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'Notice the aroma': How to tell if you're sipping a truly great whiskey, according to an expert

We asked Derek King of Powers Irish Whiskey for his take on what makes a standout whiskey.

Image: IDL

NEAT, ON THE rocks, in a cocktail… Whatever way it’s enjoyed, there’s no denying that whiskey has become a favourite for a much wider variety of occasions in recent years.

The so-called “whiskey renaissance” looks set to continue for a long time to come, too. In 2020, global drinks industry analysts IWSR predicted a 33% growth in sales of Irish whiskey up until 2024. And with the Irish Whiskey Association reporting an “all-time high” for sales of the drink in 2021, those predictions seem to be coming true.

It’s a truly versatile drink, says Derek King, Global Brand Ambassador for Powers Irish Whiskey:

Sometimes there’s a misconception with whiskey that it has to be enjoyed a certain way, or that you have to know a lot about it to really get the most out of it. But there’s no one way to experience a great whiskey.

Similarly to wine, people’s tastes for whiskey tend to develop and evolve over time. You might get used to the flavour notes of whiskey by trying it in cocktails like an old fashioned or a whiskey sour, before moving on to trying it on its own.

From there, there’s a whole spectrum of whiskeys to suit everyone’s tastes, starting with more “approachable” options (King mentions Powers Gold Label as a popular selection among those just starting to sample the spirit by itself) and moving to deeper, more complex whiskeys.

Midleton Distillery in Co Cork is home to some of the world’s most well-known and successful whiskeys, including Powers, Jameson, Redbreast, Midleton Very Rare and more. Last year the distillery launched Barrel Club, a membership designed for new whiskey fans and aficionados alike. 

Members receive a personalised welcome box, exclusive whiskeys, early access to sales of new releases, a complimentary distillery visit, access to virtual tastings and – most impressively – a quarterly limited-edition whiskey consignment delivered straight to their doors. Each themed delivery contains a 700ml bottle and three 50ml samples.

But with so many great whiskeys out there, and such varied tastes among drinkers, what makes a real standout whiskey – and how can you tell when you’re sipping one? We asked King for his main criteria…

It starts with what you see and smell

idl-pic1 Source: IDL

Before you ever raise a glass of whiskey to your lips, your senses are already alert to a change in your surroundings, and they’re helping you process the experience, as King explains:

For me, the experience of savouring a great whiskey is broken into multiple parts: there’s the colour, then you’ll notice the aroma, then the mouthfeel and the finish. A really great whiskey experience happens when all of those elements marry together.

As you swirl your glass, tantalising aromas will hit your nose. And depending on the whiskey, that aroma can be vastly different: you might get earthy, woody notes, there might be a sweeter, honeyed scent, or you might get a wave of something deeper like coffee or cocoa beans. 

Then there’s the colour – which could be anything from golden, honeyed tones all the way to deep reddish-orange or topaz – and the way the whiskey moves and swirls in your glass. “The Powers family of whiskeys are known for their lovely body and viscosity, so you’ll see them beading on the inside of the glass, which is a great sign of a quality whiskey,” he says.

The atmosphere should be just right

With so many types of whiskey out there, and with tastes varying from person to person, selecting the “perfect” whiskey can be a tough task. But rather than thinking only about the drink itself, whiskey connoisseurs tend to think about the whole experience, and match their selection to the occasion. “It’s not about choosing one favourite,” says King.

A lighter, younger whiskey with floral notes (King suggests Powers Three Swallow here) could be a reliable option to have on hand for a night of lively chats and laughs with friends, when you want to serve up a crowd-pleasing tipple.

For special occasions, when you’re celebrating with loved ones, or simply savouring your drink by a cosy fire, you might want something more complex:

On evenings that call for a really cracking whiskey, I’ll go for an older, more complex single pot still variety of whiskey, for those earthy aromas and a light spice on the palette.

A bit of heritage helps too

panel-4-2-3-2 Source: IDL

It’s believed that the first Irish whiskey was distilled around the 12th century, so it’s a spirit that’s full of history. Digging a little into the heritage of the exact whiskey you’re sipping on is a fun exercise, and one that can help you to appreciate the level of skill that goes into every bottle.

Powers, for example, was the brainchild of innkeeper James Power, who dabbled in whiskey distilling when he wasn’t working his day job. By the early 1800s, production had moved to John’s Lane on Dublin’s Thomas Street – now home to the National College of Art and Design – and the distillery became a central part of the fabric of the inner city.

In the mid-1960s, Powers joined forces with John Jameson & Sons and the Cork Distillery Company to move production for all three companies to the town of Midleton, Co Cork. Today, Midleton Distillery is Ireland’s largest distillery, and is home to some of the world’s most well-known Irish whiskeys along and most experienced craftspeople.

A membership like Barrel Club Midleton Distillery is a chance to not only sample a wide range of whiskeys, but to gain a new appreciation for how the liquid is made, says Derek:

Barrel Club showcases the people of Midleton Distillery, people like our Master Distiller Kevin O’Gorman. He’s incredibly skilled and passionate and is just so interesting to listen to. It’s opportunities like this that make it a really special membership.

And if you’re sipping on a rare exclusive, all the better

unnamed-662-2-2-2 Power's John's Lane Cask Strength, part of Barrel Club's March drop. Source: IDL

Sometimes, you’ll encounter a whiskey that is undeniably special, one that has only been sampled by an exclusive few. One of those is the Cask Strength release of Powers John’s Lane, bottled exclusively for Barrel Club members, and arriving on their doorsteps this March.

“I might be biased but for me, John’s Lane is pure perfection,” says Derek. “The nose is one of the standouts, with dark chocolate and cocoa bean coming in there, in complete contrast to the cinnamon spice and hint of orange marmalade that sit so sweetly in the middle of the palette.”

While the temptation might be to keep a standout, exclusive bottle like this one under lock and key, King says that this is a whiskey to be enjoyed:

Yes, it’s a collector’s market, but the Barrel Club exclusives are drinkers’ whiskeys. Part of the fun is joining the virtual tastings and other events and sampling the whiskeys you’ve received, guided by the distillers, blenders and ambassadors from our distillery in Midleton.

Annual membership for Barrel Club Midleton Distillery retails at €499, including shipping within the Republic of Ireland. Memberships are limited and the current sign-up window closes on January 31st. To find out more or sign up, visit barrelclubmidletondistillery.com.

Sponsored by:

Barrel Club Midleton Distillery

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