The Irish Whiskey Masters 2018 results

8th August, 2018 by Amy Hopkins

Irish whiskey is on an upward trajectory, buoyed by the launch of new brands. But is this proliferation going hand in hand with an upsurge in quality? Judges at our Irish Whiskey Masters put the tipples to the test.

Irish whiskey has reached a turning point – as the category’s pace of growth exceeds all expectations and scores of new producers crank up their stills, stakeholders are focusing on ways to ensure its success is sustainable. Whether through training, regulation or investment, Irish whiskey is a category that is making plans for the future.

Last year, 9.7 million cases of Irish whiskey were sold around the world, an increase of 10.6%, according to IWSR data. Trade body the Irish Whiskey Association believes the industry is now in a strong position to exceed its 2020 sales target of 12m cases.

Consumers are also being enticed by a diversified product offering – the blends may have led volume growth, but single pot stills and single malts are showcasing Irish whiskey’s depth and scope.

But does the quality of the liquid do justice to the excitement surrounding the category? This is what our Irish Whiskey Masters 2018 set out to assess.

First up, a strong flight of standard­-priced blends saw Elise Craft’s panel award four Gold medals to Slane Irish Whiskey, Jameson Caskmates IPA Edition, Jameson Crested and Roe & Co, as well as three Silvers. Judge Phil Duffy said the entrants were “really quite impressive at this price point. For the most part they felt like well-­crafted and well-balanced spirits”.

In the higher ‘premium’ price segment for the blends, a whiskey worthy of the Master title was discovered. Judged by Melita Kiely’s panel, Jameson Black Barrel was described as a “perfect” example of the category with an “outstanding mouthfeel”. Matthew Neal said: “This is just a great product and something that could be used to introduce people to the category.”

No fewer than eight Golds were also awarded in the category, which judges agreed displayed “exceptional quality” across the board. “This flight showed how blending in Irish whiskey is an art,” added Neal.

Inching up the price ladder and into super-premium territory, two more Masters were discovered, both from the same Jameson range. Jameson Cooper’s Croze was praised for its “enticing nose” of “peonies and apples”, while Jameson Distiller’s Safe nabbed the top accolade for its “delicate, elegant complexity” and “long and lingering finish”. Three more Jameson expressions secured Gold, while one was awarded Silver. “In this round, we could clearly taste the craft that goes into this level of blended Irish whiskey,” said Craft. “This was a strong flight, showing great value and real maturity.”

FLAVOUR VARIATIONS

At the top tier of blended Irish whiskey, “well balanced and creamy” Midleton Very Rare 2017 won Gold, while Jameson 18 Years and Jameson Bow Street 18 Years Cask Strength bagged Silver. The round was judged by Billy Abbott’s team, which was, on the whole, surprised by the flavour variation on display. As Abbott noted: “There’s more to Irish whiskey than a bit of fruit and smoothness.”

Back on Kiely’s team, Teeling Whiskey Single Grain was given the Master accolade in the assessment of premium single grain Irish whiskeys. Mark Jennings praised the whiskey’s “crème brûlée gorgeousness”, while Neal said it had an “unremitting” aroma and “palate that goes on forever – everything you want in a single grain”.

Judges then turned their attention to a growing segment of Irish whiskey: single malts. In the premium round, Abbott’s panel awarded five Golds and three Silvers and was heartened by the diverse selection of flavours. Nick Bell said: “There’s a perception of Irish single malts being quite similar to each other, but the chance to try a whole flight next to each other allows you to see some of the more subtle differences.”

Success continued in the Single Malt – Super Premium round, where Abbott’s team awarded the coveted Master medal to Teeling Whiskey Brabazon Volume 1, which displayed “complex” notes of raisin, hazelnut and honey. “This was a whiskey that kept on giving,” enthused Pierre­-Marie Bisson. “It’s in a different league.” Teeling Whiskey Brabazon Volume 2 was awarded Gold in the flight, which also yielded two Silvers.

HERBACEOUS PALATE

My panel assessed the top end of the single malt price spectrum and awarded two Golds. “It’s oily, it’s chewy, it’s interesting and it’s really got something to say,” Tanner said of Teeling Whiskey Revival V. Meanwhile Teeling Whiskey 24 Year Old won praise for its “tomato nose” and “herbaceous palate”.

Then came the single pot still whiskeys, a type that can only be made in Ireland using a mix of malted and unmalted barley. The category has garnered the attention of both whiskey enthusiasts and the trade, and it is now one of the fastest-growing areas of Irish whiskey.

Two Masters were named in the premium leg, which also produced four Golds and three Silvers. “The nose grabbed me straight away,” Derek Millar said of Redbreast 12 Year Old Cask Strength. “It has a very interesting and complex aroma.” Fellow Master medallist Powers John’s Lane 12 Years Old stood out with its “custard and crème patisserie” aroma, “fruity and spicy” flavour of apple strudel and “long, sweet, smooth finish”.

After assessing the flight, Mulligan’s belief that “single pot still is the future of Irish whiskey” was reaffirmed. “It’s the industry’s best chance to take on the Scotch single malts,” he said. “The variations are going to blow people away.”

Abbott’s panel was also impressed by the single pot stills, awarding a Master and a Gold medal in the super­premium flight. Redbreast 15 Year Old walked away with the top accolade for its “big and rich” character, which offered “great texture and rancio”.

INCREDIBLE MOUTHFEEL

Then came the strongest round of the day, Single Pot Still – Ultra Premium, where all three medallists were Masters. Midleton Barry Crockett Legacy was said to “taste like golden fruit, laden with honey”, while Redbreast 21 Year Old was praised for its “amazing rich finish” and “incredible mouthfeel”. Judges believed the final Master winner of the round – Midleton Dair Ghaelach Bluebell Forest – to be “absolutely striking”. Jennings, on Kiely’s panel, which assessed the flight, enthused: “With these releases you can no longer say that Irish whiskey is just another category to consider – it is as serious as it gets.”

The competition concluded with a flight of Poitín, where yet another Master was discovered: Ballykeefe Irish Poitín. “I’d suggest this to any vodka or gin drinker if they’re looking to depart from that category,” said Neal. Teeling Spirit of Dublin, meanwhile, achieved Gold.

In total, 12 expressions walked away with the Master title in a competition that demonstrated the quality and growing diversity of Irish whiskey. As Kiely said: “This competition made clear the competence, bravery and international outlook of whiskey distillers in Ireland.”

Click through the following pages to view the results tables in full.

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