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Thursday, March 17, 2016

A West Cork Trinity (or three whiskies) on St. Patrick's Day

Over the next few years we're going to start seeing a lot of new Irish distilleries trying to maneuver their way into the market.  One new distillery that beat the rest of them to the shelves is West Cork.  West Cork fired up their stills in 2003, then moved to a larger location in 2013.  And according to some sources, they've now hired the famous former Springbank master distiller, Frank McHardy.  They only distill grains indigenous to Ireland: barley and wheat.  Thus no corn in their grain whiskey.  They use only local natural spring water and they even malt some of their barley on site.  For more information on West Cork Distillers, see their official site, as well as these two posts courtesy of K&L Wines.

Since I fell for Irish whiskey before Scotch whisky, I'm always on the look out for more good stuff from √Čire.  Many thanks to Jennifer Oakley of Kentfield Marketing Group LLC for these three samples.  So, yes, Warning: I didn't pay for these samples.

West Cork Blended Whiskey, 40%abv

Color -- Curiously this is the palest of the three.

Nose -- A fruit bomb.  Apples, apricots, a small note of banana, and strawberry Bubble Yum.  A steady vanilla note hovers above a hint of plaster (something I often find in Irish blends).  It's slightly floral at first, but grows much more so with time.  Violets, perhaps?

Palate -- Very very peppery at first.  In fact it takes a while before I can find anything else.  Then comes the brown sugar, caramel sauce, and Red Hots candies.  After some time a bold fresh ginger note appears.  The texture is pretty thin, despite the absence of chill-filtration.  Overall it's sort of reminiscent of a young Scotch grain whisky.

Finish -- Similar to the palate.  Lots of brown sugar, ginger, and pepper.  It grows bitterer and sweeter with time.

The palate was so very different from the nose that it took awhile for me to figure out what I was tasting.  Had the palate matched the nose, I would happily recommend this.  As it is, it's certainly better than Bushmills White Label, though that's not saying much.  I don't think it can stand up to Middleton's blends, but it can easily replace any of the Cooley-based blends.  While it sounds like I'm damning this one with faint praise, the ability to match established brands so quickly is impressive.  But I'm still sticking to my usual Middleton blends for now.  ($20-$30)
Rating -- 77

West Cork "The Pogues" Blended Whiskey, 50%malt/50%grain, 40%abv

As if Shane Macgowan needed more whiskey, West Cork partnered with The Pogues to get a little name recognition to sell this high malt blend.  Apparently, Frank McHardy was already involved with this one.

Color -- And this, curiously, is the darkest of the three by far.

Nose -- Wheat, barley, yeast.  Irish soda bread.  Burlap.  It's simple but very pleasant.  Not much oak getting in the way.  Smaller notes of flowers, strawberry candy, and maple syrup develop over time.

Palate -- It has the pepper note of the other blend, but here it's more under control.  It's less sugary than that one as well.  The lead notes are almonds, vanilla, ginger, and caramel.  Some citrus around the edges.  A light bitterness.  Maybe even some pie crust here and there.

Finish -- Toasty and lightly nutty.  A little bit of citrus tang, meets sweet & salty caramel, and ginger.

A definite step up from the regular blend and *SPOILER* my favorite of these three whiskies.  While the palate is different in character than the nose again, with much more oak showing, it's a very easy drink and all its parts work together.  This one can certainly tangle with most of the Irish blends on the market.  Good on ya, West Cork & Co. ($30-$45)
Rating -- 81

West Cork 10 year old Single Malt, 40%abv

Though West Cork started distilling 12+ years ago, when they released this single malt they elected to marry their whiskey with that of another distillery; due to the characteristics I'm finding, my guess is Cooley.  In Scotland, this would be a blended malt.  But apparently, even though this whiskey uses single malts from two distilleries they can still call it a single malt in Ireland.

Color -- Right between the other two, a light gold.

Nose -- Lots of banana!  Overripe banana, baked banana, banana candy.  Then cassia cinnamon, mint, and honey.  Then lemon candy, classic Old Spice, and Now & Later candies.  With time it gets a little grassy.

Palate -- Very similar to the nose, though thankfully a little lighter on the banana.  There's caramel, marzipan, malt, and a hint of pepper.  It's somewhat rummy overall, but then develops a small meaty note after 20+ minutes in the glass.

Finish -- A pleasant lingering pepper and ginger bite.  Not at all sweet.  Some tart limes.  The meaty note in the palate becomes a bit of a funky mouldering note in the finish.

I'm not a fan of banana notes in whiskey and this is the banana-est whiskey I've ever experienced.  The late off-notes in the palate and finish are off-putting as well.  That being said, this is the least sweet of the three, which works in its favor.  The palate is mostly well balanced.  I have a feeling this will appeal to other people more than it does to me. ($30-$40)
Rating -- 73 (fans of banana notes will like this much more than I)

As mentioned, the winner was "The Pogues" blend.  I knew it immediately, as it was nice and bready on the nose, while showing perk and balance in the mouth.  The prices on all three of these whiskies are very reasonable for such a small distillery.  The regular blend and the single malt are priced competitively.  Unless you hoard Pogues memorabilia, I wouldn't recommend paying $40+ for that blend.  But if you find it in the $30s and you actually like Irish blends and my notes sound appealing, then I'd recommend it.  In any case, I look forward to the future when West Cork puts out a single malt that's 100% its own.