Blended Irish Whiskey
Over the past couple of years there has been an explosion in the amount of Irish whiskey blends on sale... Irish blends are a mixture of Malt whiskies, grain whiskies and in the case of most Irish Distillers products, pot-still whiskies.
This started life as an in-house blend for Irish supermarket giant Dunnes Stores. It didn't fly and was replaced by Golden Irish which did and still does the busisness. Avoca now sells well in Europe especially in the east where I have seen it pop up in the most obscure Czech off-licences.
Oh dear... What went wrong? A huge brand and a fashion for all things Irish, this whiskey was test marketed in Dublin last year. It had success written all over it. The fact that most of you won't have heard of it tells you what happened, but not why. My contacts put it down to a lack of will power on the part of Gilbey's, ring Gilbey's and you meet a wall of silence. Suffice to say that the brains behind Bailey's Whiskey have now gone their own way and have resurfaced as Clontarf Whiskey.
There are still a couple of bottle of Bailey's Whiskey floating about Dublin. The last one I saw was in "The Horseshoe Bar" in the Shelbourne Hotel.
This is a whiskey I was tripping over on a recent visit to France. Ballygeary is a Cooley bland, or should that be blend, designed for the lower end of the mass market by Invergordon. It is light grainy and strangely dry.
Recently launched U.S. export brand, distilled by Cooley. Review to follow.
Bushmills (white bush)
This is the knid of spirit that gives whiskey a bad name. Bushmills or Whitebush to those indulge is a grain heavy spirity mess. It would put anyone who didn't know better, off drinking whiskey for life.
At the moment Bushmills are doing a promotion. Buy a bottle of their white label whiskey and get a free water jug. They'll need to do a lot more than that to shift this flagging label, which only sells on the brilliance of Black Bush. Spend a bit more and get the real thing. (The water jug is made in England anyway...)
Let me reach for by book of superlatives...
Black Bush is the classic malty Irish blend. This is a desert island whiskey if ever there was one. Loads has been written elsewhere about this wonderful dram, so let me just say it's fab and you should run out and buy a bottle.
As phoney as the date on the bottle, this is a "premium" blend that just does not hang together.
The nose is superb, but what a terrible finish... I imagine this is what juiced metal tastes like. Avoid, which should be easy as "1608" was designed specifically for Duty Free outlets, and rumour has it that it will soon be replaced.
When Marks & Spencer wanted an own brand Irish to add to their portfolio, they looked to Bushmills for inspiration, but to Cooley for the whiskey.
Cassidy's then is a very pleasant sherry rich blend in a similar vein to the superb Millars Special Reserve. It has a rich malty nose and a good round body. One of the best own brand blends.
This modern Coleraine is bottled for the local market in Northern Ireland. It is a blend of (mostly) Midleton grain whiskey with a little Bushmills Malt added. Spirity and nasty, one to avoid.
From the boys who made Irish vodka cool by calling it Boru and not something in pretend Russian, comes a marketing led brand if ever there was one. Clontarf charcoal mellowed Irish whiskey.
The logic is sound. Sales of "brown spirits" are down the world over, whiskey is not cool... apart from Tennessee whiskey that it. Jack Daniels and the like still appeal to young male drinkers put off by the traditional image of Irish or Scotch. So what if those young drinkers could be coaxed into buying Irish?
First comes the marketing: Clontarf can be bought as a "trinity" bottling of "black label", "special reserve" and a Malt. Three whiskeys for the prive of one, each one coloured slightly darker than the last. Then comes the taste...
Clontart black label, which is also bottled on its own, works very well. The mellowing process adds an almost vanilla ice-cream smoothness to the drink and it is incredibly moreish. The special reserve is less successful while the Malt, never in need of mellowing in the first place is swamped.
Tennessee whiskey is distilled just the once and so is incredibly rough and firey - it needs mellowing. Cooley's whiskey on the other hand is very sweet, while their Malt is very light and grassy. So a mixed bag which is selling well. It may not be traditional, but isn't that the point.
