It’s a known fact that maturation and finishing in wood lends whiskies the bulk of their flavor and nuance. Aging techniques and materials lead to tremendous variation—some of which circumnavigates tradition and while others deliver something so distinct that they become an industry first. Since the start of February, two new products have debuted that are as culturally relevant as they are tasty. Suntory’s Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2016 follows up the brand’s Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013, which only last year won the title of best whisky in the world. Midleton Distillery (best known for producing Jameson) brought Dair Ghaelach to the American market this week—and it is the first Irish whiskey in the States to be finished in hogsheads crafted from Irish oak in over a century. Spanish sherry casks and virgin Irish oak hogsheads stand on the opposite end of the wood spectrum: one imparting spice, the other a vanilla nuttiness. Both are limited edition products, and both come with a good story.
How does a brand follow up a whisky release that received resounding top honors from some of the best critics and connoisseurs? Suntory did not take a traditional course. In fact, they’ve produced a whisky designed for the tenured drinker. Mike Miyamoto, Suntory’s Global Ambassador (who has been with the brand since the ’70s) explains to CH, “The award on the 2013 really surprised us—we were never seeking out awards.” More than the acclaim, Miyamoto says consumer response piqued their interest, and the requests for more Sherry Cask products led to the 2016 release.
“The [base spirit of the] 2016 is the same as the 2013, but the whisky is two years older,” Miyamoto continues. “Our Master Blender made the liquid for the first run, but we only packaged some of it. We returned the leftover spirit to the original casks and aged them further.” For the bottling of the 2016, the Master Blender “wanted to make sure 2016 was even better than 2013, not only in age but also the spirit itself. He added 25-year-old Yamazaki Sherry Cask to top up the spirit. Altogether, It’s a very big whisky, for the whisky-lover.” Suntory has been working with Spanish sherry casks since 1924 and their knowledge of its power is second to none. The result is a cultural amalgamation: the full and defining impact of Spanish sherry casks on Japanese developments in single malt whisky production which they adopted from the Scottish almost a century ago.
Of course, taste carries great importance. “Generally speaking, people prefer the sweet stuff,” Miyamoto explains. “But this is an overwhelming single malt. A sip does a good job for all, but for people who do not know how to drink whisky, much of the nuance will be lost. This is a goal for whisky drinkers to work toward.” We agree. The spirit noses of cinnamon, cloves and raisins. It’s 96 proof, something common with Suntory whiskies, but when the alcohol dissipates the sherry’s impact is felt full-force. Much like with the nose, there are dried fruits spices on the palate and an almost sour, very lengthy finish. It’s both more robust and more acidic than its 2013 sibling. This is not a whisky for everyone, but its a fascinating and distinct introduction to one of the strongest portfolios out there.
Whereas Suntory’s story is one of three cultures uniting in one decidedly Japanese spirit, Midleton’s is the opposite. It is a unified Irish force and the milestone here is a return to Irish aging. Dair Ghaelach was envisioned over eight years ago. Midleton Distillery’s Master of Maturation, Kevin O’Gorman, explains to CH, “One thing I was keen on working on was Irish oak. I began investigating with two prerequisites: it had to be done sustainably and we needed to produce an outstanding whiskey.” O’Gorman reached out to Patrick Purser (an Irish forestry consultant) and they spent months digging into the past, present and future.
“The history of Irish oak is intriguing itself,” he says. “If you go back hundreds of years, Ireland was covered with hardwoods. We have a number of native trees in Ireland and one of them is oak. Over time, for various reasons, there was a lot of harvesting.” Over the course of a few hundred years, almost all oak was decimated. “After WWI, records show that forest cover went down to 1% in Ireland,” he adds. But then, the government starting investing in forestry. Today, 11% of Ireland is covered in trees and it’s only getting better. As O’Gorman makes clear, “With this growth, we knew we were in a position to start this process, sustainably.”
Purser took O’Gorman to Grinsell’s Wood on Ballaghtobin Estate in County Kilkenny, just south of Dublin. They selected 10 trees from the 120-acre estate. The wood was harvested and staves were hewn. After 15 months, they were turned into 48 hogsheads (just larger than American barrels) and given a medium char. O’Gorman took whiskey that had been aged between 15 to 22 years in refill American bourbon barrels and placed it into the Irish oak for 10 months. Virgin oak imparts tremendous flavor, where as refill barrels do so less. This was the balance Midleton was seeking to strike: let the Irish wood speak. Every bottle can be traced back to the tree that lent it its wood. And for each tree Midleton harvested, 10 more were planted.
“This is estate number one,” O’Gorman explains. “The second release will be from a different farm and farmer, all with the same transparency and sustainability.” Every limited edition batch will be slightly different, and will vary between the two native oak species in Ireland. This particular batch noses of honey and coffeecake. It’s mellow and sweet, with only a touch of single pot still spice. In one’s mouth, there is caramel, butterscotch, a bit of apple and something decidedly woody—not vanilla oakiness but real wood. It’s been bottled at 58.2% (also on the higher end of the spectrum) and like the Suntory there’s no chill filtration or color added. For Irish whiskey lovers, it is sure to please.
Suntory images courtesy of Beam Suntory, Midleton images by Cool Hunting