Category Archives: Misc World Whiskey

It’s St. Patrick’s Day Soon, That Must Mean It’s Time For Irish Whiskies

Far be it for me to be clever and decide to review something else this week. Nope, Scotch & Ice Cream has had a gaping hole in its content in the form of Irish whiskies.

I’ll confess, I’m not normally a fan of Irish whiskies – I’ve had very few that do anything for me. Sure, Bushmills is OK; Midleton Very Rare isn’t bad either, but there’s never been anything that really makes me sit up and say “this is really for me!”

However, as a predictable slave to the calendar, I decided to visit a few that I had sitting around before St. Pat’s and see if there was anything worth recommending. Today’s choices are all low-cost, standard offerings that should be easily available (less one).

The Market Leader

I’ll admit: I’ve never had Jameson. I didn’t really know what to expect. My first guess was bland, syrupy sweetness — you can’t sell that much whiskey with a disagreeable taste!

The nose was thin and piney and had a bit of acetone initially. There was a little honey but it got overrun by the overwhelming Pine-Sol aromas. Hiding out behind the cleaning products was a little grass and grain. Not a good start. The palate was very thin, slightly bitter and sour. Light honey continued from the nose, but the pine and resin notes were really strong and overwhelmed everything. There was a bit of gentle heat. The finish was predictably short with some cinnamon and vanilla, but those grassy and piney notes continued.  There was a little graininess as well.

Unfortunately for me this one scores very low. The piney, resinous, cleaning product note just overwhelmed everything for me and fouled the taste. Combined with some bitter wood notes, it had me grimacing and wincing like a bad western. I didn’t find it any better with ice, with water, or in a hot toddy – they all focused it on the note I could not deal with. This may not be as bad to some (LAWS scores it higher than I do) but for me this is a near total non-starter.

The Old Familiar

Bushmills is an old but somewhat forgotten whiskey for me. It was a mainstay of hot toddys in college when sore throats kicked up. It was great in that role – but I wouldn’t rate my college-era palate as particularly discriminating. The question was how this would hold up to the memory.

The nose is expectedly watery, with some honey, a slight sour apple note and a fair amount of maltiness. The palate was light and watery; heat built with a touch of pepper. Some maltiness, a little honey and some general grain. This was offset slightly by a bit of sour apple flavors and a slight bit of wood bitterness. The finish was again quite fast with some gentle heat, honey and malt. There was a bit of earthy dry grain that dried out to bitter wood.

Overall, Bushmills is OK. It’s more watery than I remember. The sour note wasn’t objectionable like the stuff that killed Jameson for me, but this is a totally OK and safe choice if you want to be as predictable as me this weekend and have some Irish whiskey.

 Actual Ice Cream Content:
I’ve had ice cream made with Bushmills and honey and it’s a nice treat. The maltiness is perfect and it has a good if generic “whiskey” flavor. The honey does a lot to cut the sour notes I mentioned so this is a fun treat. You can find the recipe we used here and I’d say it’s worth it when things get warm. 

The Store Brand

I had received a sample of Trader Joe’s Single Malt Irish Whiskey from the Cooley distillery courtesy my friend Sku in a recent sample swap. This seemed like a reasonable point to try it. Now, a note – the Jameson and Bushmills standard offerings are blended whiskies consisting of malts and grains. The TJ’s is a single malt so there’s bound to be some difference. But how different?

The nose is light and malty with a hint of new leather, but not in the overbearing way some Islays can betray. Slightly lemony and grainy, but with a little dried fruit and floral top notes to balance it out. Already, much better. The whiskey had a nice medium body with strong malt notes and a bit of lemon as well as some biscuity flavors. It’s earthy and oily, but not in a way you’d expect out of an Islay. The finish had some heat – cinnamon and pepper with a touch of chili oil at the end. Malt dominates again but the biscuit notes are more assertive. There’s a little shiso and mint on the tail end of the finish.

I was really pleasantly surprised by this one. I expected being a store-label brand that it’d be a complete dog. Instead, I found something with good earthy, oily, industrial funkiness but well-balanced and tempered by the malty notes. It’s very approachable. It’s also impressive that a store would put their name on something that probably isn’t going to be for everyone. The word is the price on this is $20 and I think at that price it’s a no-brainer.

So, unfortunately I don’t think the best option is one you’ll find out in a bar. So go out, celebrate in whatever manner you find appropriate, and then swing by TJ’s on the way home to pick up some of their single malt. Of the inexpensive options I’ve looked at here, it’s by far the best.

At a glance:

Jameson 40% ABV
Thin and piney with a bit of acetone up front. A bit of honey but it’s overrun by the pine-sol vibe. A little grassy and grainy. 
Very thin on the palate; slightly bitter and sour. Lightly honeyed; the pine and resin notes are quite strong. Gentle heat throughout. 
Short finish, a bit of cinnamon and vanilla. The grassy and piney notes are still present; it’s lightly grainy. Relatively quick finish. 
The finish resolves to a reasonably OK sweetness, but that kind of harsh piney resinous note up front is hard to overcome. That note also takes a bit of woodiness and almost gets medicinal for me. Ice focuses the palate even tighter on the piney and resin notes. This one is not for me – too much wincing, grimacing and shuddering like I was drinking rotgut in a bad western. Even objectionable to me in a hot toddy.

