Thursday, 1 October 2015

An Evening With Midleton Master Blender Billy Leighton

Earlier this year, I attended another wonderful event hosted by the Merchant Hotel in the centre of Belfast.  This was the second in their "By The Fire" whiskey events and welcomed Midleton's master blender Billy Leighton to take us through a range of whiskeys from the Midleton portfolio.

As with the previous event, with Colum Egan, the room was set and provided the perfect setting for the evening's festivities.

Tickets had sold out well in advance and the crowd was eagerly anticipating what we might be treated to, let's face it, these nights always have a wee surprise in store.

To get us in the mood we started off with a Jameson, Ginger & Lime, a drink that Jameson have tried hard to market and in fairness I think it's starting to take hold.  When out in the town I hear more and more people asking specifically for this and even at a recent leaving dinner, in Newtownards, the drink on offer was this very concoction.

It's a drink that works and is a perfect little taster for people that want to try something different and might bring more into the whiskey world.

As Billy Leighton introduced himself the mood was relaxed, and laid back, with no strict script and questions flowing back and forward.

The main line up for the evening was as follows: Powers "John's Lane", Redbreast 12yo, Redbreast 12yo cask strength, Redbreast 15yo and Redbreast 21yo.  Not bad at all for the £25 ticket price.

As the conversation carried on Billy acknowledged the perception of him working in a lab, bringing together the wondrous flavours we know and love, but he was very honest in comparing himself more to a stock controller.

It's an aspect of the whiskey world that is often overlooked.  With such a large company, he is responsible for managing the huge stock at Midleton, the ages and cask types, to ensure that age statements and quality are maintained year on year.

When you consider that Midleton has something like 45 warehouses on site, each containing millions of litres of spirit, you get an idea of the scale of the task that faces him.

He continued by highlighting how his task is very different from scotch blenders who would have a larger range to play with.  As all Midleton blends are produced on site it's very much in his hands to maintain the stanards throughout all the styles.

To really hit this home he described that, because the much revered Redbreast 21yo has some 28yo whiskey contained within it, he has to have the next 28 years worth of 21yo already maturing.  As part of his role he also has to forecast for 10 years, so now the overall forecast is 38 years, and as a sherry cask takes 5 years to make, and season, this is now increased to 43 years.....this has to be done for all brands and their relevant expressions!!

As if this wasn't enough he also would divide forecasts into optimistic, pessimistic and realistic as the market changes.  Unbelievable really, when you think about it.

As we sipped the 12yo we were  informed that it roughly contains 12 - 14yo whiskeys.

He touched on global brand reach by stating that they are starting to do well in Russia and South Africa, have been doing well in the USA for about 10-12 years and are quiet in China, at the moment, due to other brands.

As we moved onto the 15yo we were treated to more inside information.  He highlighted the make up of the whiskey by stating the key character is sherry matured with a mix of first fill & second fill casks and also stated there is some 19yo contained within.

He also informed us that this was first made, back in 2005, as a "one off" for La Maison du Whisky in Paris, France. 

Four years later marketing came along asking him to re-create this expression for general release.  As this was initially a one off, the components were not readily available, to make the same flavour profile, but it was re-created as best possible from an original bottle held at Midleton. 

Only now, is the 15yo, more or less, at the same level as it was for that '05 special release.

We finished with the 21yo, which I absolutely adore, and if the tasting had finished there then I would have went home very happy came the surprises.

Five, yes FIVE, more samples that had been taken straight from the casks at Midleton.

They were as follows:

1 - Pot Still whiskey distilled in 1994 and matured in a first fill port cask
(Used in Jameson Rarest Vintage)
2 - Pot Still whiskey distilled in 1998 and matured in a first fill sherry cask
3 - Pot Still whiskey distilled in 1997 and matured in a first fill bourbon cask
4 - Pot Still whiskey distilled in 1996 and matured in an American virgin oak cask
(Small amount used in Jameson Gold)
5 - Grain whiskey distilled in 1990 and matured in a second fill bourbon cask

I could not believe my luck!!

