Get Your Irish on with Flaviar’s Irish Whiskey Sample Pack

flaviarSt. Patrick’s Day is just a few weeks away, and that means the Jameson and Bushmills will be flowing freely. But there’s no need to stop there. There are dozens of high-quality Irish whiskey brands available, and St. Patty’s is the perfect excuse to try them all.

Enter Flaviar, a company that specializes in sampler packs of whiskeys, often aligned with a them. Here’s one worth checking out today: an all Irish bundle of ten different spirits from the Emerald Isle, including Redbreast 15, Uisce Beatha, Knappogue Castle 1995, and our much-beloved Green Spot. Each comes in a sampler vial — and when you’re done with the ten, you still have a whole bottle of Jameson to work your way through for the rest of the week. (Or night, we don’t judge you.)

$98 gets you the setup. Sure beats shelling out for green beer!

Review: Glendalough Poitin

glendalough poitin

Poitin (po-cheen) pushers are trying their darnedest to bring this ancient Irish spirit back to the masses. A distillation of malt barley and sugar beets, the finished product is aged in virgin oak (but generally filtered back to white). Ireland’s Glendalough sent us a trilogy of poitins for us to sample. Our thoughts follow.

Glendalough Poitin – The curious marshmallow notes on the nose are no preparation for what comes next on the body — rubber at play with gasoline notes that immediately recalls both American moonshine and Brazilian cachaca. Unfortunately, there’s no fruit, no real interest on the palate to make this investment worthwhile, just a cacophony of raw flavors straight off the still that never quite makes it. All poitin tends to be something of an acquired taste, but this expression may require more acquiring than others. 80 proof. D+/ $31

Glendalough Mountain Strength – I guess they like it strong up there in the mountains. The extra alcohol of this high-proof expression actually helps to soften things up a bit, but the palate is still possessed by a moonshiny monster. A longer finish is simultaneously both a good and a bad thing, bringing out some hints of tart berry fruit, but also pumping up the petrol character. 120 proof. C- / $37

Glendalough Sherry Cask Finish – This is the only non-clear expression of Glendalough, which undergoes a secondary finishing in sherry casks. The citrusy wood influence sure doesn’t hurt, tempering that rubbery character a bit with some orange peel and incense, particularly on the nose. The finish doesn’t go nearly far enough, however. While there’s a little savory lumberyard character in the mix, that raw, almost saccharine character still manages to shine through. 80 proof. C- / $37

glendaloughdistillery.com

Review: Tullamore D.E.W. Celebratory Phoenix Irish Whiskey

tullamore dew celebratory phoenix_bottle___box_01_no_shadow_s

You’ll have to look very closely to distinguish this special edition bottling from Tullamore D.E.W.’s other limited edition release, Tullamore D.E.W. Phoenix.

Tullamore D.E.W. Celebratory Phoenix comes from a single production batch of the Phoenix release and is being launched in honor of Tullamore’s new distillery opening. Just 2,014 bottles are available, and they are available only in select Irish retail outlets.

This isn’t an identical whiskey to Phoenix — far from it, in fact. It is still a blend of pot still, single malt, and grain whiskey, but it is matured in Oloroso sherry cases and finished in virgin oak casks. (Standard Phoenix is matured in Bourbon barrels then finished in Oloroso sherry casks.)

For sure, it’s similar: Instant honey and banana hit the nose, with plenty of almond and hazelnut character on the palate. But then Celebratory Phoenix takes another turn. Quite malty and pungent, it starts off really pushing the malt whiskey component the heaviest, then segueing into a handful mixed nuts before finishing on rich notes of clove, sawdust, and mushroom.

Compared to the standard bottling of Phoenix (which I re-tasted fresh just for this writeup), it’s overwhelmingly different. Phoenix is brighter with fruit and offers more sweetness and more tangy acid to it — and, frankly, it has a better balance among its component flavors. Celebratory Phoenix is distinctly burlier, with a distinct forest floor edge to it. Frankly, I find myself drawn to the sherry-finished standard edition bottling more strongly… which is good, because it’s half the price — and you can actually buy it in this country.

110 proof.

