I have never understood the draw of the Midleton Very Rare Irish Whiskey. For $130, I always thought one could do better. It's mild, easy, mellow, and soft, just like blended whiskey is supposed to be, but aren't there fifty other whiskies that I could say that about for fifty dollars less? Nevertheless, I wanted to include the revered bottle in our upcoming Salon St. Paddy's Day party (which will be on March 17th - tickets coming soon!). It's still considered the standard for high-end Irish whiskey and, regardless of my own feelings, I knew people would be excited to try it. Since Tuesday was staff education day I decided to open a bottle for the K&L employees and get their opinion as well. I myself didn't have time to taste it then, but I did take a bit of the bottle home to try later – simply as a reminder and as part of my exercise to revisit certain products.
The Midleton Very Rare is made by Irish Distillers in Cork County, the same people behind Jameson, Paddy, and Redbreast, which has been part of the Pernod-Ricard portfolio since 1988. It's one of three distilleries in Ireland (four if you count Kilbeggan) along with Bushmills and Cooley. Bushmills was actually part of Irish Distillers back in the day. The group was founded in 1966 as a merger between Power, Jameson, and the Cork Distillery company. When Bushmills joined in 1972 it gave Irish Distillers complete control of the country's whiskey production. Cooley distillery became Ireland's third major distillery in 1987, bringing an independent party into the mix, and Diageo eventually purchased Bushmills in 2005, which officially ended the monopoly and divided up Ireland's whiskey producers among three separate companies. With Beam's purchase of Cooley at the end of 2011, all of Ireland's whiskey distilleries are now the property of foreign hands.
Midleton's Very Rare Irish Whiskey became an annual release in 1984 to celebrate the name of the town where the distillery is located. There is no age statement on the bottle and each release is somewhat different than the previous one. It's comprised of a special selection of casks ranging from twelve to twenty-five years of age – both Bourbon and Sherry barrels. Each release is labeled with the year it was bottled. That's a bit of history for you.
Last night I went out for sushi in the city with a friend. I got home at a quarter past ten and I was itching for a shot of something. I needed a hit. We had drunk a few beers at dinner, but I still needed a nightcap. I remembered the Midleton sample I had brought home and poured myself a wee taste. I know that I'm someone who is supposed to analyze whiskey critically, professionally, and in depth, but I'm going to divert from all of that for the sake of this review. At the late hour, with a stomach full of raw fish and rice, that glass of Midleton Irish was like velvet. It was a gentle elixir being poured down my esophagus on a bed made of butter. Context. It means everything when you're drinking. The right moment. The right time. The right frame of mind. The right expectations. I had that moment last night with this glass of Midleton. Then I had it with a second glass. We always talk about pairing alcohol with food, but what about pairing it to your state of mind?
I remember doing a private tasting in someone's home a few years back where we did a geographical tour of single malt whisky - a bunch of guys in a man cave getting drunk and I was their paid bartender. One guy planted himself at the bar and talked my ear off all night long. He kept saying, "Have you had the Midleton Very Rare? Now that is smooth!" Every whisky I poured wasn't as good as the Midleton, according to him. I remember being really annoyed and not wanting to like the Midleton simply because this man liked it so much. However, he was totally right. The first thing I noticed last night was neither the flavor profile, nor the weight of the whisky, but rather the way the whisky finished. It was really smooth. This whiskey is smooth in a way that few other whiskies are. What does smooth even mean? Smooth has to be the number one descriptor of liquor in the world, used by at least ten people every day on the K&L sales floor, but there is no official consensus on what it actually implies (hence why professional whisky writers avoid it).
I think most people substitute smooth for sweet, in that sweetness helps to mask the burn of alcohol. People call Macallan smooth because of the sherry influence. They think of Laphroaig as being not smooth because it's full of peat and doesn't finish with much richness. Texturally I think every whiskey is equally as smooth as the next, so it's more about masking the burn of alcohol than about the actual composition of the liquid. People think quality spirits shouldn't taste like gasoline and they're right! The question is: is it smooth because of added sweetness, from barrel maturation or added sugar, or is it smooth because of quality distillation?
What's my point? I'm starting to get sidetracked here. The point is that I never thought much of this whiskey. I thought it was overpriced and that it didn't offer much nuance in the way that single malt whisky does. It's a blended whiskey and blends are meant to be easy drinkers. However, something clicked with the Midleton last night. Something about the character of this whisky made me think of "smooth," in a way that I've never really considered. It's almost seamless, flowing, but I can't quite describe it actually and this quality intrigues me greatly. It's not sweet, so it's not simply the sugar speaking. It is triple distilled, but so is Auchentoshan and it doesn't taste this good. This is why you have to revisit whiskies. They can change on you. You can change on them. You also have to think about the moment. If I were to taste this whiskey at 3 PM in our tasting bar, in a flight of twenty other whiskies, I might not think too much of it. But last night the two of us shared a moment. I don't know if it was the influence of my Irish blood or the clan of O'Driscolls back in Cork County speaking to me through a bottle of hooch, but I'm in a new place with Midleton Very Rare Irish Whiskey.
Just in time for St. Patrick's Day.