The Whiskey Social Belfast

Originally published 05/11/2018

Whiskey events in Ireland have been pretty much Dublin centric for the last few years. Sorry, I'll rephrase that. If you wanted to attend a whiskey event in Ireland where you could get all the Irish brands under one roof as well as some of Scotland's and the US's finest you had one, single, solitary option – Whiskey Live in Dublin (which incidentally will be returning for its 8th time this year).

Unlike Scotland and England where barely a month goes by without a couple of whisky festivals or events, Ireland for all its talk of a renaissance has ONE annual whiskey event! Hard to believe really considering the interest of Irish whiskey and the proliferation of brands over the last few years. I say 'has' where in reality I should say 'had' because as of September 8th of this year Ireland has a second whiskey event in the form of The Whiskey Social.

Directed by Andy Ure, The Whisky Social came into being in 2016. Already with a background in events management, Andy decided to start his own event after years of attending others around the UK. Falkirk was chosen as host city so Andy could celebrate his home town's connection with the whisky industry which had been the location of Rosebank distillery.

When I asked Andy why they had chosen Belfast he stated that they had been looking for other cities to host The Whisky Social and while looking over a map Belfast caught their eye. Andy couldn't believe that a city of half a million people on an island whose whiskey industry was experiencing such growth didn't have its own whiskey festival! Thankfully he took the leap and The Whiskey Social Belfast was born.

Although a relatively small event with around 24 exhibitors on the day that was very much centred around Irish producers and brands there were still over 80 whiskies to chose from. Two masterclasses were also held. The morning session was Echlinville Distillery and the afternoon session was hosted by Buffalo Trace.

Of course a vessel was needed to allow attendees to enjoy the wares on offer. Typically a Glencairn would be the glassware of choice at such events but not so here. All attendees were given a branded Túath glass. Presently I'm still a bit on the fence about the Túath glass, perhaps I just need to use it more but I just find it a bit vague when nosing compared to the directness of a Glencairn.

Anyway, glass in hand it was time to taste. As has been highlighted here before events like these aren't really conducive to the full whisky appreciation that would be given if really deconstructing a whiskey at home. No these events allow you to taste a lot of whiskies and allow for first impressions to be made, good or bad.

As always in the way of Malt and in the interests of transparency I should tell you I was allowed to attend free of charge. Thanks to Andy & HarBro events for their generosity.

The Den of Disappointment

It stands to reason that not everything you try will float your boat but there were some that just stood out as being particularly uninteresting or just plain poor.

I'll start with Sadler's Peaky Blinder. Boring, bland, inoffensive and a whiskey that certainly didn't live up the billing given by its accompanying tasting notes card (interestingly a gold medal winner at the San Francisco World Spirits competition – another bought medal). To be fair that wasn't the part that troubled me though. When I asked the brand ambassador if they could give me any information on the product I was promptly pointed in the direction of the tasting notes marketing spiel and was informed by the rep that they knew no more than what was on the card. Word to the wise – if you send a person to represent your product it may be a good idea to make sure they actually know something about it... It's a whiskey show for frig sake, people ask questions and like to have them answered. I moved swiftly on from this stall and the spittoon was put straight into action.

Next up are the good folk at Hyde. On offer was the Hyde No.5 Áras Cask, a 6 year old single grain with a burgundy wine cask finish. If you like to choke on splinters then this is the whiskey for you. Too young and excessively oaked by the wine cask. No whiskey tokens will be spent on this one.

Slane were present with their triple cask blend who thankfully were very forthcoming about what’s in the bottle, a 60/40 blend of malt aged between 8-13 years and grain aged between 4-7 years matured in a combination of virgin oak, ex-bourbon and ex-oloroso casks and priced at £26 a bottle. Unfortunately, I just found this blend totally tepid, underwhelming, fleeting and about £10 too expensive. Much like The Silkie, this isn't the whiskey to judge Slane Distillery on though and excitingly they have just recently started laying down their own spirit. We just have to be patient and wait now.

The brand that incurs my full ire though is The Dead Rabbit. So all I knew about the Dead Rabbit blend before I tried it was that its 5 years old and it was pricey. As I nosed the sample the brand ambassador told me with a wry smile, 'it smells a lot like Bushmills, in fact, it tastes a lot like Bushmills too'. I asked the price and promptly choked at the reply...'£50'. That's right folks, £50 for a five year old Bushmills blend. Here's the thing about that: if I want to buy a 5 year old Bushmills blend I already can... it’s called Bushmills White Label and I can buy it for £15 (it's regularly on offer at this price) in my local supermarket or for £17 at the distillery. I couldn't care less if the Dead Rabbit was THE best bar in the world, never mind 16th in the world, or that they give free Irish coffees to Irish people when they arrive at the bar, the Dead Rabbit are literally robbing people by charging that kind of money. Do the right thing, guys: buy the original, tastier and cheaper Bushmills blend and leave the Dead Rabbit to the posturing fashionistas of Instagram.

