It's always interesting to talk rye and Irish whiskey with customers in the store because I'd say at least 25% of the time these folks are completely shell-shocked by what I have to tell them:
"Yes, Bulleit rye, Templeton rye, Dickel rye, High West rye, Redemption rye, Lost Republic rye, James E. Pepper rye and a number of others are all technically the same whiskies."
"Sir, are you OK?"
"What do you mean they're the same?"
It's not that they're literally the same whiskey, it's just that all those brands source their rye from the same distillery: Indiana's MGP facility. They're all made the same way, they're probably all relatively the same age, and they're all created with the same recipe, it's just that they're blended differently. Some of them are at different proofs and some of them are smaller batches than others. Of course, this is old news to many of you. Generally, I try to talk about the way a whiskey tastes by starting with where it was made. We can then talk about the recipe, the production methods, and the way those factors affect the ultimate flavor. In the case of the brands listed above, they were all distilled in the same place.
"But they all taste different from one another!"
Yes, they do. Just like the Buffalo Trace and Eagle Rare Bourbons taste different from one another even though they're technically the same whiskies, too. It's amazing what happens when you blend whiskies in different ways! While all of the above-mentioned rye whiskies are owned by different brands, there's often carryover within single distilleries as companies look to expand their equity within the market. Look at Heaven Hill as an example. They must have over 200 different Bourbon labels in the market even though most of those expressions are just different versions of the same whiskey: Elijah Craig, Henry McKenna, Evan Williams, etc. The ages may vary, the batches may be different in size, but ultimately you're working with the same product.
The Irish whiskey shelf at K&L is particularly entertaining to talk about because just about everything we have comes from two distilleries: West Cork and Midleton. There's Bushmills, of course, but we stopped carrying the brand after they were purchased by Jose Cuervo. There's Cooley as well, now owned by Beam-Suntory, which makes the Tyrconnell and Coonemara expressions. West Cork is an independent, but tough brand to categorize because some of their whiskies are self-distilled, but others were married together with whiskey purchased from either Cooley or Bushmills. Midleton, however, is not only Ireland's premiere whiskey distillery, it has what I think might be the most impressive line-up of single distillery whiskey expressions in the entire world. You wanna talk about variety in depth, price points, flavor profiles, and character; Midleton has it in spades and it's a feat made even more impressive by the fact that its whiskey is one of the mellowest and most straightforward in the business. It's easy to showcase variety when you can use peat as a flavor modifier, but Midleton does just about everything with two types of distillation and various types of wood. Let's take a walk through some of their brands, shall we? I need a little catch-up myself!
The story of Midleton is a bit like DDL in Guyana where the El Dorado rums are made. There used to be a number of distilleries down there, like Uitvlugt and Enmore, but those facilities were closed and their equipment was eventually consolidated in the Diamond distillery where all the rums are made today. In the case of Midleton, it was back in 1966 that the Powers, Jameson, and Cork distilleries decided to merge together into what would become Irish Distillers. The various distilleries decided to consolidate into one homebase (Midleton in County Cork was chosen as it had the most space) and closed their separate operations. Today the facility pumps out a serious amount of booze on three column stills and three pot stills, kind of like having a grain distillery and a malt distillery all in one place. The company, owned by Pernod-Ricard, has numerous brands that are all in essence just different versions of the same whiskies: Jameson (of course), Redbreast, Paddy, Powers, Green Spot, Yellow Spot, and the eponymous Midleton. But while they're all made in one building, they're all quite different in flavor. I'll break it down as fast as I can.
The big difference between Midleton's Irish whiskey and the other Irish distillates mentioned above is that Midleton does not produce a single malt. Bushmills, Cooley, and West Cork, on the other hand, do have whiskies made from 100% malted barley just like in Scotland. The tradition of using unmalted barley in the pot still recipe dates back to a British-imposed tax in the 18th century that raised the tariff on malted barley. The Irish being the Irish (I can say that because I'm Irish) decided to switch to unmalted barley for their whiskey-making needs in response and told the British exactly what they could do with their tax. Today a mix of both malted and unmalted barley is used in the mash for their pot-distilled whiskies, while an unmalted grain recipe is run through the column stills to create the grain expression. From what I've been told, however, Midleton doesn't use just a single recipe for their pot-distilled whiskies, but rather a few different variations that switch up the ratio of malted/unmalted in order to create different profiles within that singular style (much like a Bourbon distillery can play with the ratio of corn to rye, or visa versa).
