Hot off the back of Belfast Whiskey Week 2021 (BWW), I thought it would be apt to introduce one of the most daring and traditional distilleries the island of Ireland has to offer. Having produced two different boxes and a festival bottling, not to mention seven sold-out experimental bottles over the last two years, Killowen, modest at heart but assertive in range and aptitude, continues to show that a distillery that self-proclaims cannot keep pace with the ‘big boys,’ can undoubtedly land a few bruising big blows.
Snuggled into the side of the inspiring setting of the Mourne mountains, Killowen Distillery is something you’d expect going back a few centuries. With its dilapidated shed, hand-beaten stills and infectiously enthusiastic distiller, Brendan, it’s an evocative, sensual overload that makes you appreciate the artistry of a traditional craft distillery. What’s refreshing about Killowen is they’re not afraid to break the mould or speak out against the frustrations of distilling. Most recently, during BWW, Brendan colourfully spoke out about the inability to be fully transparent on his labelling and the restrictions he faced as a distiller, a breath of fresh air for the avid whiskey drinkers amongst us.
That being said, Killowen is popular. Their fanbase, the “Killowen Kult”, boasts over 600 members, with their own merchandise and unique style of craic exchanged with Brendan. It’s unique, but the exchanges, total transparency and outpourings make it quite the following. And Killowen’s range is as diverse as their following; Killowen produces whiskey, rum, poitin, vodka, gin, coffee liqueurs and their own canned seltzers, to name a few, but their whiskey deserves a shout out: with oatmeal, tequila and Txakolina Acacia cask finishes, it shows what can be possible in the world of Irish whiskey.
Brendan, a graduate of Peter Bignell’s Belgrove Distillery in Tasmania, has adopted and displays many of the values imparted there. Honesty, traditionalism, responsibility and quality all clearly play a part in Brendan’s production. Like Peter, Brendan uses local ingredients and local techniques and ensures the standard he produces matches the effort he puts in.
So, what made me part with some of my hard-earned money to acquire a Killowen tasting box made up of 6x50ml samples and two tuath glasses, one branded with the Killowen Kult logo? The contents remained a secret up until Brendan teased his Kult following with the following liquids: Non-Peated Single Pot Still two years old GI Compliant Refill Islay Cask from Scragascullan Distillery Cask Strength, Peated Single Pot Still two years old Non-GI Compliant PX Sherry Cask Cask Strength, Stone Soup 10 Week Old PX Barrel Rested Poitin Pre-release Cask Strength, BWW Festival Bottling 11-year-old Single Malt from Co. Antrim Port Cask finished for 18 months Cask Strength, Peated Dark Rum 19 months old Ex-GND Peated Cask Pre-release Cask Strength and a Rum & Raisin Single Malt 5 years old Batch 2 Cask Strength.
What struck me from this was several things; firstly, the range, such an eclectic mix of cask finishes, varieties and lack of fear, but secondly, the entrepreneurship of Brendan to really make a statement. His unwavering support for traditional whiskey-making is refreshing. The direct-fired stills and worm tub condensers, coupled with the inclusion of oats in his mash bills (more to come later), give a symbolic nod to the style of whiskey making made iconic in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Anyway, less talking, more drinking! Let’s get down to the box and see what the craic is.
1– Non-Peated Single Pot Still 2 years old GI Compliant Refill Islay Cask from Scragascullan Distillery Cask Strength
Nose: Green apples, soil, herbaceous, lavender, cinnamon, cloves, some citrus and kiwi fruits coming through nicely to break up the earthiness of it all. Heavy prunes.
Palate: a big chunk of liquorice, lots of burn from the black pepper verging on to chilli, star anise and more spiciness from the cinnamon.
Finish: long and warming.
2- Peated Single Pot Still 2 years old Non-GI Compliant PX Sherry Cask Cask Strength
Nose: coffee beans, marzipan, peaches, some spice, slight cinnamon, birthday cake, flat coke, fruitella,
Palate: stoned fruits, plums, prunes, some Christmas spice too, cloves, star anise, clementines, some bitterness like coffee beans, some slight peat, not a great deal.
3- Stone Soup 10 Week Old PX Barrel Rested Poitin Pre-release Cask Strength.
Nose: Marzipan, light suit, peaches and pears, limes, green apples and aniseed, red berries, digestive biscuits
Palate: plums, liquorice and dark chocolate, some pepper in there with some star anise.
Finish: warmth, peppery and slightly fiery. Long and warming again, I’d expect the ABV to be around 58% for that burn. Black pepper and ginger.
4- BWW Festival Bottling 11-year-old Single Malt from Co. Antrim Port Cask finished for 18 months Cask Strength
Nose: cherries, soft vanilla, strawberry laces, flat cherry coke, cherry Bakewell, love hearts
Palate: big mouthful of skittles, blackberries, some solvent, slight vanilla, figs and almonds, prunes and fruit cake.
Finish: Parma violets, maple-cured bacon, lots more sweetness, gooseberries
5- Peated Dark Rum 19 months old Ex-GND Peated Cask Pre-release Cask Strength
Nose: shoe polish, leather upholstery, heather honey, pink lady apples, coconut, pineapple, spearmint, lots of molasses even now, light peat, mangoes and bananas
Palate: lots more peat now, cinnamon, black pepper, dark chocolate, coffee beans, lots of creamy textures, buttery barley,
Finish: butterscotch, chantilly cream, burnt pineapples, peppermint
6- Rum & Raisin Single Malt 5 years old Batch 2 Cask Strength
Nose: lots of rum influence as the first thing I nose is RUM! Almost ale-y, leather, cherry cola, Christmas cake and apple juice and mangoes.
Palate: that palate is incredible, so much going on, lots of apples again, then more clear influence of the rum, going to pineapple, some coconut thrown in. Some more figs and apricots for good measure, and some sweetness kick of vanilla and molasses.
Finish: some rich caramel, more fruitiness, more Christmas cake.
Well, what an experience that was! Firstly, I commend Brendan for his openness with these releases; some distilleries would not be so honest. Secondly, since the majority of these whiskies are technically not ‘whiskies,’ it makes me incredibly excited for what Killowen has to offer soon. For me, the real winner here is Brendan’s mash bill. I personally feel that this has allowed the whiskies to really flourish in the cask, which on first taste and in their infancy, they certainly are. No doubt Peter Bignall’s insistency on ingredients and method has played its part here.
I think Killowen Distillery and the box put together by Brendan is summed up by the name of the poitin in the box; stone soup. For those that don’t know,
Stone Soup is a story about the nature of happiness and the value of sharing, especially with strangers. Three monks come upon a small famine-ridden and war-torn village in the mountains. They find that everybody here is afraid of them and hiding in their homes. The three monks begin to make “stone soup,” made of water and three round stones. One by one, the monks convince the village people to help them make their soup by sharing their spices, vegetables, and other valuable ingredients. They make a feast for the three monks who have now discovered what it means to be happy.
Having shared their philosophy, values and whiskies with the world, the world is becoming a better place. Killowen’s story has just begun.