The educational benefits of distillery tourism go far beyond solely pandering to die-hard malt fans. Along with practical information, there’s a host of culturally relevant knowledge that grounds the significance of whisky and distilling into both a location’s past, as well as its possible future. It can, and it should be, about a whole lot more than an end of tour tasting table. Visit any larger (or better known) distillery and you’ll immediately see that most of its visitors are simply day-trippers who have added a basic distillery tour into their busy holiday schedules. These guys probably don’t want or need the level of technical information that us enthusiasts yearn for – but, for the preservation of whisky’s integrity, they too deserve an honest and accurate account.
Every once in a while I sign myself up for a basic distillery tour – rudimentals, fundamentals, barley, water & yeast. As a writer, it allows me a break from the in-depth and the technical – an aid to focussing my mind on the wider implications of distilling (which I find are generally much more interesting and nuanced than ten-a-penny tasting notes). It also provides me with a barometer as to how distilleries are educating and informing their visitors.
Ten minutes into my tour at Tullamore and my face probably looked something similar to this:
After the first of several relatively informative videos, our guide kicked off the barley section of the tour with the opening gambit of: “The main difference between Irish whiskey and Scottish whisky is that all Scottish whisky is peated”. My heart sank. Despite his friendly demeanour and charming manner (he really was a desperately nice chap), there was simply no way I was going to let this level of utter misinformation pass. Upon correction (with brief explanation as to why his statement was sweepingly inaccurate), he settled on the equally as erroneous: “OK, well, all Highland whisky is peated”. A long afternoon beckoned.
Later, our group was ‘educated’ in all things three-sided – which turns out to be a running thread at Tullamore. From the triangle-shaped spirit safe to triple distillation and onto the combination of malt, grain and pot distillate types – triple blending. It’s a surprisingly neat analogy, but one which once again came delivered with another entirely unnecessary untruth: “Tullamore is the only Irish whiskey that’s triple blended”. Granted, the amalgamation of all three styles of Irish whiskey is far from common, but Tullamore is *not* the only example – you don’t have to look far to find a bottle of Paddy’s produced at Jameson’s Midleton Distillery - another triple blended whiskey. I’m sure colleagues more learned than I would doubtless be able to add several more to this list.
These were small fictions, sweet little lies used to add romance to the notion of Irish whiskey and uniqueness to Tullamore’s products over and above those of their competitors. But, their significance should not be downplayed. Visitors (especially paying ones) have a right to be informed accurately. To do otherwise shows a lack of integrity and a lack of respect. When transparency and labelling best practice is still rather lacking within the category, fast and loose bullshit like this will only hinder the longer-term reputation of Irish whiskey.
By the end of my tour I certainly felt like I needed a drink….
Tullamore Dew 18 year old was introduced in 2016 during a mini rationalising of the Dew range – out went the 10 year old, in came a 14 and an 18. The bottling is listed as being limited to just 2,500 bottled and has a relatively complicated cask composition. Initial spirit (presumably 1st and/or refill ex-bourbon) is matured and then finished in a combination of oloroso sherry, port, madeira and more ex-bourbon. The components are blended back together and then bottled at 41.3% ABV. The price for this one seems to greatly vary – and the Irish sadly have the bum-draw. Whilst travelling over the country this past week, I spotting tags of €150 and upwards, whereas here in the UK, you’ll be able to find this for closer to £90. Irish alcohol taxes are a bitch. Remember, Tullamore's new distillery only opened in 2014 - the old one, which now houses the visitor centre closed back in 1954. As such, this is sourced liquid.
Nose: Orchards and bees. Plenty of fresh, candied and toffee-coated apples sitting alongside bee honey – acacia and manuka – part floral, part rich. Fruity top notes are driven from the finishing casks – sherry driven berry fruits, madeira influenced orange marmalade. Running throughout, a combination of maltiness and toffee that’s underpinned by grassiness – dried nettle and tobacco leaves. In the background, freshly brewed tea and vanished table tops.
Taste: The arrival is soft – favouring gentleness over viscosity, but at the same time delivering a discernible parcel of cask spicing. Toffee apples, fallen orange blossoms with earthy stem ginger alongside energetic pepper and allspice. The mid-palate reveals a similar development into finishing casks with gentle coffee and walnut cake joined by polished oak and a touch of menthol. Everything is nicely underpinned by maltiness and well-developed aged character.
Finish: Medium in length, with fading white pepper, appreciable oak and some well-worn drying tannins, but at the same time everything is highly quaffable here.
Tullamore Dew 18 year old is really rather enjoyable. Whilst the mouthfeel and overall levels of complexity don’t diverge much from the tried-and-tested Tullamore formula, the balance and the integration of the cask elements is quite high. Despite being focussed on malt, rather than an integration of the three distillate styles more commonly seen within the company’s range, there’s still a very similar sense of easy-going drinkability. There's some integrity in this whiskey - I'd like to see more of it at Tullamore's visitor's centre.