Review: Midleton Very Rare Elevates Irish Whiskey to New Heights

The category’s premiumization is high cost, high reward

Midleton’s Master Distiller Kevin O’Gorman and his new bottle of Midleton Very Rare 2021
Midleton’s Master Distiller Kevin O’Gorman and his new bottle of Midleton Very Rare 2021

What we’re drinking: Midleton Very Rare 2021

Where it’s from: Midleton is part of Irish Distillers, an Irish whiskey subsidiary of Pernod Ricard that also includes Jameson, Powers, Redbreast and more. The original Midleton distillery dates back to 1825; a new location was opened in the mid-1970s.

Why we’re drinking it: According to the Distilled Spirits Council, U.S. consumer interest in high-end Irish Whiskey category is surging; since 2002, premium and super premium Irish whiskey grew at 1,007 percent and 8,728 percent, respectively. Basically, whiskey drinkers are now looking for more complex, interesting, hard-to-find and, yes, expensive Irish whiskies.

“The demand for premium and ultra-premium Irish whiskey has been off the charts,” says Midleton’s Master Distiller Kevin O’Gorman, who estimates that in his time in the industry (starting in the late ‘90s), he’s seen the number of Irish whiskey distilleries grow from three to nearly 40. “And there were even dramatic increases even in the last half of last year. There’s a thirst for premium.” 

Interestingly for such a relatively recent surge, this is actually the 38th release of this purposely high-end, limited-edition expression. The 2021 edition is the first one overseen by new O’Gorman (previous distiller Brian Nation left to head to Minnesota).

The wooden case for the Midleton Very Rare 2021
The wooden case for the Midleton Very Rare 2021

How it tastes

Very Rare, as the name implies, is hand selected each year “from a small inventory of exceptionally performing casks” that are set aside especially for this annual release (and that’s out of 1.7 million casks, according to Midleton Distillery’s new Blender Dierdre O’Carroll).

This year’s release, as in past years, is a unique merger of traditional single pot still and single grain Irish whiskeys. You’ll get the spicy and fruity notes from the former, with the floral and wood elements accentuated from the latter. That said, “I didn’t want this to be wood or oak driven,” explains O’Gorman. “I wanted it to be multi-layered.” 

For the 2021 release, the whiskey ranges in age between 15 and 36 years — note that there’s no age statement on the bottle — and it’s matured in lightly charred ex-bourbon American oak barrels. The grain whiskey was also given a little more play in the final product than in previous releases.

On the nose, I picked up some floral and fruity notes (banana and kiwi), but fudge, toffee and vanilla were wonderfully prevalent. From there, a first sip coated the mouth with creamy butterscotch and vanilla, with a little dried fruit and some melon arriving in further sips. Baking spices rounded out the finish.

Surprisingly for such a rare and limited release, Very Rare features a conventional 40% ABV. This is important: even adding a bit of water, I thought, upset the near-perfect balance of this delicate whiskey. Sure, it highlighted some citrus and nutty elements, but it watered down the overall experience. Drink this as intended, on its own.

Fun fact:  If you want to try to the real pinnacle of premium, Midleton also releases a few dozen bottles in their Silent Distillery range. Their recent Chapter Two release is a 45-year old peated single malt that hails from the now-shuttered Old Midleton Distillery (which closed in 1975). It’s Ireland’s oldest whiskey collection, and it costs $45,000 per bottle. 

Where to buy it: Midleton Very Rare 2021 is available starting this month for around $220 at various local stores.


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