A- / $112 / tullamoredew.com

Drinkhacker’s 2014 Holiday Gift Guide – Best Alcohol/Spirits for Christmas

Can it be time for the holidays already? We’ve been utterly swamped in 2014 with new products for review, which makes this seventh annual edition of the Drinkhacker holiday gift guide — our “best stuff of the year awards” — all the tougher to produce. As usual, we are looking not just at what the very best release have been over the last 12 months, but also want to help you find the perfect give for your special someone, whether that’s whiskey, tequila, or any other spirit.

As always, the offerings below are but a small selection of our favorite spirits from the last year, but we definitely try to focus on products that are legitimately available. Got alternatives to suggest or gift ideas you think we missed? Chime in in the comments, please!

Happy holidays to all of you! As always, thanks for reading the blog!

Check this gift guide out in full-color PDF form, perfect for printing out and taking with you holiday shopping. Also check out our 20132012201120102009, and 2008 holiday guides.

woodfordBourbon – Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Sonoma-Cutrer Pinot Noir Finish ($100) – Every year Master Distiller Chris Morris puts out a special release of Woodford Reserve — sometimes a wildly different one — and his 2014 experiment is the best he’s ever done. This bourbon takes woody WR and finishes it in fruity Pinot Noir casks, bringing out a whole new side of this Kentucky classic. Just as worthy are two other incredible bourbons from 2014, Wild Turkey Diamond Anniversary Bourbon ($125) and Four Roses 2014 Single Barrel ($80). That’s really just a modest start to an amazing year for Bourbon. There are so, so many good bottlings out there right now. It’s almost hard to pick badly if you can’t find any of these three.

Scotch – The Balvenie Tun 1509 Batch 1 ($350) – The sole “A+” rating I gave to any whiskey all year went to Balvenie’s latest Tun release, Tun 1509 Batch 1. The prior Tun series, Tun 1401, also made appearances on our holiday list, but this year Balvenie quadrupled production in order to give more folks out there a shot at actually tracking this stuff down. The quality hasn’t suffered. Whether it’s for you or for dad, go for it. It’s worth it. Other amazing picks worth seeking out: Mortlach Rare Old ($110), Glenfiddich Excellence 26 Years Old ($500), The Exclusive Malts Ledaig 2005 8 Years Old ($110), and The Arran Malt 17 Years Old ($95).

Green Spot Whiskey USOther Whiskey – Green Spot Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey ($50) – This is an amazingly tough category this year, but ultimately I have to go with a whiskey that has enchanted me throughout 2014, the blissfully simple yet gorgeous Irish whiskey Green Spot, which finally made it to our shores this spring and currently stands as one of whiskeydom’s greatest deals. (Watch for Yellow Spot to slowly float over, too.) My close second is Hibiki 21 Years Old ($250). 2014 has been declared by others “the year of Japanese whiskey,” but it’s Hibiki, not Yamazaki, that is putting out the very best stuff right now. This year’s Parker’s Heritage Collection Original Batch Wheat Whiskey 13 Years Old ($90), a wheat whiskey, not a wheated bourbon, is also a standout, as is the ever-exciting Sazerac Rye 18 Year Old ($80).

Gin – Genius Gin ($26) – Who’d have thought 2014’s best gin would hail from Austin, Texas? Get the standard edition. The Navy Strength is less refined. Overall a weak year for gins, other recommended bottlings include Beefeater Burrough’s Reserve Barrel Finished Gin ($70) and The 86 Co. Ford’s Gin ($30/1 liter).

Vodka  Re:Find Cucumber Vodka ($25/375ml) – Vodka’s never a thrilling category (or much of a gift), but spending 25 bucks on this best-ever cucumber vodka is not a bad way to fill a stocking. Other top picks include the Vodka DSP CA 162 line (each $38), made by the former crew behind Hangar One, Santa Fe Spirits Expedition America West Vodka ($25), and Bluewater Organic Vodka ($27).

vizcaya-21Rum – Vizcaya VXOP Cask No. 21 Cuban Formula Rum ($40) – Fascinating rums have been in short supply of late (I’m presuming you can’t find a way to get Havana Club where you live), but this Dominican rum is a killer bottling. Also highly recommended is Bacardi’s boutique bottling of Facundo Exquisito ($120), which runs up to 23 years old.

