This is a fabulous Irish Whiskey. I wanted to get that out of the way up front before I blather on about peripheral things. Those who have read prior reviews I've done may know that I like to review whiskey in the context of where I was or who I was drinking with and describe it within a story. Those who prefer technical tasting notes can certainly find that information on the internet so I don't try to replicate "expert" opinions or those with more nuanced taste.
This review will be a little different from previous due to COVID and the lack of shared stories over the past year. For the past decade, we have had Whiskey Live Dublin to look forward to around year end. This has presented the opportunity to get together with both producers and consumers of Irish Whiskey in one setting for a few days. Producers often time their big releases for this event (think Yellow and Red Spot in years past). It also typically coincides with the year end holidays so I've found I tend to accumulate some new and/or impressive bottles. Without ability to travel or a Whiskey Live in Dublin for 2020 plans had to be altered. Instead of spending money on airfare and hotels, funds were redirected to acquiring Irish Whiskey not available in the USA. Improvisation at its best!
One aspect of the Thanksgiving thru New Year's time frame I really enjoy is kicking back with more premium whiskies that you would save for special occasions. With that in mind I had put in online orders early to make sure bottles arrived in time given the huge volume of package deliveries and resulting delays amidst COVID. One of these was the Athru Keshcorran single malt from the Lough Gill distillery.
I had my eyes on this for some time. It is a limited release by a new distillery but not available in the USA. It is targeted to the premium end of the market as its $138 price tag shows. At first glance some might say, "Oh, another sourced Irish Whiskey, why spend the money." What drew me back to this release was the unusual cask finish (more on this in a minute). Coupled with my open wallet policy for year end 2020, I was willing to spend another $60 shipping and take a chance that this would satisfy my special quality, special occasion criteria. I was not disappointed.
The Lough Gill distillery began producing single malt whiskey in 2019 on an estate in County Sligo. The distillery and its three copper pot stills were designed by Italian company Frilli. The distillery is located on the banks of the Lough Gill which means bright or white lake in Gaelic. I have not had the pleasure of visiting the distillery yet; however, I have been to Sligo several times (it makes a great base for playing some of the best golf links in the area). The area was also made famous in the writings of WB Yeats who spend childhood years there. Those who have visited the area as tourist such as myself may have seen the Yeats statue and gravesite.
Being one of the new distilleries to open in Ireland the last few years, this is a sourced whiskey and part of a premium program they have launched. The idea is part of a trilogy which will see 9 single malt releases of varying cask finishes. One goal with these releases is to establish the Athru brand name as one of premium quality while their own spirit ages. The program is being overseen by Billy Walker of Scotch fame and former Global Distiller of the Year in 2015. In Gaelic, Athru means change, alter, shift or transform. Seems fitting as the distillery works with a base single malt with varying cask finishes.
The subject of this review is the third release in the first trilogy. The idea of the trilogy is to celebrate Irish history and Celtic mythology. The first two releases, Annacoona and Knocknarea, were finished in different sherry casks. Keshcorran, the third release, was very unique having a finish in Hungarian Tokaji wine casks. All three releases are 14 year old single malts and tell a different story about Irish culture. Keshcorran tells the story of King Cormac the famous medieval Wolf King and shapeshifter. Keshcorran is named after caves located in Sligo and celebrates the "shapeshifting" qualities of the whiskey influenced from the Tokaji desert wine finish.
The packaging of the Keshcorran is beautiful. The squat bottle is fairly unique with a large cork and cool label design featuring silver and gold coloring and Celtic imagery. The bottle comes in a premium box made to look like a first edition book. When opened, the inside jacket tells the aforementioned story of King Cormac.
Not to be outdone, the quality of the whiskey lives up to the presentation package. With all the new distilleries currently trying to distinguish themselves with limited available aged whiskey inventory, a multitude of different cask finishes have emerged the past few years. This has led to more than a dozen different wine finishes along with peat, rum, tequila, and even seaweed! This innovation has led to some great new flavor profiles but can also in some cases mask weakness in young or underwhelming base spirit. That is certainly not the case with the Keshcorran single malt as the quality of the spirit shines.
The Keshcorran is a 14 year single malt aged for 12 years in American Oak then finished for 2 years in Tokaji wine casks. Only 6,600 bottles were released at an abv of 48%. Cask strength releases have gained in popularity over the past couple of years. At 48%, this falls in between the typical 40% releases dominating the market and the higher end cask strengths in the 55% range. Based on multiple explorations, I think they hit this one just right. The sweet spot has enough abv to satisfy cask strength aficionados while still being very approachable for everyday drinkers.
Now about that Hungarian wine finish. I am a casual wine drinker at best and what I know about whiskey I make up for with my lack of knowledge about wine. However, as I previously mentioned the initial appeal for me was the Tokaji wine finish which I felt set it apart from many of the other more typical wine finishes being released to market by the various new distilleries. Having now done some post purchase research, I know that Tokaji (Toe-kay) is a world famous wine from Hungary that apparently became less well known in recent times during Communist regime. Tokaji is a desert wine known for its harmony between sweetness and acidity. The production method sometimes referred to as noble rot allows fungus to form on the grapes bringing out a honey and nutty flavor quality along with the sweetness.
The nose starts subtle then develops into mild fruit and honey scents. This whiskey does not smack you in the face like some. It builds but remains delicate. Warm on the tongue with a nice amount of modest spice. I expected super sweet and fruity but that was not the case. I was getting more honey and nutty. I thought I might be missing something but felt somewhat reassured when I read about the noble rot process with the grapes and the nuttiness it imparts along with the sweetness. Those used to "fruit bombs" or "peat monsters" with their single malts might be skeptical. Instead this is very elegant, lighter character single malt.
If I had to summarize with one word I might use "Balance". This whiskey achieves real nice equilibrium. You are not hit in the face with overt "frutiness" or alcohol. The Tokaji finish definitely brings an added quality to those familiar with superb caliber un-finished bourbon cask single malts of similar age. The sweetness is delicate along with a great nutty flavor and rewarding finish. This is a great sipping whiskey for quiet reflection or special occasions. Like many great things, there is limited quantity. Also, you cannot purchase it in the USA. Fortunately you can acquire it from online retailers for USA delivery. The price with shipping may be a likely obstacle but for those who do avail you will be rewarded. Smaller 50ml sample sets of all 3 first trilogy single malt releases can be purchased from the distillery but not delivered stateside. If you see it in an Ireland pub, don't be afraid to partake particulary for fans of well made single malts.
Find out more about this release and the Lough Gill distillery here.