First blush

Posted 21 November 2023 by Matt / In Great Northern Distillery
The Dramble reviews Curraghmore Inaugural Release

Bottle Name: Curraghmore Inaugural Release

ABV: 46%
Distillery: Great Northern Distillery
Bottler: Curraghmore
Region: Ireland Age: 4

Look, if you only had one shot or one opportunity
To seize everything you ever wanted in one moment
Would you capture it,
Or just let it slip

The success or otherwise of an inaugural release can either provide a producer with a springboard or a lead weight. The initial launch of anything which is designed to have longevity must be properly shaped and nurtured to propel a business onwards and upwards. Get that wrong and far from riding a wave, that first release milestone can very easily become an anchor…dead weight that’s going to require twice as much effort to get moving in the right direction.

It should not be understated how important achieving a positive introductory launch is. Momentum is hard to generate and even harder to sustain. Especially in the beginning when brand awareness is at its lowest. Whilst it’s easy to suggest that simply making something deliciously tasty is enough (“build it and they will come”) – I’d strongly argue that this is no longer the case. Creating something compelling ‘in-bottle’ is now the entry price for a new producer. If you haven’t got that, forget it. But that alone is still no guarantee of success. It’s everything else that surrounds an inaugural release which will determine whether those efforts truly reap rewards.

Ah, but Matt, if something really is tasty then whisky people *will* want it. True enough friends. But nevertheless that still requires a concerted effort (from somewhere) to get that whisky into the right people’s hands – to build a community, to flesh out all the things which cannot be said on the real estate of a bottle label alone. To set out all aspects of the stall. People cannot want for something that they don’t know about. And when it comes to new producers, that landscape is increasingly crowded and increasingly competitive. Just making nice whisky is no longer enough. There’s a glut of tasty things out there that whisky people desire…and there’s only so much scope for inaugural releases within the new paradigm.

Of course, no matter what you’ve bottled and how you’ve bottled it – exceptional, average or Friday night curry house toilet – there’s always something of a die-hard audience to tap into. Those that cannot resist the temptation of possessing the first, or of being the first. That’s a human trait that some people are particularly susceptible to. Then there’s the “investors”. Inaugural releases have historically provided good returns, be those short or longer term. Though I’d suggest that these folks are something of a double-edged sword to any new producer. They absolutely can help you sell out of a release in double-quick time. They also can absolutely help showcase your fledgling operation as exciting in terms of the potential returns of the secondary market. And that does in turn drive eye-balls.

But bottle investors do not help with spreading the word about your fantastic tasting whisky. They are an anathema to that. Closed bottles cannot speak to contents. Bottles can (and should) suggest that a new distillery’s whisky is indeed noteworthy in taste quality – but they lack the ability to validate that directly with the consumer unless they are opened. There always comes a time when the proof is in the pudding. As such, for newer producers, I would suggest that popping champagne corks whilst the whisky corks remain stoppered is a dangerous game.

Nevertheless, the impact and importance of an inaugural release does extend outside of the bottle. A first sighting provides all important initial impressions (and hopefully the work has been put in to get folks excited about that in advance). But these are not limited to just “is this whisky any good?”, or even “am I convinced that this whisky will be even better in the future?” They extend into the slightly more esoteric – “do I like this company?”, “do I believe in how they’re making, promoting and selling their whisky?”, “can I feel part of a community of people who all think the same way about this whisky as I do?”

Some might say that’s simply messaging – and in some ways they’d be partly right. However, whisky enthusiasts are becoming increasingly sophisticated and conversant. And increasingly vocal. Vacuous sentiments which are not authenticated by how and why a producer does the things that they do, in the way that they do, quickly ring hollow within the community. The offering needs to taste good to the audience, but it also needs to feel good to the audience as well.

There are countless ways to do this. Tasty whisky, nice packaging and the right price are but the fundamentals here. The newer producers who have ridden the wave and those who will ride the wave again in the future are the ones who have been able to amalgamate the zeitgeist of their moment and methods with the right audience. Those who have not tried to be all things to all people, at all times. Those who don’t impress as genuine, but are genuine. Those that know that not everyone will be interested in their first new whisky - but at the same time recognise that not everyone needs to be…at least not initially.

In no surprise, today’s review is of an inaugural release. Sort of. Allow me to elucidate. All of the grain which has been used to create the Curraghmore Inaugural Release has been grown on the Curraghmore Estate – the ancestral home of the 9th Marquis of Waterford and Ireland’s largest demesne (land retained by a manor lord). Barley and oats have been cultivated on the sizeable estate over the last 16 years – and it’s these barley and oats which has been utilised to craft the new producer’s first release. However, whilst the plans for a distillery on the Curraghmore Estate (converting an old barn) have been approved – there is no distillery as yet – as such this ‘inaugural’ release has undergone at least the distillation process (if not likely mashing and fermentation in addition) at Great Northern Distillery.

