There’s nothing quite like enjoying a whiskey straight from the cask in the presence of the distiller, in the distilleries warehouses or a small rackhouse such as the one pictured. They’ll tell you how they have tried create something new, or traditional, or historical, or something true to their story. You’ll be drawn in and I will almost guarantee you that, even if the liquid is going straight for bottling at cask strength, it will never taste as good as it did in that moment, even if it wasn’t even that great. (Just to clarify, the dram pictured was beautiful).
The point I am trying to make is that ‘the experience’ has been a massive factor in my whiskey consumption over the past decade. It has helped me form some absolutely unchangeable opinions on drams throughout the years, full of bias and pretension, all based upon the experiences of distillery visits and exclusive tastings where I have found some new best friends, in Distillers, Blenders, Brand owners and Brand Ambassadors, even if they don’t know my name. So with all that in mind, I received the following 3 samples absolutely free-of-charge while on a visit to Killowen distillery to meet my ‘best friends’ Brendan, Liam and Shane.
I’ve let the initial excess of serotonin in my being, after this visit, subside in order to give as unbiased a review as I can. but, in all honesty as with all my reviews, the following is my opinion of these whiskeys calculated through my experience & knowledge gathered in the past 8 years working with whiskey.
Before I taste the whiskeys I’d like to give you an insight into the teams behind the 2 brands. Killowen Distillery was created by the Brendan Carty alongside friends Shane McCarthy and Liam Brogan who were already in the alcohol business through Ireland Craft Beverages. Brendan’s passion for Irish Whiskey is unrivalled, the Killowen distillery operates as distilleries would have centuries ago. Direct fire stills, wild fermentation, worm tubs, peating on-site and a squeezed tight little rackhouse that makes it another worldly experience.
Experimentation with pot still mash bills is what he is focused on, some adhering to the Technical file, reluctantly I might add, and others which explore higher percentages of Rye, oats and peated grains in general. His opposition to the technical file is no secret but I have explored that topic in detail here, so I won’t go down that road now. At the time of my visit he had filled his 67th cask with his own spirit which will give you an indication of the size of the operation. Although, I get the feeling that being a small craft distillery suits them right now, but if someone were to come along with a free £5-10million to pump in they may keep the operation the same just buy a lot more stills, fermenters, worm-tubs and increase production in that fashion. They certainly seem to have a go big or go home mind set. Any takers?
Now, Liam and Shane along with another colleague Donal McLynn are experts in all things export, they have been providing the Irish Craft beer industry with opportunity throughout the world for a number of years now and have built a brilliant reputation built on trust and integrity. They operate by purchasing the stock directly from the breweries, paying for it up front, and then making their commission by selling it on to their agreed distributors in markets all across the world. Having built a successful business in this way and through their involvement in Killowen they have seen an opportunity in the Irish whiskey sector for independently bottling with transparency at it’s core, and ‘voila’ we have Two Stacks Irish Whiskey.
Killowen and Two Stacks are brands which are independent from each other, although for many they will be tied together given their close proximity. So now that I’ve bored you entirely with personal opinion and no facts whatsoever, here’s what I thought of the whiskeys.
Killowen 10 Year Old Bonded Experimental Series Edition 4: Islay Influence 55.4%abv 700ml €90.00
As with previous releases in the Bonded Experimental Series from Killowen, this is made with the same Blend of components, shown on the back label (pictured above), which are combined then finished in the chosen cask. So the series explores the various cask influences on this cask strength blend. The chosen cask for this release previously held Peated Whisky from an Islay distillery.
- Nose: Initially sweet and fresh with a distinctly high abv but I wouldn’t call it aggressive. There’s candied lemon peel, apples, pears and smokey bacon Tayto crisps. The 2nd nose the peat starts to combine nicely with orange zests tones.
- Palate: On the first sip the peat is quite distinct, it’s got a certain dustiness and earthen notes. There’s orange oils, shortbread, vanilla, cardamon and there’s a malty herbaceous-ness. In the back palate there are roasted pine nuts and cooked fruits.
- Finish/Conclusion: Light smoke, toasted oak, vanilla and custard creams.
I’ve become a big fan of these peated influenced Irish Whiskeys. This balances a fantastic blend with subtle influences from the cask, there’s a superb balance of flavors, it’s another winner from Killowen.