He took us through each and the flavours were out of this world from, the almost meaty, port matured Pot Still to the exceptional single grain, which is quite simply the finest single grain I have ever tasted.

I quizzed him specifically on the single grain, and why there has never been a Midleton single grain released, and it seems that marketing just aren't that interested in getting it out there. 

I think they're mad in the head as this would put anything else on the market to shame.  I suppose it may be needed for more important blends but I'm sure if they got together they could get some maturing right now, even for some sort of a special release like the Mano a Lamh.

To finish off the evening we were treated to something truly special.  A chance, albeit slightly rushed, to see Billy Leighton at work.  It was at this moment he collected up one of each of the sample bottles and went round each table asking how much to use and, with that, he set about creating what I shall call the "By The Fire Blend".  

As we suggested measures he adjusted them accordingly to balance the flavours and we were then treated to a taste of this once in a lifetime blend. 

Amazing, just simply amazing.

As Billy brought the evening to an end he left us to enjoy what was left of the samples and my oh my did they disappear quickly.  Maybe even back to some people's houses....I'm saying nothing.

All in all an absolutely awesome evening and a great chance, yet again, to hear from the people who truly are at the heart of Irish whiskey.  It's not the bosses of Pernod Ricard, or previously Diageo, who fund our much love distilleries, but the people actually working there, day in day out, creating something special for everyone to enjoy.

With people like Billy Leighton at the heart of Irish whiskey, especially with the passion he has, I know we're in very safe hands as Irish whiskey continues to grow.

As for the "By The Fire" event, I know they were having a break over the summer months but I believe they are planning to start up again soon with a possible visit from Tullamore on the cards.

Lastly I would just like to thank the Merchant Hotel, and Billy Leighton, for a memorable evening and I look forward to more of the same.

Until next time,



Thursday, 17 September 2015

Powers "Three Swallow Release" - Review

Another month and another new release from Irish Distillers.

Last night, as part of the Celtic Whiskey Club, I took part in a tweet tasting sampling the latest release under the Powers label - "Three Swallow Release.

Powers "Three Swallow Release" continues Irish Distillers' investment in the Powers brand and specifically Single Pot Still Powers.  This is aimed to fit into their range just below the Powers "Signature Release" and is intended to offer whiskey drinkers an alternative to the more expensive pot still whiskeys with age statements.

Due to be released in the next few weeks, Powers "Three Swallow Release" has been bottled at 40% ABV and without chill filtration.  For maturation they have selected a range of ex-bourbon barrels and a small portion of Oloroso sherry casks.

The name allegedly comes from the fact that a mouthful of Powers should never be swallowed in one go, but in three separate gulps.

Onto my notes:

Nose - Initially fresh and fruity.  Orchard fruits, green apple and there's a nice youthfulness to it.  Light grain and even lighter vanilla.  The casks are not overpowering this dram.  As it develops in the glass a smooth creaminess comes through from the bourbon casks.  We move on to tropical banana / banoffee pie with some sherry notes coming through too.  Ripe pear with a little spice in the form of black pepper.  This nose is really inviting and there's a great balance of cask influence with the sherry notes noticeable but coated by the bourbon elements.

Palate - Smooth with huge amounts of cream.  Red apple, ripe banana, a little butterscotch and a vanilla hit of crème brûlée.  While it would be nice to see this at 43% / 46%, it still retains a nice spirit kick at 40%.  With time a little dusty wood appears from the sherry casks and again the balance is lovely.

Finish - Medium with a nice dryness of wood spice, red apple and, at last, a little red fruit.

Overall I'm very impressed with this whiskey.  It displays a brilliant balance of cask influence and also carries through great fruit flavours from the pot still distillate.  In comparison to another recent Irish Distillers release, the Green Spot "Château Léoville Barton", I feel this wins hands down as it's an honest dram that doesn't try too hard to be anything other than what it is....a well made, well matured, Irish whiskey. 