Bushmills 40% ABV
Watery with a little honey, a slightly sour apple note, a fair amount of maltiness.
Light and watery in the mouth, heat slowly building with a touch of pepper. Some maltiness, a touch of honey, and a bit of general graininess. Slight apple sourness to it as well. A slight bit of wood bitterness.
Quite fast, with some gentle heat, a bit of honey and some maltiness. A little bit of slightly earthy dry grain. Dries out to slightly bitter wood.
It’s blandly OK. I think it’s a bit watery; the sour note isn’t bad but not altogether welcome. Still, you can do a lot worse. 

Trader Joe’s Single Malt Irish Whiskey (Cooley) 40% ABV
Nose:  Light and malty with a hint of new leather (in a completely non-Islay way). Slightly lemony. A bit grainy with a very slight floral top note. A little dried fruit. 
Nice medium body. Malt heavy, lightly lemony, slightly biscuity. This is a bit earthy and oily as well (again, in a distinctly non-Islay fashion). 
A bit of alcohol heat – cinnamon and pepper with a touch of chili oil. Malt heavy, a little biscuity; some faint notes of shiso and mint. 
This is a really interesting whisky. It’s got some of that earthy, oily, industrial funkiness of my favorite Islays but it’s done in this restrained, approachable style. It’s set against a good, hearty maltiness and it just works. At the price it’s a no-brainer. 

The Beauty of Bad

A couple days ago, David Driscoll of K&L Wines wrote an interesting blog post about people taking risks in their wine buying habits. He was talking about it from the perspective of a fear of a bad purchasing decision. But he hit on something in his last line that really resonated with me and my tastes in general, and not strictly in relation to whiskey:

It’s ok to end up with a bad bottle now and again. It’s the understanding of the bad ones that make the good ones so good.

I believe this completely, but I think you can remove “bottle” from that and replace it with “experience” and it works the same. Earlier this year I read Brené brown’s book, The Gifts of Imperfection. In a broader discussion about the tendency some people have to try and lessen the sting of negative emotions, Brown stated that numbing the lows also numbs us to emotional highs. That’s stuck with me since I read it.

Never was it more apparent to me how true that was than when our son went into the NICU a few days after being born. I can still remember hearing over the phone at 1 AM my wife’s voice and how shaky she was when she told me. As a brand new parent this was terrifying. We got acquainted with celebrating every small victory in the NICU and the baby steps (pun not intended) that we had to take to get out. Believe me, in the midst of that uncertainty, every little coo and bit of contact was the most electrifying jolt of emotion. (Actually, it still is… )

I love having the occasional whiskey that’s been ranked as terrible. I look for the ones where people use the strongest, most negative language they can, because I know that’s truly testing for the bottom. I feel like people through lack of experience or a desire to appear like they only enjoy the finer things, limit their palate and can’t truly appreciate the nuance of their truly excellent drink. I’m not saying they can’t pull it apart and tease out what’s great about it, but I question how much they truly appreciate it. I feel like some of the more adventurous may even try a couple “bad” drinks and safely retreat to their George T Stagg or Brora, having had a safe experience on the bad side of the tracks.

There’s a movie parallel I like to use in explaining safe-bad versus truly bad. A lot of people accept the idea that Plan 9 From Outer Space is the worst movie ever made. And it’s bad, for sure. But have you seen Manos: The Hands of Fate? It’s a completely different experience and will recalibrate the low end of your scale. I’m sure there are movies even less redeemable than Manos (it’s quite well known as being really bad at this point), but it stands as a marker of how truly bad things can get. It’s the worst movie I’ve ever seen by a mile and makes Plan 9 look brilliant. I’m advocating hunting down the Manos experience instead of the Plan 9.

In the spirit of truly bad, I’m going to touch on a couple of the very worst I’ve had. For me these are fun to read and write because they demand a deeper level of conviction to convey how awesomely bad they are. I love reading peoples’ notes on these because it encourages people who would normally rate as “good” or “bad” to dig deeper and put words to the horrid tastes they’re experiencing. To see that person apply the same discipline applied to good and great (and average) subsequently is always fun.

Loch Dhu 10 year – The Black Whiskey

Loch Don't

This is the Plan 9 of whiskies. A terrible idea executed poorly. You see, a fair number of whiskies use a caramel coloring to get a deeper brown color, which taps into some latent perception of deeper color meaning a more robust, developed, aged whiskey. Fortunately, Mannochmore released Loch Dhu, which proves that dark color doesn’t mean great taste.

The nose was strongly spirity, slightly raisiny, had a salty soy-sauce smell, was stale, and had a bit of brown sugar as well. Not awful, but nothing to seek out. The palate is bland and spirity. It’s murky, flabby, a little sherried, slightly sweet. There’s not much to note because it’s just there. It’s light in the mouth and not particularly warm. It finishes flat, with some raisins again and wet cardboard. It’s also got a slightly astringent, slightly woody, slightly bitter element to the finish which doesn’t wreck it but doesn’t help.