Brandy – Charbay Brandy No. 89 ($92) – This craft brandy from Charbay, distilled 26 years ago, is a killer that can go toe to toe with any Cognac. Louis Royer Force 53 VSOP ($43) is also a fabulous spirit and a great bargain.

Tequila – Roca Patron Reposado ($80) – The typically breakneck pace of tequila releases slowed down in 2014. Patron’s new higher-end bottling, particularly the reposado, was my favorite. Also standing out were Tequila Herradura Coleccion de la Casa Scotch Cask Finished Reposado Reserva 2014 ($90) and the festive KAH Tequila line ($45 to $60), which tastes as good as its bottles look. High-end mezcal fans should run, not walk, to Del Maguey Iberico Mezcal ($250).

Liqueur – Ancho Reyes Ancho Chile Liqueur ($33) – From the first time I tasted this, I knew it would be the Drinkhacker liqueur of the year. Ancho chile is so distinctive and unique, and these guys do amazing work with it in alco-form. Try it in, well, anything.  Other excellent giftworthy liqueurs include Perc Coffee Liqueur ($28), Barrow’s Intense Ginger ($31), and the new Wild Turkey American Honey Sting ($23) — technically a flavored whiskey, but which drinks more like a liqueur.

Need another custom gift idea (or have a different budget)? Drop me a line or leave a comment here and I’ll offer my best advice!

Looking to buy any of the above? Give Caskers and Master of Malt a try!

Tasting Report: WhiskyFest San Francisco 2014

011Another WhiskyFest has come and gone, filling the masses with a smorgasbord of Scotch, Bourbon, Irish, and a little bit of everything else. There was nothing not to like in San Francisco this year, with the masses gobbling up the west coast introduction of Yellow Spot, a rare showing from Stranahan’s, and a surprise appearance of Balblair 1975 and — unlisted in the program — Balblair 1969. The only bummer: An utter dearth of independent Scotch bottlers. No Samaroli, no Gordon & MacPhail, no Duncan Taylor. Bring back the indies in 2015! (Also, the line for Pappy Van Winkle is now getting full on ridiculous.)

Very brief thoughts on everything tasted follow.

Tasting Report: WhiskyFest San Francisco 2014

Scotch
Balblair Vintage 1975 2nd Release – Bottled 2013; firing on all cylinders, a spicy, seductive malt / A
Balblair Vintage 1969 – Bottled 2012; not as deep in flavor as the 75, but easygoing with a melange of mixed fruit and wood notes / A-
The Glenlivet 21 Years Old – fruit and spice; racy; lots of wood here / A-
The Glenlivet Guardian’s Chapter – a limited NAS release, heavy on the grain, some nuts; drinks young and not terribly impressively / B
Glen Grant Five Decades – very sweet, strawberry notes; lots of sherry / A-
Glenglassaugh 30 Years Old – really, really old; wood has beaten this one up / B
BenRiach Authenticus 25 Years Old – sneaky peat notes; some light cherry in there / B+
GlenDronach Parlianemtn 21 Years Old – good balance between cereal and sherry character / A-
Tullibardine Cuvee 225 Sauternes – ample smoke, sweet BBQ finish / B+
Tullibardine 20 Years Old – lots of smoke, drowns out some distant sweetness / B
Tullibardine 25 Years Old – aged fully in sherry casks, giving this a striking citrus finish and a sultry body / B+
Compass Box Great King Street, Artists Blend – extremely chewy; spice and cinnamon with a long-lasting finish / B+