While still not on general release (it's due to be released in the coming weeks) it remains to be seen what price point this whiskey appears at, but providing it is priced well, which it should be, then I would have no hesitation in recommending this as an excellent "go-to" pot still whiskey to have in your collection.

More of the same please Irish Distillers!!

Until next time,



PS - Excuse the slightly blurry image as a little jiggery pokery was required, given the fact no official photos have been released yet

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Cutty Sark - 33 year old "Art Deco" - Review

Hello there.  Things have been a little quiet on the "Whisky Belfast" front recently as I've been off enjoying a road trip around the west coast of Ireland, but now that I'm back in Belfast you can expect things  to move along quite nicely indeed.

To kick things off I've decided to post a quick fire review of a sample I've been meaning to taste for a while.

Back in November of last year collectors of old and fine whiskies were given a treat when Cutty Sark, the iconic blended whisky with the yellow label, released a 33 year old expression.

Named "Art Deco" this limited edition release came about as Cutty Sark continue to explore the rich history, heritage and origin of their brand.  This release specifically focused on the exciting Art Deco period of the 1920s and early 1930s.  Celebrating a time when Cutty Sark found its way into America and "flourished within the emerging cocktail culture and changed the face of Scotch whisky forever".

The release was limited to 3,456 bottles, was bottled at 41.7 ABV and came with a RRP of £650.

Onto my notes:

Nose - Rich orange, wood sap, a little old damp dustiness and it's worth noting the thick consistency in the glass.  Red apple and a little lemon but this stays firmly on the rich side of things.  A naturally indulgent nose.  Hardly any spices, just orchard fruits and blackberries.  There's a touch of soapiness in here, which might be mineral in nature, and at this age I'm not even going to bother adding any water.  Incredibly smooth with no hot notes of alcohol.  "Dairy Milk" fruit & nut chocolate and we continue with apples in the guise of warm apple crumble.  A slight melted butter note comes towards the end and with more time this only gets dustier and dustier in the glass.  Awesome nose!!

Palate - Quite spirit heavy which wasn't apparent on the nose.  This arrives with the dusty notes from the nose.  Old wood is obvious and gives away to the apples - cooked, ripe, stewed, every sort.  Seville orange marmalade and now a little mixed spice balanced with wood spice.  A little more wood sap, lemon drops and after a while this turns to pure fruit juice in the mouth.  The blackberry on the nose is more of a raspberry on the palate.

Finish - Short with some wood spice and red apple.

Overall this is a bit of a mixed bag.  Really enjoyable on the nose, good on the palate and disappointing on the finish.  I love the older style aromas that old whiskies offer up but I'm beginning to find the short finish a common theme amongst the older blends.  Dare I say it that, with blended whisky, it's possible for them to become too old???  Maybe they can but they will still be released while people are prepared to pay for "premium" product.  I've yet to find a blended whisky that I'd pay anywhere near £100 for let alone £650.

Until next time,


PS - Thanks to Jamie for the sample.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Hyde - No. 1 - 10 year old Irish Single Malt - Review

Irish whiskey is certainly booming.  Everywhere you look these days there are endless articles in newspapers, and online, about the way in which Irish whiskey is moving from strength to strength.

New companies seem to be popping up every other month and one that has appeared over the last year or so is Hyde Irish Whiskey.

Situated in West Cork, in the far south of Ireland, Hyde are using a model adopted by many.  Whilst patiently waiting for their own whiskey to mature they have bought up single malt whiskey from another distillery, finished it themselves and are releasing these bottlings to build up much needed capital.

The first release is the Hyde No.1 - Sherry Cask Finished - 10 year old Irish Single Malt.

This first release has also been named "The President's Cask" in honour of Douglas Hyde, the first President of Ireland, who was sworn into office on 26th June 1938.

Hyde whiskey state that West Cork provides perfect maturing conditions and this first release has spent 10 years in a first fill bourbon barrel before finishing off for 9 months in an Oloroso sherry cask.

They have then brought this down to 46% ABV, avoided chill filtration, and bottled 5,000 bottles, which have been individually numbered.