Out of the Doldrums

In need of having my spirits lifted, I headed to the Pearse Lyons stall. I have to commend the lads at this stall for their enthusiasm. You literally weren’t allowed to leave the stall until you had tried the entire range and you had to do it in order! On offer were the Pearse Lyons Original blend, Distiller’s Choice blend, Founder’s Choice 12 year old single malt and Cooper’s Select blend. All these whiskies were non-chill filtered and natural colour which was great to see. Of the quartet, the Original and the Cooper’s Select were the two standouts.

The Original, ex-bourbon cask matured, was very clean, citrus-y and vibrant - excellent stuff from a young, relatively inexpensive blend and contains malt from Pearse Lyons own stills. The Cooper’s Select was matured for 4 years in ex-bourbon casks before receiving a further maturation of at least 4 years in first fill oloroso sherry butts. This sherry influence was clear to see but not overpowering. Notes of vanilla, orange peel, baking spice and leather in this one. Unfortunately, they didn’t have any of the recently released Pearse 5 year old single malt which I was looking forward to trying but alas that will have to wait for another time.

Over at Dingle, the new Batch 3 Single Malt was on offer along with their gin and vodka. Naturally I avoided the clear spirits and got stuck into the Malt. Mark has already reviewed the Batch 3 and gave it a decent 6 out of 10 which I also would probably go along with, it's getting there, but I think once we get an 8 year old Dingle we’ll start to see just how good it is.

Brand ambassador Dave Cummins had a little under the counter surprise though, the forthcoming Potstill Batch 2, once again fully matured in PX casks but aged for around 5 ½ years this time. The nose was lovely stuff, oily, sweet raisins, dark fruits, spice and some saltiness. However, like the Batch 1 Potstill I felt like the palate just has not fully formed and that a couple more years of maturation are needed. That being said this will again be just as sought after as the Batch 1 Potstill. Thanks to Dave for sharing his secret stash!

Echlinville had a good presence at Whiskey Social and they also provided the morning session Master Class which I didn’t attend, but by all accounts heard it was very good. I hadn’t really been blown away by the Dunville's releases prior to attending Whiskey Social. I thought the 10 year old VR single malt was okay but too pricey and I’m not a fan at all of the Three Crowns blend - for me lacking in flavour and much too expensive at £35 a bottle. As I told the guys at the stall, if you are going to release a blend and charge that kind of money it had very well topple Black Bush, Powers Gold or Jameson Crested and if it can’t then don’t bother releasing it.

I did try their Three Crowns Peated in trepidation. I wasn’t expecting much as this takes the standard Three Crowns blend and then adds a further maturation period in casks that previously held an ex-Islay whisky (no indications were given as to which brand it was). I was pleasantly surprised. That extra maturation just lifted the whole thing deriving extra sweetness and depth of flavour with just a light peat smoke; actually a decent introduction to peaty whiskey for those new to it. Its price point of around £45 again seems to me to be exorbitant.

Next on offer from Echlinville was the 12 year old VR PX finish which added a full extra 2 years of maturation in the PX casks over the 10 year old release and the difference was night and day. I actually struggled to find much PX influence on the 10 year old but it was very evident in the 12 year old. A much denser mouthfeel, with syrupy notes of raisins, figs and dates on both the nose and palate. A lovely, well-balanced whiskey, until we get to the price of £75 a bottle. As much as I liked it I just can’t see myself parting with that cash for a bottle. I informed the Echlinville team if it was priced at £50 - £55 then I probably would buy one but £75 was too much of a stretch, you are into Glendronach 18 territory at that price. In fact, I can buy fully sherry matured 12 year old offerings from Bushmills, Benriach and Glendronach for under £45 and I imagine the new Tamdhu 12 will be in around that figure too. I just feel that at this price Echlinville are pricing themselves out of repeat purchases.

Surprisingly, despite my forthrightness, I was furnished with a couple of under the table surprises. The first was their Port Mourant Rum Cask finish – triple distilled single malt aged for 15 years in ex-bourbon casks before 3 years in 40 year old rum casks and sitting around 57% abv… rum-soaked bread and butter pudding goodness. The release date hasn’t been set but again I imagine the price of £250 puts it out of most people’s budget.

Finally, I was given a sample of a 3 ½ year old pot still – the first pot still distilled in Northern Ireland for around 65 years since the closure of Comber distillery. Sitting around 63% and matured in 1st fill European Oak & Bourbon with a 2 week PX Cask finish this is hinting at good things to come from Echlinville with regard to their own spirit. Oily, spicy, slightly herbal it reminded me of the Dingle pot still first release. The good news is Echlinville were at pains to explain that this was only a snapshot of its development and that it will only be bottled when ready. As they are being patient with their own Malt (which recently hit the 5 year old mark) and not just rushing it out I imagine we will have to wait a few more years yet to see the finished article. Thanks to Jarlath, Minnie & the team for their time and not slapping me in my contrary face.

