Whisky Connosr

Independents for Ireland

By Dominic Roskrow

"I wanted to be the first person to thank you for the title of 'Maverick Whiskey Maker'. I hope that Jack and I can live up to your high expectations for future mischief. Thanks for the good laugh and I hope to be a little more than just a maverick in the future."

Alex Chasko's response to a comment I made in Whisky Advocate when choosing the Irish Whiskey of the Year was not totally unexpected. As whiskey maker for Cooley and now Jack Teeling's right hand man at Teeling's breakaway company The Teeling Whiskey Company his direct and open approach is in keeping with the Teeling ethos.

with 23 years of consecutive growth, it is fair to say that this is not a fad

But the offer he made next was a surprise: "On that note, I have several liquids in development that I would love to get your thoughts on, if you have the time. I'll get them in the post." 

And sure enough, two days later six samples arrive. Three are complete and ready for release. Three are works in progress, and obviously require more work. But all six are excellent, they cover a diverse range of flavours, and they will rock your perceptions of what Irish whiskey is, because while Irish DNA runs through all of them, they travel off in new and unexplored areas.

They provide ample evidence that the light is still on for Irish whiskey. And after a year of transition and to a great extent treading water, we can expect Irish whiskey to offer us plenty of activity this year.

Last year's sale of Cooley to Beam Global may well have temporarily brought to an end the creative and progressive experimentation of recent years, and certainly Beam brought to an end the supply of spirit to a range of independent companies, but The Teeling Whiskey Company has plans to keep the flame alive.

And the company's not alone. Elsewhere in Ireland Bernard Walsh, who has been making whiskey independently for 12 years and whose company produces Writer's Tears and The Irishman, has plans of his own to provide good quality, independently produced Irish whiskey.

He's made a great start. Last year's cask strength version of Writer's Tears was one of the year's highlights. But Teeling and Walsh are very different beasts, and have very different approaches to their trade. I have no evidence to support the view, but I sense that they are chalk and cheese and there is little common ground between them.

Walsh has created two respected and cult whiskey brands: The Irishman, of which there are four different expressions, and Writer's Tears. His whiskeys are produced in relatively small quantities and they're all excellent. And although they're hard to find they're sold in 30 different countries and they're growing significantly.

But while Walsh's business is independent, he works closely with Irish Distillers, relies on the company for whiskey, and when he talks about the Irish category, it's in a much more traditional way than Jack Teeling and Alex Chasko. He believes the future lies in the established bounds of what Irish whiskey is, for instance.

"There is a great appetite (or should I say thirst) for Irish Whiskey globally," he says. "2012 was our most exciting year to date with 50 per cent growth. But we are not resting on our laurels as we push head long into 2013. The underlying demand for 'Irish' is very strong and we see this continuing. It is fair to say that this is not a fad- with 23 years of consecutive growth for the Irish Category.

"I share that view but this surge has its roots firmly planted over 20 years ago. But even with this surge Irish Whiskey is still the minnow in the Category (compared to Scotch, American, and Canadian etc). However for a country with just three production facilities we are certainly boxing well above our weight.

"Tripled distilled (unpeated) Irish Whiskey has found favour with the younger generation. Tripled distilled (unpeated) Irish whiskey is very approachable from a young consumer’s point of view, very fruity, floral and smooth. Add to this that tripled Distilled (unpeated) Irish Whiskey mixes so well in cocktails or a straight mix with Ginger and other soft drinks and so on."

Walsh's comments show a respect for the definition of Irish whiskey established over the last 50 years but his whiskeys aren't altogether conventional. His range includes single malt whiskey, which is an underplayed category in Ireland, and one of his aims is to bring whiskeys which mix single malt and pot still whiskey to a wider audience.

But Walsh does not expect to be joined by a new wave of independent Irish whiskey makers. "Unfortunately not," he says. "We are the last Independent family business remaining with Stocks and with Brand of Triple Distilled Irish Whiskey. That said there is a lot of interest in the category and we expect to see new micro distilleries opening up over the coming years, the first of which was opened in 2012.

"We are fortunate as we have an excellent partner in Irish Distillers. Their distillery is famed for producing the quintessential Irish whiskey 'Single Pot Still' which is the trade mark ingredient in all our blends. However the independent whiskey maker was dealt a huge blow last year when Cooley sold out to Beam. Cooley was the supplier to the independent trade prior to 2012 and that’s all gone now.

"The sale of Cooley to Beam signals the death knell of private label whiskey in Ireland for some time to come. Some people would argue that this is not a bad thing, as fewer brands focus on quality. However I really think the category deserves and needs a vibrant independent distilling business and I’m hopeful that over the coming five years we will see a host of independent micro distilling operations develop (if the chatter online is to be believed).

Over at the Teeling Whiskey Company Jack Teeling shares the view that despite obstacles and potential difficulties Irish whiskey has a bright future. But a thriving independent sector won't be a key part of it in the short term.

"I am very positive about Irish whiskey," he says. "The category still has plenty of oxygen left for one that has been on fire for the last five years.

"I believe Irish whiskey is in the middle of a cyclical medium to long term up trend driven by significant underperformance up until the 90s and its accessible taste that is suited to modern younger consumer palates coupled to the positive image Ireland has attained.