Bourbon
Angel’s Envy Cask Strength 2014 – refreshing my memory on a fun whisky; cherry fueled, with dusty wood notes / A-
Old Forester Original Batch 1870 – a new limited edition; austere, a bit winey / B+
Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2014 – lots of spice, some cocoa, good wood structure / A-
Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel – had a bit of this on a lark; nicely wooded, with caramel apple notes to follow / B+
Highland Park Freya – we never got to formally review this 3rd release in the Valhalla series, so it was fun to try it here; just a light touch of peat, with solid sherry and vanilla structure; lightly dusty finish / A-
Blanton’s Bourbon – bottled 8/12/14; nutty with cinnamon notes, long, madeira-like finish / A-
Stagg Jr. – I tried this again to see if I could see what the hate was about; 132.1 proof, this is the 3rd edition of the Bourbon; rich with red pepper and cloves, I still think it’s a winner / A-
Bib & Tucker – an upcoming release; I didn’t get a big read on it outside of its big wood character / B
Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey – bottled 7/5/12; chewy, drinking young but with pure fruit inside / B+
Sranahan’s Snowflake Mount Snuffles – this bizarre, very rare whiskey is aged in cherry wine barrels (that’s not a typo), which gives this whiskey an overwhelming fruit bomb character, like an out of whack Manhattan; it’s just too much / B

Japan
Hakushu 18 Years Old – a well rounded Japanese malt, coffee and chocolate notes on the back end / B+
Hibiki 21 Years Old – gorgeous, sweet and touched with brine / A

Irish
Green Spot – light as a feather, clean and spicy / A
Yellow Spot – a much different animal, 12 years old; big sherry and sugary notes; lots to love / A
Midleton Barry Crocket – minty, big tropical notes; long finish; a bit of an odd combination of flavors / B+

Other
Charbay Rum – an upcoming release of navy-style rum (140 proof) distilled in 2005; huge char, fire and brimstone galore / B+
Charbay Direct-Fire Alembic Brandy 1989 – smoke and spice; apples and cherries hit on the finish / A-
Hudson Maple Cask Rye – a special release from our friends in New York; a touch of syrup on grainy base / B
Westland American Single Malt – subtle; mint and chocolate notes / B+
Westland American Single Malt Cask #312 – cask strength release; sherry finished; overpowering with coffee notes, heavy / B-
Kavalan Sherry Cask – tasting racy and a bit raw tonight / B-
Kavalan Vinho Barrique – aged in red and white wine barrels; rasins and port notes, figs / A-
High West Son of Bourye – now a blend of 6 year old Bourbon and 6 year old rye; sweet meets spice in this butterscotchy whiskey / A-

Review: Kennedy Irish Whiskey “Spirit Drink” Complete Lineup

kennedy irish

Irish whiskey is all the rage right now — it’s the fastest growing spirit category there is — and there’s a mad rush going on in Ireland to build stills, increase production, and otherwise squeeze every dollar out of this market before everyone moves on to something else, probably rum.

Kennedy is a new launch of Irish Whiskey — er, “Spirit Drink.” I’m still trying to sort all this out, so bear with me. Here’s how the Kennedy label breaks out.

Upon a sticker stylized like an old Celtic helmet it reads KENNEDY in big letters, then ORIGINAL underneath. In delicate italics beneath that: Spirit Drink. Then in even smaller italics: “Oak Filtered & Hand Crafted using.” Then, larger block letters: “Whiskey with natural flavor & caramel.”

OK, so points for truth in labeling, I think, but points off for confusing the hell out of your consumer along the way. What is “oak filtered,” exactly? Check the back label and you’ll see that “Kennedy’s Spirit is a delicate fusion of the finest Celtic whiskies and malt to insure a unique, challenging and august drinking experience. Kennedy’s Spirit, handcrafted in West Cord, Ireland, is infused with Irish and Bourbon oak using a proprietary infusion process and steeped in malt through an artisan and near-forgotten technique.”

So, yeah.

Your guess is as good as mind about what all that means, but basically my deduction is this is a mix of various Irish whiskeys and grain spirits, somehow pressure treated with oak to artificially age it more quickly. Caramel is added liberally, based on the color, though your guess is as good as mine as to what the natural flavors referenced here are.

And that’s just the “original.” There are four flavored versions of the spirit available, too. Or, rather, more flavored.

So, with that out of the way, let’s taste them all!

