Despite the world and his dog being captivated by Irish whiskey right now – I’m more eager for a time, in the not too distant future, when simply knowing whether a release is trad pot/single malt and double/triple distilled doesn’t reveals which of the three distilleries it hailed from. Much has already been written about the sourcing of whiskey in Ireland – its practice has sustained both the sector and the interest in the sector over nearly a Century of stormy weather. But, as Ireland’s whisky revival starts to take shape, what people think of Irish whiskey is likely to change. Indeed for the revolution to truly to take hold, it’s a necessity that it does so.
Sometimes change takes place slowly and organically – a factor of ever-altering economic and social condition and of world events. In the latter part of the 19th Century there were close to 90 distilleries across the island of Ireland – fast forward to beyond the millennium and that number had dwindled to just two. A serious and steady decline, but over several generations. And yet in little under decade, a mere fraction of a single lifetime, change and growth in Irish whiskey has come at a furious pace. At my last count (apologies if I’m out – it’s a struggle to keep up!) 18 distilleries now open and up to 37 as a possible total in just a few years’ time.
To the world outside of enthusiast circles, the decline and rebirth of the sector is all but invisible. There’s not been any actual notable consumer shortage of whiskey in this lifetime – the supply of contract liquid from Midleton, Bushmills and the old Cooley stock has kept things ticking over – and your average Joe doesn’t massively care (sadly) where their whiskey comes from, let alone whether its supplier owns a distillery and is actually producing it. In bulk terms, taste vs. price is the equation…..craft doesn’t (as yet) come in to it.
But this too is changing. Consumers are becoming more clued up (Proper 12 aside)….and across a whole swathe of products, clamour for openness and transparency cannot be ignored. The industry is primed to deliver this – with the swathe of new distilleries coming on line, there *will* be a greater diversity of distillate styles and profiles available to future consumers. But whilst choice is virtually always a desirable thing, this expansion doesn’t come without potential consequences.
I’ve argued before about the growth of global whiskey not being a bubble (see here). But that doesn’t mean that the sector can necessarily sustain all its new entrants. Least of all because of the timing of the whisk(e)y boom. In Ireland there’s going to be a whole lot of 3,4 and 5 year old liquid all available at the same time. Whilst my outside affiliations should make it obvious to all that young liquid isn’t something I have any personal problem with, the market as a whole will likely have a tipping point – how much is too much? And are the potential differences between trad pot/single malt and double/triple distilled styles enough to sustain interest in all the upcoming distilleries? Will the diversity actually be diverse?
Similarly, the reputation of Irish whiskey will change, and needs to change. Currently it’s largely build on the merits of just three distilleries (only two of which remain open) – and no matter the arms race over who can bottle the most expensive Irish whiskey, with so many new distilleries opening in the next 5-10 years, this reputation will inherently change. Whilst it’ll still be the older, and larger sites with the existing market penetration and wealth of aged stocks – the industry will grow to become defined by its breath as well as its depth.
The wealth of producers who don’t actually produce isn’t to my mind likely to change – but their filling and suppling contracts will likely change to reflect the new, broader Irish whiskey sector. More distilleries, more distillate styles, more experimentation (and potentially some younger liquid – though that’s not stopped many from doing that already). And at the same time a change to what the wider world might recognise as Irish whiskey in terms of its spirit character. We’ve all grown highly accustomed to what’s possible to produce now – the palette of distillates will be fundamentally broader in a decade’s time, and the sector will need to adapt to reflect and communicate this. Sourced whiskey isn’t going to go away anytime soon – but it could, and should become a much more variably proposition.
Knappogue Castle is one of the longer-standing Irish whiskey bottlers without an actual distillery to their name. Plenty of those. Though pleasingly the Knappogue website makes this fact reasonably clear right from their homepage - which is a leaf I wish many others would take from. The source of the liquid has changed over the years – for a time, under contract from Cooley, but now, as a triple distilled single malt hailing from Bushmills (which makes tagging this release accurately somewhat difficult for The Dramble's CMS - in case you're wondering about the info box at the top of the page). The Knappogue range consists of core age statement releases (12,14 and 16), alongside a number of special releases - of which the producer's Cask Finish series falls into.
The Cask Finish series is currently made up of three expressions – all triple distilled, 12 years of age, 46% ABV, originally ex-bourbon matured, and under the influence of some late match wine casks. Marsala from Marco de Bartoli, Barolo from Marchesi di Barolo and the subject of today’s review, Bordeaux from Chateau Pichon Baron. The length of finishing period is unspecified, but given the maintenance of the 12 year old age-statement, under an additional year in the finishing cask. Each release was reasonably limited – 690, 1,200 and 1,100 bottles respectively, and priced around £60-£70. You might well still see a few of these knocking around – I picked up my Pichon Baron Finish over in Cork last year.
Nose: Green apple peels, apricots and banana bread are sweetened by icing sugar, nougat and marshmallow. The wine cask influence is low level – a mere tendril of red berry aroma. The spicing however is more expansive – ginger and nutmeg, alongside baking soda and a rich, polished oakiness. In the background, chocolate shavings and dried earthiness. Reduction isn’t in any way required – this is soft and pliable – but, if we must – toasted oak, desiccated coconut and a developing stone fruit complement of peaches.
Taste: A agreeably syrupy texture with delivers peaches and cream and apricot halves served in their own juices. Honey dew melon and orange liqueurs add to the fruit-laden complement – again, the wine cask is restrained – a scattering of strawberries and cranberries. The mid-palate offers more cereals character with malt loaf and toasted oakiness, before well-judged cask spicing from ginger and nutmeg lead into soft white pepperiness. The addition of water initially results in a loss of composure – astringency and some hefty tannins….however, 10 minutes of addition resting see the original shape return – albeit with a drier aspect.
Finish: Medium to long and with a developing leafiness – green tea, moss and grasses alongside toasted cereals.
This wine finished Knappogue Castle 12 year old offers a super pleasant ride from start to finish. It’s drawn from some high quality ex-bourbon casks and has been bottled at an entirely appropriate ABV for the style. The Chateau Pichon Baron Finish offers a sympathetic addition of faint and elusive berry fruit and some additional sugary sweetness – but, despite the very light touch (and that’s worth bearing in mind if you’re after something more potent) it’s arguably well integrated all the same. Reduction feels less successful, finally teasing out those wine cask tannins, but for no actual additional flavour benefit - the composition is simply better at its delivered 46%. Nevertheless, all very likable.
But don't take our word for it..
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