Two Stacks The First Cut Blended Irish Whiskey 43%abv 700ml €46.00
They really have been as transparent as seemingly possible in this project, given that they have displayed their full component breakdown, both whiskeys have the same components, on the back label, with all components sourced from John Teelings, Great Northern Distillery:
Tastings notes for Two Stacks, The First Cut Blended Irish Whiskey 43%abv.
- Nose: Jumps out of the glass with floral, sweet grain spirit and touch of alcohol, pointing to it’s relative youth. There’s distinct vanilla and honeycomb with a gorgeous hint of smoke, like dry hay starting to smoke as it catches fire (not peat). There’s touches of malt, key lime pie and citrus peels.
- Palate: There’s significant texture which is apparent as soon as it hits your tongue, there’s another element of sooty sack cloth but it’s very refined. There’s a burst of buttered almond giving rounded sweetness, citrus peels, vanilla pod and candied pears. Spice and alcohol are present but don’t take away from the balance.
- Finish/Conclusion: There’s a dried nuttiness in the back palate, it’s got medium length with gorgeous lemon tart and charred white oak.
As with many of the independent whiskeys released in the past year from Great Northern Distillery this reiterates the quality of spirit being produced there. The quality of the blending has been successful in my opinion, at moments throughout the tasting experience you get the sweet youthful grain, there’s touches of malt spice, there’s smoke present and I can only guess that it’s the sherry matured Pot Still that gives the superb texture. Great whiskey at it’s price point.
Two Stacks The Blenders Cut Blended Irish Whiskey 65.15%abv 700ml €100.00
The exact same liquid as The First Cut bottled at cask strength of 65.5%abv. Not much more needed to explain than that:
- Nose: Not at all agressive, there’s vanilla, bourbon creams, apples and rich fruits. There’s a healthy amount of alcohol as you continue to nose but it doesn’t display the youth of the First Cut. The spice notes become more distinct with ginger snaps and rich clove.
- Palate: It’s a spice bomb with the texture just holding it back from being too aggressive. The sweetness shines again with caramel, coconut and slightly richer stewed fruits. There’s a chewiness to it, there’s sugar coated juicy fruits but with a rich undertone.
- Finish/Conclusion: It’s oily, spicy and full-flavoured, there’s a touch of smoke, rich and sweet with a wonderful caramelized nut texture.
It takes what The First Cut has an amplifies it, the touch of youth is the only thing that hold’s it back from being absolutely outstanding. You can get a lot for €100 in Ireland nowadays, would this be at the top of my personal list, probably not, but it’ll certainly satisfy any potential buyers as the score suggests.
All in all, Three solid releases and a great tasting experience, but the true heroes in both these projects are the people behind them. I’m a true believer in ‘People buy from people’, Brendan is fast becoming known for his passion, creativity and staunch stance on Pot Still whiskey, a disruptor, exactly what the industry needs to keep pushing forward. While Shane and Liam continue to support the wider Irish Drinks industry, provide contacts and support to other brands who are looking to get into new markets and are adding knowledge and experience which the smaller operators in the industry need.
I look forward to following them in the future.
As an aside, here’s some thoughts on ABV. 65.5%abv?? As a little nugget of info, the majority of spirit produced in Pot Stills in Ireland is filled into cask between 63.5-64.5%abv, So how can the abv end up higher? It wouldn’t be strange for the abv of a cask to raise in the US or places like Taiwan where the temperatures and humidity levels are much higher which causes the water element of the casks to evaporate raising the alcohol levels. High-end Cask Strength/ Barrel proof Bourbon products such as George T Stagg have incredibly high abv’s due to this.
There is another technique which can cause this as well. If you take a 1st-fill cask which hasn’t been dismantled and fill it with your spirit at times there are still significant amounts of alcohol stored in the grain of the wood, this is released when the cask is filled and can raise the abv of the cask as a whole. The effects can be more significant for ex-spirits casks but can happen in ex-wine casks also. In the early-mid 1900’s many of the sherry and port cask would still have had a few litres of wine in the cask when they were filled at a distillery which would have heightened the ABV as well.
Although most likely, it is much simpler than this, given that grain spirit in Ireland is sometimes filled into cask at a higher abv generally between 68-70%. And given this the Two Stacks products have 80% grain whiskey in the blend this would make sense.