Whiskey. What do you think of when you hear the word? It has a surprising number of connotations. It could be Scotch whisky (no “e”), which is what I think of when I hear it. It could be Irish or Canadian whiskey. Or Bourbon whiskey, made with at least 51% corn. Or Tennessee whiskey (your Jack Daniels).
Our home whisk(e)y collection is heavy on Scotch and Bourbon, and light on everything else. The Saturday before St. Patrick’s Day, the wine & liquor store where I used to work was having an in-store Irish whiskey tasting. In-store tastings are a fantastic way to taste a few things to find one you like before committing to an entire bottle. Whisk(e)y isn’t cheap (well, good whiskey isn’t cheap, and cheap whiskey isn’t worth drinking). If I’m going to spend $40-60 on something, I’d like to know in advance that I like it.
The four whiskeys on offer were Redbreast 12-year, Jameson Black Barrel, John Powers Gold Label, and Green Spot. All four are distilled by the same company, Irish Distillers, which is a subsidiary of Pernod-Ricard (a beverage conglomerate that owns a stunning number of brands). I’ll discuss them below in the order I liked them, not the order in which we tasted them.
I outright disliked this whiskey. It’s very harsh and scratchy on one’s throat. It’s not at all what I look for in a sipping whiskey. If I’m drinking something neat, or even on the rocks, it needs to slide like silk down my throat. This does not.
I would, however, like to try it in a cocktail sometime. They have a recipe on their website for a Powers Punch: Powers whiskey, fresh lemon juice, tea syrup, and soda water. That sounds refreshing and rather delicious. Next time I’m at a bar that has John Powers, I’ll be requesting this.
The John Powers Gold Label is 43.2 percent ABV (alcohol by volume, translating to 86 proof). It’s a blend of pot still distillate and grain whiskey. I don’t know what the ratio of distillate to grain is, but it’s too high for my palate. The grain whiskey is what gives this the scratchy roughness. (A pot still refers to the shape of the still used for distillation. A column still is the other variety.)
The description of this whiskey on the John Powers website makes it sound heavenly – cinnamon, nutmeg, orchard fruits, vanilla, and toasted oak. I didn’t taste any of that. All I tasted was burn. No thank you.
Jameson Black Barrel
Jameson is arguably the most famous brand of Irish whiskey. My sole previous Jameson experience was at a management lunch meeting many years ago when the boss-man ordered everyone at the table a Jameson, neat after lunch because one of our number had a head cold, and boss-man thought that we should all have a whiskey in solidarity. The rest of the afternoon back at the office was a little rough, let me tell you.
The Black Barrel was good. Not great, but good. It’s a triple-distilled mix of pot still and grain whiskies, with an ABV of 40 percent. Again, it’s not as smooth as I like my whiskey to be. Maybe I’m just too used to the excellent single malt Scotch we like so much. I definitely detected a fruitiness to this one up front, but there wasn’t much finish to speak of, and I just couldn’t get excited about it. (If you want to read another take from someone else who couldn’t get excited about it, check out this post by the Whiskey Obsessive, which I came across during my research.)
As an aside, the person who wrote the description of Jameson Black Barrel for their website should be fired. It’s like it was written by five different people who never coordinated with one another, and then their individual efforts were just thrown up onto the site. It’s basically Terrible Marketing 101.
Things I like about Green Spot: it’s a single-pot still whiskey (none of that pesky grain alcohol mixed in), and it has a sweetness on the nose reminiscent of Bourbon (because it’s aged in new and re-used Bourbon casks).
What I didn’t like so much is that it’s, well, green. (Not in color, in flavor. Though I suppose some jackass in a bar somewhere has ruined it by dyeing it green for St. Patrick’s Day.) The whiskey is non-age statement, which means that what’s in the bottle has not been aged for any particular length of time. If you’re drinking a 12-year-old whiskey, you can be assured it’s been aged for at least 12 years. Green Spot combines whiskies aged from between 7 and 10 years. Those are young, in the world of whiskey. Hence the greenness of flavor.
That said, it’s not at all a bad-tasting whiskey. It has pleasant fruitiness and spice, and a decently long finish. At 40 percent ABV, it’s fairly standard in the world of Irish whiskey. If the tasting had ended with Green Spot, I would have happily bought a bottle to take home. However, the evening’s winner was yet to be tasted.
Redbreast is the one we bought and took home with us. It was far and away the smoothest of the bunch. It had a silkiness to it the others were decidedly lacking, and a downright delightful finish that lingered on the palate and continued to open up with spice flavors and vanilla notes.
Redbreast is 40 percent ABV and is aged in Oloroso Sherry casks. It felt balanced and elegant. We drank some on St. Patrick’s Day, after our wonderful meal of corned beef and cabbage, and it was the perfect digestif.
I still prefer my single malts from Islay, but if I’m feeling particularly Irish, Redbreast is my new drink of choice.
P.S. I wrote this post before I found out that this Friday, March 27 is International Whisk(e)y Day. How’s that for timing? (Btw, don’t be confused if you click that link – they’re not honoring THE Michael Jackson, the one everyone thinks of when they hear that name. They’re honoring a whisky writer named Michael Jackson.)
*If you want a little history lesson on the actual Whiskey Rebellion, click here.