Fifty years ago, Houston oilman and Assistant Secretary to the Navy, Mark Edwin Andrews bought an Irish castle with his architect wife; they brought it back to life. Along with the collector's item real estate, rare barrels of triple distilled Irish whiskey were also available for sale; he bought those too. Around that time a law was passed that all Bourbon had to be aged in new charred oak barrels, resulting in an excess of once-used vessels. All of these events stacked together made for an award-winning formula. The result? Triple distilled single malt Irish whiskey aged in bourbon barrels. Andrews and son, also Mark, named it Knappogue Castle and now they enjoy the distinction of being one of the most awarded single malts in the world.
Last night, Reserve 101 hosted independent spirits expert Phillip Duff and Knappogue Castle for a history lesson on Irish whiskey as well as a tour of the Knappogue line. From Mexico to Sweden, single malt whiskey continues to pop up across the world, emphasizing just how popular the spirit has become. So with all the variety out there, why dip into the Irish stills? For one, because it's the original, and two, it's silky-smooth.
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Though the Irish have had a rough-and-tumble time over the years dealing with British regulations, Prohibition and overall market demand changes; for the most part, before the twentieth century they ran a monopoly on the spirit. Yes, thanks to the Irish and their innovation of distillation, the process has hippity-hopped and tood-ely-doo'ed across continents, sparking a whole new world as far as booze-making goes.
"Irish single malt is a rare thing. Normally in any other category you'd be better off starting with a blend, but Knappogue triple distilled is made to show their subtle, intense flavors; an excellent introduction without the punishment," Duff explains. While an intro into Rye or Mezcal might have you reeling from the spice and smoke respectively; tasting the top o' the Irish line is pretty much smooth sailing.
The more distillations a spirit undergoes, the cleaner and refined the flavor becomes. Whereas Scotch single malts typically only double distill, as well as incorporate peat in the beginning stages; Irish single malts are mostly squeaky clean. For the Knappogue Castle line, distilling three times is key. After the final distillation while the whiskey is drained from the copper pot still, the beginning (head) and ending (tail) are discarded, leaving the polished "center cut" to be aged accordingly.
Their introductory single malt is aged 12 years in bourbon barrels and has aromas of stone fruit and light custard. The 14-year single malt is finished in Oloroso sherry casks for the last two years; these aromas are a deeper butterscotch, and the flavor has a slight presence of tannins and nuttiness. The 16-year single malt, also aged in bourbon barrels, is finished in the same sherry casks for 21 months. The quality is evident in all three, but it's the 1951, 36-year Sherry Cask Aged Single Malt that, well, let's just say it goes for $700 a shot at Reserve 101. This bottle turns heads for the flavor and the fact that it's extremely hard to obtain. There are currently fewer than 1,000 bottles left in the world.
In past years, due to demand and consistency, Knappogue Castle decided to move its entire operation to Old Bushmills distillery, the oldest distillery in the world, and also located in Northern Ireland. Duff says to keep a look out for the 21-year special release; "it's literally on a boat to the U.S. now." He hasn't tried it yet, but reported that "everyone who's tasted has said it's amazing." Can't wait.