No great shakes here. I fully appreciate that working with others (to learn and to specify) and to build a brand in advance of constructing a distillery is a completely valid route to market. However, I find calling this release an “inaugural” to be either purposely confusing or unwittingly obtuse. It either erroneously hints that Curraghmore already have a distillery (read on), or it creates a potential problem down the line should that distillery become a physical reality. Or indeed both. Regardless, ”The Second Inaugural Release” really doesn’t have any ring to it.

The model of sourced/specified before self-made has been used various times before - Raasay’s - Tweedale “While we wait” springs quickly to mind. However, the differentiation here was made abundantly clear – indeed, the brand name of ‘Tweedale’ as opposed to ‘Rasaay’ has people under no illusions. Sadly, I don’t find that to be the completely the case with Curraghmore’s first whiskey.

Much of the Estate’s website is quite judicious about specifying what they are doing on site – alongside some careful omissions covering the areas of production which are not taking place there. Unless you dig for this information. Without careful reading you’d be forgiven for initially thinking that there is already a distillery on the Curraghmore Estate. You will find the details about the planned site and the production methods currently employed (which don’t take place at Curraghmore) but, they’re largely buried several clicks deep or at the very bottom of their homepage – I suspect many people won’t read the website as thoroughly as I have. I suspect that’s a deliberate choice.

Then there’s this snippet, which features on the Estate’s overarching website for their House and Gardens which has a page devoted to the whiskey:

“We are in control of everything that goes into creating the whiskey that fills our casks from harvesting barley to distilling and maturation, it all happens on this single estate.”

Except it doesn’t.

This tactic doesn’t work in today’s whiskey market – and it never should have seen any usage anywhere in the first place. The well of “if we say it people will believe it” has run bone dry. The target audience for this whiskey  – whether it’s branded as an inaugural release or not – care deeply about this stuff. I care deeply about this stuff. Transparency, particularly in the County of Waterford, with the Waterford Distillery just down the road!! needs to be front and centre - unadulterated and authentic.

Enough said. Moving on…

This is a whiskey produced from barley and oats grown and harvested on the Curraghmore Estate. These grains were transported to the Great Northern Distillery in County Louth where they were crafted into a pot still spirit based on Curraghmore’s mash specification of 47.5% malted barley, 47.5% unmalted barley and 5% oats. A triple distillation process was utilised and the new make spirit was then matured in three distinctive cask formats: A 4 year old European oak oloroso sherry butt; a 4 year old virgin French oak 100 litre cask and a 5 year old Ex-bourbon ASB. The marriage of these casks has produced the final Curraghmore inaugural expression. 1,375 bottles at 46% is the result. 195 Euros is the price.

Nose: Plenty of expressiveness. Gingerbread and shortbread are enlivened by orange liqueur, cooking apples and a vein of sharp/sour citrus. Fine chocolate and golden syrup join caramel wafters alongside powdered nutmeg and cloves. The addition of water reveals an array of pastry and bakery-led notes – cinnamon buns and the like. At the same time it presents a touch of wet wood sherry butt housed in a dunnage which hints at a greater level of maturity than is actually present. Nicely done.

Taste: The oats provide a palpable sense of texture here – there’s a sticky oiliness throughout. Likewise, this is cask forward, but it keeps on the right side of the tannin divide for me. Spiced malts – shredded wheat, scattered barriers, orange oils alongside clove and cinnamon. Mid-palate the virgin cask starts to grip with a touch of roof of mouth heat and prickly cayenne pepper. This is soothed by apple cider, dusty chocolate and finely powdered muesli. Reduction takes the edge off of the ever-eager virgin casks and instead expresses the ex-bourbon element – toffee popcorn and shredded coconut. There’s far less sherry influence when dialled down a few degrees – however the whiskey manages to retain all of its weight and mouthfeel.

Finish: Quite short with a combination of orange fruits and souring pot still and cask spices.

The Curraghmore Inaugural Release is a well-thought out and well-executed blend of casks. Everything here serves a purpose in bringing something distinctive to the composition. Whilst there is a tussle between the virgin oak and the ex-bourbon and ex-sherry, this is to be expected when dealing with young components – indeed, I’d argue that the configuration does as good a job as is possible in keeping the rampant nature of that virgin wood in check, whilst still allowing it to add discernment to the overall blend of casks. Nevertheless, I found I enjoyed this more with a touch of dilution (down around 43%) – it loses a touch of its sherry richness, but it likewise drops some of the prickly spicing. I'm OK with that trade-off.

Overall, this is a more than capable whiskey that is greater than the sum of its parts. But, the asking price is greater still. I dare say, at half the price, twice as many could be have been sold. 

Irish whiskey enthusiasts are largely well aware of the expected prices for 4 / 5 year old expressions being crafted via the Great Northern Distillery - there's a few of them out there. Factoring in the cost of the Estate grain (fair enough) and the slapping on of 'Inaugural' on the label (as above - I'm not convinced), you still shouldn't be getting anywhere near breaching 200 Euros. And that's a shame, as I find the actual whiskey presented here to be perfectly affable.

Score: 83/100

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