In the interests of brevity, other notable mentions go to the Teeling Stout Cask Finish Small Batch, a limited edition of 12,000 bottles (if that's really a limited edition) of the Small Batch blend finished for 6 months in barrels that held Galway Bay Brewery’s 200 Fathoms Imperial Stout. If you dig chocolate notes in your whiskey this could very well be right up your alley.

A pleasant surprise came in from the Quiet Man (cue gasps of surprise) in the form of the 12 Year Old Sherry Finish single malt which was in another league altogether from the car crash of the 12 Year Old Bourbon edition. Possessing more flavour with those nutty fruitcake notes from the sherry finish really coming through. Obviously decent casks used for the finish. But to trot out my by now very familiar line it’s too expensive at £60. There are just more engaging options available in the price range.

JJ Corry ‘The Gael’ from Chapelgate Whiskey was the first whiskey of the day I tried but lingered on in my mind all day. An absolute fruit bomb of a whiskey and a triumph of blending (in fact our own Justine awarded this a perfect 10 earlier this year). But what I really loved about this whiskey was its transparency. At the stall were little cards explaining how they were bringing back the lost art of whiskey bonding (no pretending to being distillers here) and also the constituents of the blend along with their individual percentages in the blend. Good stuff! I look forward to trying their future releases.

A Cut Above

Thanks for hanging in there, we're in the final furlong.

I didn’t spend much time at the Irish Distillers stall, mainly because I own most of what was on offer and if I didn’t already own it, I had tried it. The best brand ambassador beard award went to Joe Magowan, but only after he had let me try a 12 year Port matured pot still and an 18 year old Powers pot still matured in 1st fill bourbon barrels and bottled at 57%. A belter of a dram, thick, oily, dense and spicy with vanilla & citrus top notes I would have bought a bottle there and then if I could, but unfortunately these too were under the counter specials for the show. The stand out here and one of my top two whiskies at the show was Redbreast 21 year old however that deserves a review all of its own!

Most surprisingly for me, though, the other standout whiskey came from a bourbon stall; yes that’s right, Vanillatown. I had stumbled upon the Buffalo Trace stand. Adam and myself agree that for £20 you will are unlikely to find a better value drop than Buffalo Trace in your local supermarket, it’s really good stuff. But I wasn’t here for that. I chatted with brand ambassador George Roberts for at least half an hour as we worked through some of the offerings. The Sazerac Rye was okay, 1792 Small Batch was better and the Eagle Rare 10 year old was dependably excellent, but the star of the show for me was the Stagg Jr bottled at an impressive 65% and around 9 years old. Just an absolute flavour punch to the face of dark fruit, bitter cocoa, spice and yes, vanilla. I was told it was available in Belfast for £60-65. Again, if I could have bought it at the show I would have.

Time to Reflect

Does the Irish Whiskey Renaissance get me excited? I hate to be a naysayer, but not really. It’s absolutely cracking to see genuinely new whiskies coming out from Dingle and Eclinville, with Teeling and Pearse Lyons beginning to bottle their own wares also, the future looks good. The revival, like many of the new whiskies, is in its infancy and only time will tell just how good some of these whiskies will be and let their associated distilleries to express their individuality. Until then if you step outside of Bushmills & Midleton you are mostly getting Bushmills/Cooley/Midleton re-hashed, sometimes very poorly alongside being charged an excessive premium for the entry fee. I think the fact that a bourbon nearly stole the show at a forum dominated by Irish brands tells its own story.

As a whiskey show though I can only give it praise. Really well organised and ran by Andrew and his team, Barry, Billy and Mark who all worked tirelessly to ensure we all stayed hydrated. Adam will also be happy to know that the spittoons were well used too. Bar one stall, I couldn’t really fault the enthusiasm and engagement of the brand ambassadors, with pretty much all of them happy to answer or find answers to the pedantic questions I threw at them. Of course though it was the ‘social’ aspect that really was the standout. I thoroughly enjoyed the banter and craic with fellow enthusiasts and it was great to see the show so well supported.

The good news is that the event is confirmed again for next year, September 14th in fact. Hopefully, it will grow in size a little, with more representation from Scotland, England and further afield welcome. I for one am looking forward to it already.

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Comments from original post

  1. Taylor

    Excellent survey here Phil. I like your approach to the whisky show format- form first impressions to direct later detailed tasting. And yes, more generally: if a new distillery can’t release a product that is at least as good as the widely-available incumbent, then they’ve no business releasing it and certainly they have no business charging a premium for it! Looking forward to your next article!

  2. Jason

    Nice review phil. I completely agree. Much as i would love to buy local and support irish producers, i just feel that, outside the big players, we are just being charged for the label, and exclusivity factor. I know some people would be willing to pay the premium for that, but for me it’s all about taste plus the product having a real sense of place. For now Scotland still gets my £s.


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