Kennedy Original – A slight sugar character on the nose, with a malty, cereal character to it. Touches of honey and cinnamon dust the body, which is otherwise a soft caramel, lightly woody, mostly watery character to it. The overall impact is one of Irish whiskey that’s already been liberally doused with water. It goes down easy enough, but the finish is weak and a touch astringent, leaving behind a touch of hospital character as it fades. 80 proof. C+

Kennedy Spiced – Infused with visible, solid spices (including anise and cinnamon) floating around in the bottle. Tons of cinnamon on the nose. The body has an essence more akin to vanilla blended with dried apples — with that anise making a strong showing as a somewhat weird secondary note. I would have dropped the licorice components and pumped up the cloves, but that’s just me. At least there’s more going on here, even if it doesn’t come together the way you might hope. 70 proof. B-

Kennedy Honeyed – Infused with vanilla and honey. Contains visible, fine sediment (but not big chunks like in the Spiced expression). It’s more hazelnut than honey on the nose, but the finish builds to more of an earthy honey character. Minimal whiskey character, though. 70 proof. B-

Kennedy Limed – Green, lime whiskey? Why not. Again, light sediment from flavoring involving vanilla and lime juice. Not as bad as you are expecting, but a bit like drinking a slug of Rose’s Lime Juice straight. Sweeter than most of the other whiskeys in this lineup, a necessity to offset the sour lime flavors. The color is beyond off-putting. Clearly this is designed exclusively as a mixer… but with what? When the label copy calls the product “intiguing,” you know something ain’t right. C-

Kennedy Chilied – Bright red, it is flavored with chili pepper and paprika(!). Wow, this is intensely hot — far hotter than your typical “pepper vodka.” I can see this doing brisk business as frat kids make bets with each other and buy shots to dare each other to drink. It’s a fiery, habanero-style burn that singes the lips and sticks in the throat for minutes. A hint of honey sweetness helps temper the burn. Discriminating it ain’t, but daredevils should go for it. B

each about $17 / westcorkdistillers.com

Review: Uisce Beatha Irish Whiskey

uisce beatha real irish whiskey

It’s a brave product marketer who chooses “Uisce Beatha” for his new whiskey’s official name. But Uisce Beatha is a name that’s steeped in history. The term is Gaelic for “water of life.” Uisce (pronounced ISH-kah) is of course where the word “whiskey” originated.

Uisce Beatha — “Real Irish Whiskey” — is the latest launch from ROK Stars, a spirits company founded by celebrity hairstylist and Patron Tequila founder Jon Paul DeJoria. The focus with this spirit is clearly on quality (though not on maturity, which we’ll get to). Uisce Beatha is a blend of single malt and grain whiskeys, aged for four-plus years in ex-Bourbon barrels.

In experiencing the whiskey, baking spices kickstart the nose, while toasty cereal lingers in the background. The body is immediately maltier than expected, bringing up notes of honey, simple syrup, and graham crackers before more of that chewy cereal character hits the palate. As it develops in the glass, some citrus character comes to the fore — more of a clementine orange note than an orange peel character, fresher rather than bittersweet or pungent. The finish sticks with youthful grain, much like a young single malt, offering notes of heather and fresh cut barley. All in all it’s a well-made spirit that lets its raw materials shine, but Irish drinkers who crave the sweeter palate of the typical Irish whiskey might find Uisce Beatha a bit young and undercooked for extended exploration.

B / $40 / rokstars.com

Review: Knappogue Castle 12, 14, and 16 Year Old Single Malt Irish Whiskeys

knappogue castle 16 years old

While most Irish whiskeys are some mix of grain and malt spirits, Knappogue Castle specializes in single malts exclusively. Recently the brand shifted from vintage-dated spirits to more standard age statements, with 12, 14, and 16 year old expressions now making up the core. We’ve reviewed the 12 and 14 in the past, but take fresh looks at them both, alongside the 16, with this review.

Knappogue Castle 12 Year Old Single Malt Irish Whiskey – This whiskey undergoes a standard aging regimen in ex-bourbon casks. Heavily malty on the nose, with clear notes of marzipan and coconut. The body offers lots of interesting, fresh apple notes, backed up with more malty cereal mash and a bit of swampy/iodine kick on the finish that tends to muck things up a bit. I enjoyed this quite a bit less this time around than I have in previous iterations, the finish veering too far into the cereal box and throwing things out of balance. 80 proof. B / $42