Not that it really matters, but for the serious knowledge hunters out there, it seems, from the press release, that only the sherry cask maturation has taken place in West Cork with the previous 10 years presumably having taken place in Co.Louth where this Single Malt originates from.

Onto my notes:

Nose - Straight from the off I always love the strange initial smells I get when I immediately pour a whiskey into the glass, and this is no exception, with a very faint initial hit of damp newspapers.  Let me assure you though that this is not at all a bad smell and is probably coming from the sherry casks.  The fresh / tropical fruits of the spirit are here along with the obvious touch of sherry cask and they work quite well.  Looking to the spirit side of things there's fresh apple, prominent ripe banana (maybe over ripe), a little fresh pineapple and some lemon / orange citrus.  Very much a fruit salad.  There's a slight buttery creaminess that leads into the sherry flavours but just before there's a little perfumed floral note.  The sherry influence is restrained but obvious.  The damp newspaper I got has now levelled out to a traditional dusty old wood effect.  Strawberry, raspberry and a bit of a youthful kick that brings some spice into play.  Over time the distinction between spirit and cask becomes less noticeable and the cask takes over.  The only thing that seems to happen with a touch of water is the fresh fruit gets a boost for a moment or two.

Palate - Initially soft and sweet that leads into strawberry chews.  A little on the thin side but all the flavours from the nose are here.  The dusty wood can be found in the arrival and the youthful spice takes over.  Orange, lemon, strawberry, raspberry and red apple which combines with the sweetness to give a taste of toffee apple.  Drying off quickly into the finish and with water the flavours are killed off quite quickly.  Best leaving water out of this.

Finish - A little short with some more fresh fruit.  To be honest, the finish is a little on the average side, but to be fair to Hyde I do not blame them in the slightest.  I have always found the finish, on most whiskeys from Co. Louth, to be on the average side, regardless of how it's been handled.

Overall this is a very decent whiskey that's been finished well to provide a nice balance of original flavours from the spirit with some fruity notes from the cask. 

When reviewing new whiskeys I always try to think about price as well, and this Hyde whiskey is currently on sale, in a well known Irish Whiskey store, for a fraction under £50. 

If I'm being honest I think this is too expensive for a 10 year old whiskey.  I understand the need to raise funds but this is a bit on the high side for my liking and for that reason I'd probably not buy it. 

That said, that is the only reason I would not buy it.  Flavour wise I think this hits the right notes and shows off the Co. Louth spirit whilst allowing Hyde to express themselves through a nicely managed finish.

As with a lot of the new companies I think Hyde have an excellent platform on which to build and I'm eagerly anticipating their new release which is due out very soon.  This will be their "Hyde No.2 - Rum Cask Finished - 10 year old".

Rum cask finishes are something I'm starting to come round to, after recently trying a single cask version, so I'm intrigued to firstly see how Hyde manage it and secondly, if the spirit is from the same distillery, how the already abundant tropical notes combine with a tropical finish.  Exciting stuff and hopefully the Hyde team will be at Whiskey Live Dublin to allow me to try some.

I would lastly just like to say a big thank you to Conor Hyde for the generous sample.

Until next time,



Thursday, 13 August 2015

"Fill Your Own" Teeling Whiskey

Towards the end of April I was lucky enough to get the chance to have a behind the scenes tour of the new Teeling Whiskey Distillery. 

Whilst on this tour, which I previously reviewed, I sampled two whiskeys that were due to be launched in the distillery shop and this morning I learnt that both are now available to buy.

The first of these whiskeys has been released as a "fill your own bottle" opportunity in the distillery shop.  It is an 11 year old Irish single malt that was distilled in 2004.  It spent the majority of it's life in a bourbon barrel before being finished for, what would now probably be, around 16 months in a White Burgundy cask.

This is being offered at a very good price of €100 and will obviously be bottled at cask strength, which at the time of writing is 58.4% ABV.

