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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Single Malt Report: Trader Joe's Irish Single Malt

When we lived in Maryland, I was disappointed to discover that their Trader Joe's (TJ's) grocers were not allowed to sell alcohol.  It was difficult to describe to Marylanders how agreeable TJ's booze pricing can be.  And I am not talking about Two Buck Chuck.  That doesn't count.

Now I'm back in Cali.  And TJ's now has a well-chosen selection of whiskies -- Dalwhinnie 15, Balvenie Doublewood, Glenfiddich 12 & 15, Macallan 10 Fine Oak, Laphroaig 10, etc.  They also have their own label of Scotch whisky, though the quality of those have been mixed at best.

This year, much to my (and many others') surprise, a Trader Joe's Irish Single Malt suddenly appeared on the shelves.  Somehow TJ's had successfully contracted with Cooley Distillery to bottle some of their 4-year-old juice under the store's label.  At a price of $19.99.

New whisky at that price is difficult to pass up.  In LA, $19.99 is less than two glasses of mid-shelf booze at a bar.  For a whole bottle of something new, an IRISH single malt no less...

It's half full!
Label: Trader Joes
Type: Single Malt
Region: Ireland (Louth)
Age: minimum 4 years
Maturation: "single use bourbon oak casks"
Alcohol by Volume: 40%

It was a bold move by TJ's to go with an Irish single malt, something not very familiar with the average drinker in The States.  And I use the word "was" because now that Beam Inc has taken over Cooley and announced that most of their independent contracts will not be renewed, we may not see this whiskey for much longer.

It's also a bold choice because the nose and palate of this whiskey is quite different than the usual Irish blend or Scotch single malt.  It's sorta its own soup.

Sku and the guys at L.A.W.S. gave this decent reviews.  And I'm going to agree with Sku, though the bottle says this is only matured in bourbon casks, there is undoubtedly sherry stuff in here.

At first sips, this one was a puzzler.  I couldn't get my mind around it.  But with some oxygen and time, it has improved and I've had better luck cracking the malt.

Color - light amber
Nose - sandy and/or dusty, teeny bit of smoke, smoky butter?, old notebook paper, winey tannins, hints of a sweet sherry and dried fruit
Palate - lots of cocoa, cloves, sweet malt, oak tannins, very drying
Finish - still very drying, mildly flat, cocoa

WITH WATER (near 33%ABV)
Nose - gets sugarier, some coconut oak stuff, starts to sniff more like a good blend
Palate - less cocoa but more vanilla, a little smoke, very oily and silky texture, still quite drying
Finish - goes weird here, a brief bitter vegetal vanilla puff

Though I don't recommend adding a few drips of water, this whiskey actually makes for a pretty good highball as the club soda brings out the palate's sweetness.

To be honest, I haven't been the biggest fan of Cooley's Irish single malts.  I do like the Knappogue Castle 12yr and the Tyrconnell finishes, but their Connemara bottlings and indie spinoffs have underwhelmed me.  This one sits somewhere in the middle.

On one hand: I won't go back for a second bottle of this TJ's malt.  It makes me yearn for Irish single pot stills.

On the other hand:  Some people are enjoying it quite a bit.  If you like the Cooley malts, then this may be your jam.  And at the price, it's a rarity and not much of a risk.

Availability - Trader Joe's
Pricing - $19.99
Rating - 75


  1. Nice review Mike. Feel free to come over with a few bottles, at your leisure.
    -anthony forrester

  2. To Anthony Forrester:

    How about a half bottle?

    We need to hang out.

    --Robert Griffin III

  3. I'm not entirely sure but Knappogue Castle 12 might be Bushmills. I do recall some years they've bottled Cooley single malt whiskey but the majority of the time it's Bushmills.

    1. Good point. John Hansell had some info about it here: http://www.whiskyadvocateblog.com/2009/05/07/knappogue-castle-distillery-origin-clarified/

      1951 - B. Daly Distillery (where Tullamore Dew was once made)
      1990-1992 - Cooley
      1993-5 - Bushmills
      15 year old non-vintage - Cooley

      But since the article is from four years ago, so no word on the 12 year non-vintage.

