It turns out, when applied to the world of Irish Whiskey, our grandparents were right when they rambled on about there being a problem with the youth of today. It’s the old adage of a kid on their friend’s shoulders in a trench coat, or teenagers in a nightclub queue with their cousins’ ID; trying to appear older than their years.
A positive move we’ve seen across many new entrants to the Irish Whiskey market has been full, unrivalled transparency in all aspects of production, but there is a lot to be said for honesty about the end result too. There is a tendency with new distilleries to “dress for the job they want, not for the job they’re in”, so to speak; selling inaugural releases of their own liquid as soon as its legally ready to be called Whiskey, but pitching it as the product they want it to be down the line.
As a diehard Irish Whiskey fan, this is disappointing in a few ways:
- While many might disagree with me on this front, I don’t believe young whiskey is bad. Why all the smoke and mirrors? For one thing, it’s different. Until Dingle came along, I simply didn’t know what young whiskey tasted like, but I like it. As a country not unfamiliar with mysterious unlabeled bottles of clear liquid hanging around the attic or under the sink, there is a familiarity to the raw, punchy notes of young whiskey that should be celebrated for what it is, but all too often it’s a case of lamb dressed as mutton. I applaud Dingle’s shrewdness in putting out their first batches along the lines of hens’ teeth – building hype through rarity. They didn’t disappoint anyone on the flavour side since they simply couldn’t get their hands on it, and they ramped up the numbers in later releases when the whiskey was ready for the dancefloor. At the other end of the spectrum, Teeling bravely plugged their inaugural Single Pot Still release as the return of Dublin style pot still whiskey; but being 3 years old, it did not go down too well with some people who were likely expecting a Powers Three Swallows-esque experience. It might have softened the blow to use their quarterly batch rollout as a showcase of maturation towards what is now a tasty little dram.
- A recurring problem is price. A lot of new releases of Irish whiskey have come in at the fifty to seventy euro mark; a price point which will yield many fan favourite bottles both at home and oversees. For a lot of people, this would be considered a gift or special occasion price bracket, so when a new release is touted as something it’s not, it leaves a bitter taste and most likely a reluctance to take a punt in the future on the same brand (first impressions, and all that). The domestic market might be a bit more forgiving, but it’s a big old world of whiskey out there and I’ll be eager to see how some distilleries handle the difficult second album. I’ve bought nearly every new release on the market (those I could get my hands on anyway), as I see it as an investment in the bright future of Irish Whiskey; much like following a team you hope will come good despite current form. The opposite of this might be a fan of scotch or bourbon willing to take a punt on something new from Ireland to test the waters. Considering the price to quality ratio they’ll be used to, they’ll most likely feel short-changed. For all the talk of market growth, I don’t see us letting go of the Jameson coat tails any time soon. I don’t have an obvious answer to the problem of price, since whiskey is an expensive business, and investors won’t wait forever to get paid. I often think (if our friends in the revenue permit it) that a model such as Vin de Primeur might work in some capacity; this is where vineyards make new vintages available to purchase in advance, while it’s still laid down in barrels, and you get your bottles a couple of years later when it’s ready. With more and more distilleries approaching “maturity”, something has got to give, and in the long run I see myself rewarding the brands who hold out long enough, or at least have the courtesy to mention the dent, dodgy suspension and lack of spare tyre in their ad, and charge accordingly.
- Convincing the world that young whiskey tastes good is a hard sell, I get it. Marketing has been making false promises for decades in all walks of life. Buzz words and bling are here to stay, and we learn to take it with a pinch of salt. That said, I still get disappointed when I’m promised a Ferrari and end up with a Ford Fiesta. One of the most exciting build ups this year has been, without question, to Waterford Whisky’s first tranche of single farm expressions (I’m not about to talk about terroir, I promise). I recently listened to a superb podcast series on Waterford from Interpreting Wine, in which CEO Mark Reynier talked through the painstaking production methods going on in “the Facilitator” (their incredible distillery on the banks of the Suir), and one comment stood out and grabbed my attention: “If you distil low and slow, if you use really good wood, and you use exceptional barley, it’s no surprise that your whiskey tastes really good, much earlier than we’ve all been led to believe”. To me, this sounded like the Waterford team had developed a way to achieve a marked improvement in flavour development prior to the maturation process, and therefore it wouldn’t need as long in the barrel. Was this naivety on my part? Perhaps; but the first time someone explained the impact of volatile climate conditions on maturation time and flavour development (i.e. the range of very young bourbons from Kentucky, or Kavalan’s single malt from Taiwan). While the quality of spirit and depth of flavour was obvious in both expressions I’ve managed to get my hands on (Ballykilcavan and Bannow Island), I admit that my heart sank a little on first nosing when I was greeted with that now oh so familiar waft of youth. They’ll be sensational given time, I have no doubt, but for now it’s another new release that’s good for what it is – four year old whisky. How great will it be when I don’t have to quantify that statement in relation to a new Irish Whiskey release?
It will be interesting to see if some of the other new comers take to these challenges differently. Sourced whiskey seems to be the route many are taking, but time will tell if they’ll hold out on bottling their own stock till it’s truly ready, or if the classic Irish “it’ll be grand” mentality will win out yet again. As interesting as delving into a young whiskey can be from an academic stand-point (read: nerding out), it’s never those bottles I reach for at the end of a long week in work, after a nice meal, or to raise on a special occasion. It isn’t always something fancy either, but it’s ready.