"There is no thriving independent scene in Ireland but there will be one. With Beam cutting off supply to the independent players that Cooley under our management had strived to stimulate there is a lot of disgruntled players who are now looking at trying to get into the production game themselves.

"There are however a few green shoots -pardon the pun - in Dingle and Carlow but consumers will be waiting three to four years to taste what their fruits of labours can produce. We are hoping to fill the gap with our own interesting expressions to keep the interest in alternative expressions of Irish alive.

"The biggest challenge for all the potential new entrants is to make sure they can raise the financing they need and that they can carve out their own niche so they don't all chase the one shelf space with a result they all drown competing against each other to get there.

"It's very hard to bean independent with no real secondary market to source whiskey from and a relatively small pond with big multinationals fish can make things difficult.. This will change but with the continued unexpected strong growth there looks like there will be a very tight supply of Irish whiskey for the next few years."

Both Walsh and Teeling promise a busy 2013. There will be new cask strength versions of Writer's Tears and Irishman, and the Irishman range is getting a makeover. There may also be a name change.

The Teeling Whiskey Company has already unveiled three new whiskeys: a Premium Blend which is a high malt blend that has been married in Rum casks and bottled at 46% with no chill filtration followed soon the first release of the first Vintage Reserve Single Malt , which is 21 years old and which consists of hand selected casks which have been married in Sauternes casks, and a full bodied cask strength single malt whiskey.

Both Walsh and Teeling are optimistic about the future.

"We have come a long way in the rebirth of Irish Whiskey but really I feel it’s only the beginning of a great odyssey," says Walsh. "Irish Whiskey is in fantastic hands with the custodians of tripled distilled Irish Whiskey, Irish Distillers. "Add to this the new and bourgeoning micro distilling community and you have a recipe for great excitement in the Category. Although there are only a handful of distilleries it is reassuring to know that 100 per cent of Irish Whiskey is now focused on Brand building which can only fuel the stills for decades to come. The future is bright the future is Green." Teeling agrees.

"There needs to be innovation. Otherwise we, as a category, will not be interesting enough for consumers who are spoiled for choice from other categories which have a much more developed range of expressions to choose from.

"We have a very exciting few months coming up with the launch of some of our first Irish whiskeys. new taste profiles to both the Irish blended and single malt categories. Expect great things."

TASTING NOTES

Teeling Whiskey Company's Hybrid Malt Whisky edition 1, 44.7%

Proof there is life after Cooley. Family member Jack Teeling and maverick whiskey innovator have kept the independent flame alive by moving on. This whisky isn't a revolution: it's a mix of Irish Cooley and Bruichladdich and that's not a new idea. And it does what you might predict. it's It starts with a sweet fruity Irishmess and then earthier spicier Scottish notes kick in. It works fine but this is a holding room whisky. Expect a lot more in the coming months.

Writers Tears Pot Still Irish Whiskey, 40%

This is from an independent company inked to renowned whiskey maker Bernard Walsh, and it is described as of a style popular in James Joyce's Dublin (hence the name). Grain whiskey was a no-no at that time, so this uses no grain and is a mix of malt and pots still whiskeys. For its price and strength it is amazing - a big-hearted and full-flavoured whiskey with an oily, apply pot still heart and cinnamon, nutmeg and pepper spices.

Writers Tears Cask strength Pot Still whiskey, 53%

Well the name's spot on because at that price it definitely brought tears to this writer's eyes. What a shame because the liquid is eye-watering, too, a stunning big bruiser of a whiskey which coats the mouth as berry and green fruits battle it out with oak, spice and grain oils - the whiskey equivalent to one of singer Sinead O'Connor's rants - powerful, impressive, a little bitter and twisted, utterly unforgettable and unmistakably Irish.

Teeling Whiskey Company Rum finish Blend 46%

A blend at this strength is a real plus. This is a blend of grain and malt that has been married in high quality rum casks for nine months at cask strength before being reduced for bottling. This is a delicious mix of fruity sweet blended Irish whiskey with a dollop of rum and raisin dark chocolate and sweet spice. it should be cloying and sickly - and isn't. This is kicking - and a definite sweet guilty pleasure.

Teeling Whiskey Company 1991 Single Malt, 57.5%

Cask strength, with no filtration or caramel added. The whiskey was finished in Sauternes casks for an added level of complexity. It is 21 years old - all the malt is from one distillery and one year - and it's is a big whiskey - but a love it or hate it one, too. I wasn't sure first sip - now I can't wait to taste some more. All the classic Irish flavours are here, but they are twisted in to gnarled, mysterious new shapes and they take the drinker of a challenging journey of savoury shadows. It's Irish, Jim, but not as we know it.

Teeling Whiskey Company, 1987 Single Malt 53.1%

At cask strength with no filtration or caramel added. Much more conventional than the last one but it's as big, rugged, impressive and Irish as Brian O'Driscoll, and it's bursting with juiciness. It's been refilled in to white Burgundy casks, and these may have contributed to its clean and fresh feel. Vanilla notes are overlaid by pineapple and tropical fruits, and the overall mouthfeel is lush and rich. An absolute beauty.