Cooley has a good name in the very-limited Irish whiskey market. Standing for independence and craftsmanship against the stolid industrialism of its sole competitor Irish Distillers1, its banner has been flown fervently by whiskey lovers everywhere and held up as proof of a new dawn in the venerable Irish whiskey tradition.
Unfortunately for those of us who value this type of craftsmanship in the face of adversity, Cooley hasn’t really been standing out in the news lately. IDL’s resurrection of the Green Spot (and now Yellow Spot) single-pot-still whiskeys, and its wild success with the similar Redbreast (which I adore), along with several noteworthy and prize-winning special releases have dimmed the Cooley spotlight. Alas, my experience with a bottle of Concannon Irish Whiskey (distilled at Cooley) has not reinforced my positive opinion of the company.
Concannon is a “blend” of whiskey aged at least 4 years inside ex-bourbon barrels, where some of that whisky was aged a further four months (or so) in barrels that previously held Concannon California Petite Syrah red wine. These barrels had been shipped from California to Ireland. ‘Blend’ in this case refers to a combination of Cooley single-malt Irish Whiskey with column-still grain whiskey. This makes it closer in style to scotch blended whiskey, since the typical blended Irish whiskey (such as Jameson, Powers, or Paddy’s) is a blend of single-pot-still whiskey (like Redbreast) with column-still grain whiskey. The price is certainly right: I picked up my bottle for $19.
Nose: Mildly winey, with sour red raspberries, red grape skins, and an unfortunate waft of antiseptic. Minimum nose tickle. Under the sour fruits is a layer of soft cereal grains and vanilla cake frosting. Overall, the aroma is inoffensive, but not outstanding.
Palate: Thin, watery body. Somewhat more burn than I’d expect from a 40% ABV product. Wine influence is not apparent. Vaguely grain-like. Bland.
Finish: Medium-length. Warming, but thin. A hint of the red grape skins returns, and a bit of vanilla oakiness, which fades, leaving very little bitterness from the barrel – a plus.
With Water: Usually it’s not a good idea to add water to a 40% ABV dram. Here, it adds some very mild florals to the nose, but washes out what little flavor there was. On the upside, it becomes particularly “smooth” (whatever that means) and easy to drink. A bland cocktail, but much better than some cheap whiskeys that get far worse with water. Worth a try with water for experimentation’s sake.
Overall: It seems odd to me to take a measure of substandard Cooley whiskey and make the effort to age it in wine barrels. I have to wonder if this was an attempt to save some particularly uninteresting barrels of whiskey? The underlying spirit here is far less interesting than Tyrconnell and Connemara (which are admittedly single-malts), and even the Trader Joe’s Single Malt Irish Whiskey. The conclusion I have to reach here is that Cooley’s 4 year-old blended whiskey (or at least some portion of it) is not worthy of much attention. The syrah barrels do serve to elevate it somewhat – particularly on the nose – but are not able to mask the blandness of the whiskey. Perhaps more time in-barrel or a larger proportion of the wine-barrel-aged liquid in the vat would have made it more successful. One can certainly enjoy this straight, which makes it a little better than bottom-shelf Irish blends. If nothing else, this is a very inexpensive way to get some vaguely interesting Irish whiskey.
1: Technically, Bushmills (owned by Diageo) is also competition.