You'll find Crested Ten in most Irish bars. Unfortunately it is usually covered in dust as it only gets drunk by old men in the middle of winter. This is a shame as Crested Ten is a wonderful drink. Sweet in an almost Christmas pudding kind of way, with that wonderful pot-still brittleness all make this one of Ireland's hidden treasures.
Crested Ten was also the first Irish to be bottled exclusively by its distillers. Way back in 1970's Ireland this was seen as quite an innovation. The fact that Scotch had been bottled in this way since the end of the 19th Century tells you all you need to know about the then state of the Irish industry.
A budget whiskey designed back in the 1950's for the U.S. market, this whiskey is now only available in Ireland. Dunphy's was blended with Irish coffee in mind, which is just as well as it is coarse and cheap so is best drowned in sugar, cream and coffee.
Back in the mid-nineties, the Scottish group Invergordon helped save Cooley when they bought loads of their whiskey to create a value for money Irish blends. So Erin's Isle was born and has been a hugely successful mass market seller.
I've drunk a few bottles of this in my time and spotted it everywhere from the Scottish town of Plockton to the best off-licence in London's Soho.
Easy to get and easy to drink, even though it is slightly reliant on grain whiskey. It is best drunk with friends or mixers.
In Ireland Dunnes Stores is a bit of an institution, they stack 'em high and sell 'em cheap. A down market M & S if you like. Golden Irish is their second attempt at cornering the own brand Irish market, the first being the afore mentioned Avoca.
Golden Irish is a very pleasant drink, light and just the right side of mellow. A good every day whiskey that won't tax your wallet or taste buds too much.
This curious oddity of a whiskey comes in a small perfume like 200ml bottle. Designed for the Far Eastern market, where real men can't shave, this whiskey is now being sold off at a tenner a bottle in the Midleton distillery. An "extra smooth" Irish Whiskey is what the box promises... I'll give you my verdict next month.
This should work, but somehow doesn't. Hewitts is a blend of Bushmills and Midleton Malt with some grain whiskies. In fact it is the only Irish distillers blend which you won't find any pot-still. Sold almost exclusively in the Munster area, the best word I can think of to describe Hewitts is "flat".
Clearly designed to take on Scotch blends, Inishowen is the only peated Irish blend on the market. In fact in blind tastings, I know of no one that has ever identified this whiskey correctly! If you like Teacher's, Bell's or just about any Scotch blend, you should warm to this stuff.
"Inishowen" more than any other modern blend shows how reactive as opposed to pro-active the market for "Irish" has become. When Dr John Teeling launched this brand in the mid-nineties, his desire was to give the public what they had been buying in increasing quantities for years, and that was a malt based, lightly peated blend.
So what's it like? Actually it's a revelation. Soft, peaty yet not at all Scottish, this is inspired stuff. Irish with a twist. I am never without a bottle and it give to folk who ask for Scotch. They never complain.
When I set out to build this web site, one of my aims was to get people to reach beyond their bottle of Jameson and discover a whole world of Irish whiskies.
Jameson is the biggest selling Irish whiskey in the world, though not the biggest selling Irish in Ireland, which should tell you all you all you need to know. It's a brand, like Coca-Cola or McDonald's and in common with all global brands it's heart lies in a ledger while its soul sits on the wrong side of bland. Global brands can't afford to offend anybody.
The most important thing to know about Jameson is that it is the best selling Irish in the World not because it is the best Irish in the World, but rather because it was the label chosen for greatness. It is the label Irish Distillers thrust on the World at the expense of all others. While this strategy worked in the short term and saved the company from going under, the price was enormous. Outside Ireland it was Jameson or nothing - choice went out the window and with only one product to push, the market for Irish stagnated. Eventually the weakened Irish Distillers was taken over by Pernod Ricard.
Jameson then is a curious blend. Taste an old bottling and you'll see how it has changed over the years. It used to taste a bit like modern Power's, but as Power's has character this had to stop. These days Jameson is pretty sad stuff, it smells of very little and tastes of not a lot more.
