Review: Irish Whiskey From a Bordeaux Barrel Is a Very Good Thing
An American-owned Irish whiskey tests out an experimental wine cask series
Irish whiskey is the fastest growing spirit category in the world.
There are good reasons behind that: It’s a smoother entry point for new whiskey drinkers who may be put off by the smokiness of (an admittedly small subset of) Scotch or the spiciness of rye. It’s great in cocktails, plays well with bourbon drinkers, and the growing number of distilleries (just a few years back there were four, now there are more than 20) means more competition, and therefore more experimentation.
In other words, it’s a category that’s finding its footing again after a century-long lull, and brands are starting to push some boundaries.
One brand to watch is Knappogue Castle (pronounced Nah’ Pogue, roughly translating to “hill of the kiss” in Gaelic), a single-malt Irish whiskey, meaning it’s 100% malted barley hailing from one distillery — an interesting distinction in a category that’s roughly 80% blended whiskey. It’s tripled distilled in copper pot stills and, with one exception, not chill filtered.
The backstory here is fascinating, as it’s basically an American tale transplanted to the Emerald Isle: in 1966, Texas oilman Mark Edwin Andrews purchased a 15th-century castle in County Clare, Ireland, immediately launching into a large-scale renovation with his wife. At the same time, Andrews was also buying casks of pot-still whiskey from around the country, then further aging it and bottling it under what is now the Knappogue Castle label (a bottling of a 1951 vintage aged in sherry casks for 36 years is a much sought-after item, and apparently a favorite of Daniel Craig).
Today, Knappogue Castle is run by the founder’s son, Mark Andrews, III, and run under the Castle Brands Inc. umbrella, which also includes Jefferson’s bourbon and Gosling’s rum. The company underwent a rebranding a few years back with new bottles, and more recently started releasing limited edition bottles in different casks.
Recently, brand manager Jon Dubin came into the InsideHook offices to offer up a tasting of Knappogue Castle’s core line, along with the just-released 12 Years Old Château Pichon Baron.
The 12 Year: Aged in first-fill ex-bourbon barrels for 12 years. Nice vanilla notes here, some peppery spice, very smooth at 86 proof. This is the only KC whiskey that is chill filtered (essentially for aesthetics). An “entry level” Irish whiskey, this is either your bottle for bourbon lovers who want something new, or to use as a base for a cocktail (an Old Fashioned would work well here).
The 14 Year: At 92 proof, this is certainly more robust. More flavorful, too: the extra two years in ex-bourbon barrels combined with whiskey aged 14 years in Oloroso sherry casks (at an 80-20 ratio) makes this sweeter and fruiter, with a dry finish. It’s also a one-time Irish Whiskey of the Year. Your evaluation of this will depend entirely on whether you like sherry.
The 16 Year: Back at 86 proof, the difference here is a 14-year whiskey aged in ex-bourbon barrels is then additionally aged in Oloroso sherry asks for an additional few years. The sherry here is more prominent, and the taste is certainly more complex. If you’re a Macallan fan, this is a great whiskey when you feel like switching from Scotch.
The 12 Years Old Château Pichon Baron Finish: Part of a Cask Finish Series that also includes Marsala and Barolo wine cask expressions. These are limited-edition releases — fewer than 1,100 bottles have made it to the U.S. The spirit spends 12 years in ex-bourbon barrels, then an additional 10 months in Pichon barrels from Bordeaux.
You’ll get a lot of berry notes here. It has a sweet, light and juicy taste, while the finish is more the traditional oakey/vanilla/spice profile you’d expect. Overall, it’s a smooth sipper, and promising enough that Knappogue is looking into working with other vineyards.
You can buy a bottle of the 12 Year Chateau Pichon Baron here.