When I sampled this down at the distillery it was a fruit flavoured beast of a dram with notes of grappa and a seriously dry finish.  Extremely enjoyable and worth a look for sure.

The second of these whiskeys has been bottled already and is available in the distillery as a sort of "distillery reserve" bottling.  It is a 16 year old Irish single malt that was distilled in 1999 and has spent it's entire life in a rum cask.

This, in my opinion, is even better value at €85 and is also bottled at a cask strength of 59.7% ABV.

When I sampled this beauty I was blown away.  Rum and raisin ice cream gone mad whilst being incredibly smooth and deliciously sweet.  Out of the two whiskeys tasted this rum cask edged it for me but to be perfectly honest I'm probably going to get myself down to Teeling ASAP and get myself a bottle of each.

There are also rumours of a much older single malt becoming available very soon.

All I can say is that a strongly suggest you get yourselves down to Teeling, if you can, and see for yourselves everything they're doing to push Irish whiskey on to levels never seen before.  I honestly believe in what they are doing and think they will be leading the way for innovation as Irish whiskey continues to grow for years to come.

Until next time,



Monday, 10 August 2015

Green Spot - Château Léoville Barton - Review

Irish whiskey fans have already had a year to remember with Irish Distillers treating us to a few new releases including the Redbreast "Mano a Lámh" and the Midleton "Dair Ghaelach".  But it is their latest release that I shall be looking at this time around.

Green Spot "Château Léoville Barton" is the first ever Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey to be finished in Bordeaux wine casks.

Set in the heart of Bordeaux, one of the most revered wine making regions in the world, Léoville Barton is a grand cru Château renowned for producing world class wine.  Léoville Barton is overseen today by Anthony and Lilian Barton who are direct descendants of Thomas Barton, a "Wine Geese" winemaker who founded a wine merchant company in 1725 after migrating from his native Ireland.

For those of you not familiar with the term "Wine Geese" this refers to winemakers who migrated from Ireland in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries to establish wineries in countries such as France, Spain, Australia and the USA.

Green Spot, as I'm sure you may already know, can trace it's roots back to Dublin based wine merchants, Mitchell & Son, who matured, bottled and sold the original Green Spot under bond.  

Established in 1805, Mitchell & Son aged whiskeys, bought from John Jameson's Bow Street distillery in Dublin, in their own casks up until 1968.

It is this distinct connection between the two histories of Léoville Barton and Green Spot, that makes Anthony Barton feel very privileged to be able to contribute to the merging of these industries to produce something unique and "exceptional".  

With regards the whiskey itself, it has initially been matured in a traditional mix of ex-Oloroso sherry, new bourbon and ex-bourbon barrels.  The whiskeys were then transferred into the ex-Bordeaux wine casks for between 12 and 24 months, imparting "distinctive floral flavours of varying intensity" and "resulting in a perfectly balanced whiskey".

It has been bottled at 46% ABV, with no added colour, and no chill filtering, and has been available from June at a RRP of roughly £40.

Onto my notes:

Nose - Initially a savoury butter note, some "green" notes that I would noramlly get with Redbreast 15yo and a distinct dusty note lurks in the background.  As it opens in the glass it becomes much sweeter, almost candy like, with foam banana sweets, a little green apple and the butter now becomes quite fudge like with the sweetness.  There's not a massive amount of red fruit going on but some gentle strawberry is here.  Not much spice either.  Feels very smooth from the bourbon barrels with a creamy sweetness to match.  With this nose it feels like the bourbon barrels are definitely the dominant force but with time a wine note does come through in the form of grappa.

Palate - Nice balance of the sweet flavours with a now notable dry spice coming from the European oak.  More green apples and vanilla cream.  Red berries are more prominent here with a spicy cracked black pepper undertone.  Mouth feel is a little on the thin side but I stress only a little.  On the whole the "perfectly balanced" comment is definitely noticeable on the palate.

Finish - Nice length with the red fruits really starting to show along with a nice lingering dryness from the cask.  In opposition to the nose, the finish feels like the wine casks are the dominant force.