    2. Though I am seeing other sources saying the 12yr is via Bushmills too.

  4. Interesting. Trader Joe's now has a 23 year old Speyside single malt for 39.99! Not sure if it's any good but that price is amazing for the age. They also added a 15 year old Lowland that is obviously Auchentoshan. Even though they've filed off the serial numbers so to speak, the label states that the whisky came from a Lowland distillery founding in 1823.

    1. I did not know those hit the shelves, though I saw the labels approved by the TTB several months ago. I was just at a TJs eight days ago and didn't see them. From what I remember the Lowland's label also mentions triple distillation so I figured it was going to be an Auchie too. Here are links to the approved labels (including a 16yo Speysider):


    2. I just received the 23 year old Speyside as a gift, and it is fantastic. I'm planning on getting a few of these just in case they pull it off the shelves. It is instantly my new favorite, especially for the incredible price. I love the distinctiveness of the peat, not ridiculously smokey like a Laphraoig, just enough to be interesting.

    3. Hmm, peat in a Speysider. I wonder which distillery that's coming from. Wish the TJs out here carried that bottling, but we only have the 10yo Highlander.

  5. Eric and Michael Kravitz,
    Wow! You guys are good. I am new to whiskey tasting. Tonight, I bought a bottle of TJ's label Lowland Single Malt SW (aged 15 years.) I could not find any commentary on this bottle until looking at the Auchentoshan site, The tasting notes match up with the "classic" - though with no mention of aging. However, if this is truly a re-labeled Auchentoshan Classic, then I paid way too much! 39.99 Any ideas on this? I was looking at the reserve bottles, which match the tasting notes I am experiencing but not the "green apple" mentioned on the label (I am getting coffee along with vanilla/honey)

    1. Hey mlb, thanks for the comment!
      You may find it to be a bit different than the Auchentoshan Classic. The Classic is released by the company (Suntory) that owns the Auchentoshan distillery. It's younger whisky selected from hundreds of barrels (most of which are around 8 to 10 years old) by that official company. The TJs Lowland Single Malt is from one (or at most a few) barrels selected by an independent bottler, in this case Alexander Murray & Co. These barrels are at minimum 15 years old.

      What makes the Classic and the TJs version similar, aside from originating at the same distillery, is that the barrels involved were all likely former bourbon barrels, the whisky in the bottle was reduced from its original strength down to 40-43% ABV, and they're both light in character.

      Independent bottlers can be a mixed bag. Some of them pick amazing casks. Some pick casks that even the blenders won't select. Alexander Murray & Co. provides inexpensive bottlings for TJs and Costco. Some have been known to be decent, some not. They are cheaper than the official bottlings though.

      Ultimately, your palate is what's most important. I didn't care much for the TJs Irish Single Malt, but a lot of folks did like it. Some people like Auchentoshan's products, while others don't. It comes down what tastes good in your mouth when you drink it and if you're willing to pony up the $$$ to pay for it.

    2. And in my personal opinion, I hope the TJs single malts turn out to be good because their prices are excellent.

  6. Thanks!! So you think the 40.00 price is good for the potential quality? If I loved it, 40.00 would be okay for me (I've never paid more than 40 for whiskey though...). I would say I liked it...but 30.00 would have felt closer to the truth. It was a bit rough for me although I thoroughly enjoyed the taste and nose. Again, pardon me as a novice:)

    1. No prob! We can look at the $40 price tag a few ways. $40 is (unfortunately) the going rate for many non-age-statement single malts in this current market. $40 is a little above average for the pricing on the Classic, but that depends on which state you live in. Some states have it for $30-$35. Quality-wise, it gets a little blurry. Their distillation methods are pretty unique, so it creates a very specific sort of flavor. I do like the fact that the Classic is from all ex-bourbon barrels. Their (more expensive) Three Wood is too doctored up barrel-wise for me, but some people love it. $40 though, that's starting to get a little high. Unless you personally love the stuff!

      Figuring out how much a bottle of whisky is personally worth is something a lot of us have to do, especially with prices rising. For me if one can still get a bottle of Glenfiddich 12 or Tomatin 12 for $30 or less, that's still a good deal quality-wise. I'm not sure how many other single malts are still in that price range!