Next time you are buying a bottle of Irish whiskey, stop. Do yourself a favour, don't pick Jameson. Pick something else, anything else and live a little.
This is more like it. What a fabulous whiskey. Jameson may be the label the marketing boys chose, but this is light-years removed from it's bland cousin.
1780 has to be one of the best tasting, best value for money Irish whiskies out there. Complex and rich, with tons of pot-still wellie and a smattering of sherry, Jameson 1780 is as good as Jameson is crap.
If you are stuck somewhere terrible and can only have one bottle of Irish, then it would have to be a toss up between this and the wonderful Connemara. High praise indeed.
Jameson 1780 is my current whiskey of the month - check here for more information.
Jameson Distillery Reserve
Rich as dried fruit and sweet as honey, Jameson Distillery Reserve is a brilliant after dinner dram. It is only made in small quantities so I'm afraid you're going to have to visit Dublin or Midleton to buy it. It's worth coming though I promise you.
This whiskey was designed for middle-aged men rushing through airports with credit cards flapping in the wind. The kind of men who travel busisness and haven't seen their toes in years. Everything from the shape of the bottle to the fussy label says middle aged and middle class.
Now that intra-EU duty free is a thing of the past, this sticky cough-syrup whiskey is turning up all over the place. There are whiskey critics out there who rave about Jameson Gold, all I can think is that my bottle got mixed up with a consignment of Benlyn.
What is it with distilleries and their biggest selling brands? Jameson is one of weakest whiskies Irish Distillers have to offer, yet it's their biggest seller. Likewise Kilbeggan is the Cooley's flagship brand and it's not up to a whole lot.
When Cooley launched itself on the market it had no heritage... Whiskies need heritage, so it bought the Lockes's legacy and leased the old distillery in the Irish Midlands. These days their whiskey are bussed in from the distillery in County Louth to mature in the solid stone warehouses in Kilbeggan.
Harsher than Locke's and with very little charm on the nose, or legs on the finish, Kilbeggan only really comes into its own in Irish Coffees where it's brilliant.
There was a time when I couldn't tell the blended version of Locke's and Kilbeggan apart. Now things have moved on and Locke's comes out a clear winner. This is a very smooth blend with a high malt content. It's nearly always the same price as Kilbeggan so for any one's money, it's a much better bet.
As a rule I prefer Single Malts to blends, but I must admit I am partial to the odd nip of this stuff. Along with Power's this is probably the best straight up Irish blend out there.
Don't confuse this blend with "Locke's Single Malt."
I know distilleries aren't charities, but there something so cynical about Midleton Very Rare that prevents me from enjoying what is a fine whiskey. Maybe it's the way it comes in a coffin, maybe it's the way they forget to mention it is a blend, maybe it's the "owner's book" you get to sign, or is it the numbering on the bottle (what's mine... 4,345,344), Ok I'm joking about the bottle number, but you get my point.
Selling in Soho for the same money as Springbank 1966 local barley, which is one of the finest whiskies I have ever tasted, is nothing short of criminal. Midleton VR is priced at what the market can sustain, meaning that for too many what's on the label is more important than what's in the bottle.
If you like whiskey rather than wanking, buy Jameson 1780. You'll enjoy it more.
Millars Special ReserveDo not confuse this with Millars Gold. The two could not be more different, the similar names are confusing and do neither brand any favours. Millars Gold isn't even whiskey (see below) while Millars Special Reserve is Cooley's finest blend.
Forget all the crap about this being a "Dublin sipping whiskey...", I'm from Dublin and have no idea what a sipping whiskey is. Instead look inside the bottle. Here you'll find a lucky bag of juicy malt and spicy grain. The grain whiskey in Millars has been matured in sherry butts so it lingers on the taste buds... Yummy!
In Ireland and Europe finding Millars Special Reserve is not easy, while in the UK it is a lot simpler. The clever people at the Thresher off-licence chain have the exclusive rights to sell Millars in their shops. Go Buy.
There was a Murphy's sold exclusively in the U.S., though this was withdrawn when Irish Distillers decided to focus its energies on Jameson. The modern Murphy's is a mid-market blend, sold only in Ireland. Review to follow.