When we talk about the difference between blended Scotch and single malt Scotch, the difference is easy: blended Scotch combines both grain and single malt whiskies, while single malt simply stands alone. Since Midleton doesn't produce a single malt, its blends are a combination of grain whisky and the pure pot still recipe in various ages, recipes, and ratios. All of the Jameson whiskies are blends of this type, as is the Paddy and the Midleton Rare edition. The Powers, Redbreast, Green/Yellow Spot, and some of the higher end Midleton releases like the Barry Crockett and the Daer Ghaelach are made from combinations of only the pure pot still whiskies. So while all of these whiskies do indeed come from one distillery and technically are made with the same components, they all vary just a bit in their age, their blending, and the ratio of their recipe. The Redbreast 12 is technically the same whiskey as the Yellow Spot 12, as both are 12 year old pot still editions; although the mash bill of malted to unmalted barley may vary. The big difference is that the Yellow Spot uses a combination of Bourbon, Sherry, and Malaga casks for maturation. The Powers 12 year old is technically the same whiskey as well. Aged in both Bourbon and Sherry casks, it's basically just an older version of Green Spot. The same; but different.
The cask treatment is ultimately the biggest demarcation between the various Midleton editions. For example, in the Redwood City store we currently have the standard Jameson, as well as the Jameson "Caskmates" aged in beer barrels, along with the Jameson Cooper's Croze that uses virgin oak, seasoned Bourbon casks, and ex-sherry butts in a combination. I had actually never tasted the Cooper's Croze until this past week and I was very, very impressed. The richness and the weight of the whiskey is a huge step up from the standard Jameson editions and it offers an incredible depth of oak and spice. The Midleton Barry Crockett is aged in both new and used American oak barrels, while the Daer Ghaelach is finished in Irish oak called Grinsell's wood. In all honesty (and I don't say this lightly), the Daer Ghaeloch is not only the best Irish whiskey I've ever had (in terms of complexity and the "wow" factor), it's also one of the best whiskies I've tasted in the last few years on the whole. Aged between 15-22 years in ex-Bourbon casks before spending a year in the native wood, the whisky runs the full gambit of sweet, spicy, oaky, savory, creamy, and decadent. It's an absolute party from the nose to the finish.
When budding Irish whiskey enthusiasts discover that Redbreast is just Jameson, and that Green Spot is Jameson, and that Powers is also Jameson, and that ultimately Midleton is also just a fancy version of Jameson, they often turn a bit somber. There's this part of us that wants to believe the Irish whiskey world is this big cornucopia of small distilleries with dozens of producers and loads of variety. Learning that 90% of our selection is mostly the same thing can be a bit deflating. But the fact that all of these fantastic brands are all made in the same place from the same whiskies shouldn't deter you. I've never been someone who compares origin to origin. For example, I don't think a single cask of Macallan from an independent bottler is the same as the branded Macallan, nor do I think you can look at any whiskey's inherent quality simply by where it was made. After learning the logistics of our rye selection, people inevitably say things like:
"Well if the Bulleit and the Redemption ryes are the same whiskies, then I should just get the cheaper one."
They may be the same, but they don't taste the same. Flavor is ultimately what we're after, right? Not just provenance? The variety of flavor that Midleton distillery is able to offer is in my opinion unparalleled by any other whiskey distillery in the world. You're definitely not just paying for the same thing in a different bottle. You're getting a serious spectrum of style and sophistication. I still think regular old Jameson hits the spot after a cold beer at the pub. I'm planning to buy a bottle of the Daer Ghaelach on the other hand for a special occasion with friends. I could destroy a bottle of the Redbreast 12 with a few buddies over the course of a summer evening, whereas I might sip on the Yellow Spot over the course of an entire winter. Of course, with St. Paddy's Day coming up you'll have to choose which Midleton fits the bill for you. They may all be from the same distillery, but they're not quite the same in the end.