Knappogue Castle 14 Year Old Twin Wood Single Malt Irish Whiskey – Oloroso sherry finished for about 3 months. There’s plenty going on here, and the 14 year old cuts a much different picture than the 12. The nose is sharp with sherry and orange oil notes, and more of those almond/marzipan characteristics underneath. On the palate, there’s toasted marshmallow, roasted nuts, banana, coconut, and more citrus at the back end. The extra alcohol provides some heat, but the Knappogue can handle it. Unlike my prior encounter, I’m finding this expression more balanced and cohesive, but my overall opinion is about the same. 92 proof. B+ / $60

Knappogue Castle 16 Year Old Twin Wood Single Malt Irish Whiskey – A numbered release which, like the 14 year old, spends time finishing in sherry casks — this time for nearly two years. Clearly darker in color than both the 12 and the 14, this spirit still has that malty Knappogue DNA running through it, moderated with orange notes, more marshmallow, and some tree bark. Chewy on the body, with (surprisingly) more pronounced malt character than the 14, alongside clearer banana and coconut notes. The 16 year old opens up more with time in the glass, smoothing out some of those crunchy cereal box notes with sherry and a bit of seawater. Still, it’s not quite hitting its stride in the balance department, but it’s getting there. 80 proof. B+ / $100

knappoguewhiskey.com

Review: Green Spot Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey

Green Spot Whiskey US

Heretofore seldom seen on our shores, one of the most beloved Irish whiskeys in-country is now making its way to the U.S. It is named after a blotch of color.

Green Spot, the kid brother of the even rarer Yellow Spot, is made at Midleton, where Jameson, Tullamore D.E.W., Powers, and Redbreast all hail from. It is a thrice-distilled single pot still whiskey, but unlike Redbreast it is bottled without an age statement. What’s inside is a blend of whiskeys aged seven to 10 years in a combination of bourbon and sherry casks. 12,000 bottles are produced each year.

No bones about it, this whiskey is a delight. Loaded with flavor but balanced to a T, Green Spot hits all the classic Irish hallmarks while retaining its sense of balance.

The nose is spot on (get it?), rich with unripe banana, light honey, chimney soot, and cut grains. The body is more lovely, with toasted marshmallows, very light citrus, caramel, a touch of chocolate, and a big malty finish that comes across a lot like chocolate malt balls when it’s all said and done. Often thought of as “sweeter” than its compatriots, that’s not exactly the case here. Green Spot has sweetness, but it balances out the more savory components, bringing the body right where it ought to be. The spirit is drying as it fades, almost hinting at licorice, which only invites further exploration as that malt character dies like the sunset.

Buy it now.

80 proof.

A / $50 / singlepotstill.com [BUY IT FROM MASTER OF MALT]   [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Redbreast Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey 21 Years Old

Redbreast 21 Year Old

Redbreast is one of the most beloved of high-end Irish whiskeys there is, a triple-pot distilled whiskey made of malted and unmalted barley that wins pretty much every “Best Irish Whiskey” award that comes around. That said, the 12 year old expression has always been a bit too chewy and pungent for my taste, a malty monster in a category prized for being gentle and easygoing.

On the other hand, I respect Redbreast. Different strokes and all. And now a sure-to-be much desired 21 Year Old version is about to hit the market. What can an extra 9 years do to a whiskey that’s already a beast?

Let’s put it this way: If you like Redbreast 12, you’ll love Redbreast 21. All of Redbreast’s classic notes are intact: ultra-ripe banana, coconut husks, and butterscotch, to name but a few. But there’s also burnt honey, coal fires, and a powerful caramel note on the finish. The citrus notes — driven by partial aging in first-fill sherry casks — are particularly present here. No matter what you think about Redbreast, there’s always something new to discover lurking somewhere in a dram of this whiskey.

Rest assured: Redbreast’s DNA runs through this expression like a river, but I’m honestly hard-pressed to find a lot of difference here vs. the 12 year old version. It’s a bit more pungent and funky, but it’s just not overwhelmingly different than the 12. The 12 is just such a massive whiskey already that the extra age simply doesn’t change things as much as it otherwise might. Either way, Redbreast fanatics should give it a try before deciding whether the extra age merits more than twice the price.

92 proof.

A- / $180 / irishdistillers.ie