “This round was extremely interesting. Teeling’s Poitin was just crazy – high alcohols and esters, violets – an unbelievably intense flavour experience.”
Smith added: “It’s great to see this centuries-old category gain attention in the present day. The entrants showed the variation within the category and that Poitin is far more than just unaged whiskey.”
Summing up the round, Abbott praised the quality of the entries, particularly from the Blended categories.
He said: “The Irish whiskey entries impressed me with their consistency. While the whiskeys at the higher end of the price spectrum were disappointing, the mid- and low-end entrants were almost all very good.
“While single pot still is usually held up as the best of Irish whiskey, for me it was the blends that shone, especially those in the premium category – consistently very tasty and a sign of things to come.”
Click through to the following pages for the complete list of medal winners from The Global Irish Whiskey Masters 2015.