It’s not good, but as I’ve said, this is Plan 9 bad. There’s far worse whiskies out there, and it’s just not worth your time except as a mandatory stop on the bad whiskey curiosity trail. It looks bad, smells bad, and just doesn’t have anything happening for it. D+.

Usuikyou Vintage 1983 Japanese Single Malt Whisky

The Japanese are making some really great whiskies these days. I think Suntory Yamazaki 12 and Yamazaki 18 are worth the money and are great values for the dollar. Nikka has produced some great whiskies also (which I think may be getting broader distribution in the US if I read correctly recently). It’s a category that is worth exploring and I encourage you to seek out Japanese whiskies as they present an excellent “third style” to complement Scottish and American whiskies.

Usuikyou is not one of them. Fortunately, you probably won’t find this one. Even if you did, you wouldn’t want to have a bottle of this on hand. This is weapons-grade awful. The nose featured enticing aromas like burning garbage, mildew, wet cardboard, a massive dose of leather (actually, more like pleather), and had this rubbery new plastic scent, or vinyl that hasn’t degassed. It is incredibly chemical. The palate does not improve: Ashes, that new plastic toy scent, a metallic tang like sucking on a tin can, rubbery notes again, complemented by a weird cloying sweetness. The finish is new plastic, pleather, new leather, a really poorly integrated vanilla note, and ashy metallic garbage. It’s also an eternally long finish. Like twelve hours long: I still had this stuff wrecking my palate at morning coffee. It’s horrible.

And yet, I can’t give this my lowest grade in the book. It’s right on the cusp, I’ll be fair. It is amazingly chemical in taste, but the weird vinyl/plastic note started to remind me of some of the toys I had in the 80s. In a weird way that association saved it from being an F because I could find something redeeming about it. However, it’s a terrible beverage and would be worse as a potpourri. D-.

Bowmore 21 (bottled circa 1996)

Mid-90s Bowmore is a contentious point. At some point I’ll discuss an interesting Bowmore that represents a debated element of the “house style” in the 90s. However, I have to be honest that of all the whiskies I’ve had, this particular bottle of Bowmore is the worst.

The nose is revolting. My tasting notes say it simply: “Rotting garbage and farts, feet and a bit of wood.” I assure you there is nothing even slightly exaggerated about this. I looked for something – anything – else. There was only garbage, farts and feet. With a little wood.

The palate was not much better. (Yes, despite the notes I have, I still thought the palate was better than the nose.) I described it as “Feet and vomit, dead rotting animals, and dry wood.” Why I prefer vomit covered rotting animals, I don’t know. But apparently it is slightly better. The finish, blessedly short, was dry with strong spirity alcohol notes. Not as awful as what preceded it, but it still has that feet & farts smell.

While I devoted more time to the Usuikyou which probably should be on the bottom of the list, the Bowmore was just more than I could deal with. The garbage notes were just painful, and it just smelled like a bad day at the fraternity house. I seriously thought at one point I might have to puke because it was so instantly and sharply offensive. Fortunately the Bowmore had a short finish. Still, I enter it into the books as an F.

A Toast To The Worst

Take the opportunity to try something awful. And while it’s probably going to be unpleasant, really grab the experience and try and describe it as much as possible. It’ll help you understand what it is you don’t like. It’ll deepen your appreciation for what you do like. And when you go back to the great things you like? You’ll love them even more. (And try to figure out what it is you like about them!)

At a glance:

Loch Dhu 10 year 40% ABV
 Strong spirit, hint of raisins, salty kind of soy-sauce smell, stale, vaguely leathery, low grade sherry note? A little brown sugar on the nose.
Palate:  Spirit and not much else. murky, flabby, kind of sherried, kind of sweet, doesn’t really have notes as much as it just sits there. Light mouthfeel, semi-warm.
Finish:  Flat, wet cardboard, raisins, earthy. Kind of sweet too, lacking vitality. Mildly astringent, kind of woody bitter but not strong – just perceptible.
Comment: It’s not good, but it’s Plan 9 bad. There are far worse whiskies out there (looking at you, Usuikyou) but this is not worth the time aside from a mandatory stop on the bad whiskey curiosity trail. It looks awful, smells funky and just is muddy and indistinct.
Rating: D+

Usuikyou Vintage 1983 Japanese Single Malt Whisky 64% ABV
Burning garbage, mildew, wet cardboard, rubbery, new plastic, vinyl that hasn’t degassed, neoprene, massive note of leather, incredibly chemical.
Palate: Ashes, new plastic, weird cloying sweetness, metallic tang, and rubbery.
New plastic, pleather, new leather, poorly integrated vanilla note, metallic, ashy, garbage. Eternally long finish.
NOT GOOD. Became amazingly chemical. Repulsive yet reminded me of many toys from the 80s. In a weird way that association saved it from being an F. It’s really terrible as a beverage. It’d also suck as potpourri.

Bowmore 21 year (ca. 1996 bottling) 43% ABV
Rotting garbage and farts, feet, wood.
Palate: Feet and vomit, dead rotting animals, dry wood.
Dry, alcohol, not as awful; feet & farts.