Overall this is a good whiskey, heading in the direction, but just falling short, of the very good.  It is well made and the wine casks have imparted a subtle note onto the spirit.

As with most reviews I usually get most notes down on the first taste and go over the notes with a second glass, to add any further flavours, and with the second glass this was improving with the fruit flavours becoming more complex.

That was until I added the tiniest drop of water which did more damage than good.  In my opinion this needs no water whatsoever and is best left as presented.

Would I recommend this whiskey? Yes.  Would I buy this at the price it's meant to be sold at? Yes.  Would it win any awards in the mythical awards ceremony in my head?  On this taste, probably not.

I'm left to ponder this against another release mentioned earlier, the Redbreast "Mano a Lámh", as they are both NAS Pot Stills, at a similar price point, and to be honest I'd probably opt for the Redbreast.  (Incidentally a review of this shall be up soon)

That said though, do not let that put you off.  As with anything this is obviously only my opinion and the only way to get a personal experience is to get out there and try it yourself.  If you love the normal Green Spot then this just may be the one for you.

Until next time,



PS A huge thanks Richmond Towers Communications for the sample and press release.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Benromach - 15 year old - Review

At the start of the year I posted a review of the Benromach 10 year old, which I had sampled at a masterclass at last year's Whisky Live Dublin, and in that review I touched upon the pride I felt Benromach were taking in their whiskies and how whiskies of such obvious quality should be the ones that are paid most attention.

As previously mentioned Benromach are pushing themselves forward by recreating whisky in a style that would've been seen coming from Speyside back in the 1960's and it is certainly paying dividends.

Fast forward to May and excitement grew as Benromach announced the latest addition to their already impressive range - Benromach 15 year old.

Priced at just under £50, the Benromach 15 year old has been bottled at 43% and has been matured in a mix of bourbon and sherry casks.

Upon receipt of a sample I was obviously eager to get the chance to see how this measures up against the very impressive 10 year old.

Onto my notes:

Nose - Rich. Lovely interplay between damp wood smoke, slight menthol and fruits that range from red berries to baked apple to tropical notes of ripe banana and then onto some orange marmalade.  As it softens in the glass a distinct buttery note comes through the gentle smoke.  In time the nose balances out perfectly and retains a zesty zing of citrus.  Spices are minimal in the form of black peppercorn and cinnamon.  With a touch of water a green grassy note appears along with some nice oak char.

Palate - Incredibly smooth and slightly sour arrival.  Sweet oranges and lemon drops are to the front and followed by rich malty notes that border on malt extract.  The smoke is even more gentle on the palate and is also less than what I remember from the 10 year old.  The extra time in the casks has clearly rounded this off very well indeed.  Spicing is again well balanced and again is only the merest hints of cracked black pepper.  With water the sourness eases to allow sweeter notes through.  Buttered popcorn, sweet orange and crisp citrus.  A slight sense of the smoke returns in the form of charred wood and the palate rounds off with light berry and oak spice.

Finish - Lovely length with dry oak spice, red fruits and crunchy red apples.

Overall this is another stunner from the team at Benromach.  With the slight smoke running through the luscious sherry notes they really have, in my opinion, started to get that old style feel to the whisky they are producing. 

Over time I have tried many different whiskies that were bottled long ago, and each time I've tasted them I've always wondered if we would ever see anything similar in the future as the older bottled whisky really is so, so different.  With this Benromach 15 year old I am now starting to see serious similarities.

You could bottle this into an old bottle from the 60's, 70's or 80's and I doubt too many would question that it wasn't from that era.  That said I am honest in saying that my experience of older bottled whisky is not extensive but what experience I have had would definitely add up to this conclusion.

For years people have always asked me what my favourite whisky was and my answer has always been the likes of Redbreast or maybe Balblair and, while they are still answers I shall give, I can now honestly add Benromach into that list.

This really is seriously good stuff and at a price of under £50 some other big companies should sit up and take notice of how easy it is to get things right

Until next time,


PS Huge thanks to Benromach for the sample.