An Irish Distillers own brand for the UK's ASDA chain. Review to follow.
Blended by Cooley for the run-down UK supermarket chain Somerfield.
This is a very average whiskey lacking any great finesse. There are much better whiskies out there for the same money.
Another Cooley blend, this time for the dreadful UK "Irish" pub chain O'Neill's. The sooner they get those bicycles down off the wall the better. Let's hope this Irish pub madness ends soon.
Last seen in Stansted Airport peddling its wares for a tenner, this Irish Distillers whiskey, is part of their campaign to "do a Cooley" at the value for money end of the market.
Yet again the label makes great claims, "purveyors to the Lord Mayor of Dublin" what ever that means. I'm sure Irish Distillers have given the Lord Mayor the odd bottle of whiskey, but I hope they haven't given the Capital's number one citizen a bottle of this mouthwash.
A mix of Malt from Bushmills so weak it wouldn't even make their dreadful Whitebush, with some cast off Midleton grain, this harsh and unforgiving whiskey is proof that at this end of the market you get what you pay for.
Way back when, Paddy was a pure pot-still spirit and the flag ship of the Cork Distilleries Company. Paddy is now a blend and one of Irish Distillers lesser brands.
This harsh and grainy whiskey sells well on the Continent where the current fashion for whiskey cola means Spaniards are saved tasting this stuff neat.
Irish Distillers have recently re-lauched this whiskey in Ireland with a cartoon based ad campaign aimed at younger drinkers. I guess only the young would buy this stuff.
Power's Gold Label is Ireland's biggest selling whiskey. Taste it and you'll know why.
This is a full bodied blend just packed with pot-still whiskey. Apart from Redbreast this is the closest you'll get to the whiskies our grand parents enjoyed. The fact that Power's retails for the same money as Paddy etc, is proof enough that the World is a cruel and unfair place. In this time of globalisation and blandness, Power's towers above every other Irish blend. See it, buy it.
Power's is currently being promoted in Ireland, complete with a new label and is a former whiskey of the month.
Powers 12 year old
Released for the Millennium, this special edition Power's is brilliant.
From the packaging to the taste, Power's 12 year old is one classy whiskey. Fuller and rounder than Power's, they do however share the same pot-still character, albeit here aged to perfection.
At around £25 a bottle this whiskey just gets better and better. Grab two bottles, it won't be around for long.
This whiskey has casued untold anger. It is a blend, but if you don't look closely you'd think that Redbreast (the 100% Pot-still one that is), had just been re-packaged. So you fork out your money expecting heaven and instead get this muck. There is only one Redbreast, check it out in the Pot-still section.
This export friendly brand has recently been acquired from Irish Distillers by C & C.
Calling the current bottlings of Tullamore Dew, "Tullamore Dew" is nothing short of an insult. The modern stuff has nothing in common with the great whiskies once produced at Daly's distillery. Tullamore Dew could as easily be called "Multinational Piss" but someone, somewhere has the licence to use the name Tullamore Dew, so we're stuck with it.
Harsh, spirity with as much character as a paint stripper, this is a vodka drinkers whiskey and I can't think of a worse insult than that.
Tullamore Dew 12 year old
With age comes beauty? Not in this case. Still rubbish, just more expensive rubbish.
Millars Gold and Three Stills
You'll see these guys hanging around together in the supermarket. They are VFM products, that's value for money to you and I. Translated this means that the supermarket get to sell something at under a tenner, something that looks like whiskey, sounds like whiskey... but look carefully... "Irish Spirits" is what you are buying. Irish Spirits? That's right THIS IS NOT WHISKEY!!!
Millars Gold is Cooley's version while Three Stills is from Irish Distillers aka Pernod Ricard. What we have here is mixture of carmel, flavouring and raw grain spirit watered down to 30% abv - less duty that way. It takes like shit and gives you the mother of all hang overs. Only buy this if you are a desperate alcoholic or need something to rinse out your paint brushes.
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