Britain is a divided nation, now more than ever. Fierce rivalries are fought every day: football derbies, political stalemates, and even different regional dialect pronunciations. But the most infamous rivalry of them all is the clash of Irish Whiskey versus Scotch Whisky – Whiskey versus Whisky, triple distillation versus double distillation, pot stilled versus Scottish blends. However, if you go back nearly a hundred years or so, this wasn’t a battle at all, but a whitewash. Irish whiskey in its prime was the global spirit of choice.
Cleverley, to avoid the English based tax system, the Irish whiskey entrepreneurs included unmalted barley in their mash bill to cook up a new ‘pot still whiskey,’ but little did they know they had stumbled across a recipe that would revolutionise Irish whiskey forever. This style of whiskey endured throughout the late nineteenth century and would later become one of the most famous styles of whiskies in existence. However, in the early twentieth century, people’s palates changed, and the demand for blended scotch increased. This, coupled with the looming prohibition period, the Irish War of Independence and Scottish distilleries buying most of the distilleries in Ireland, confirmed an unwelcome decline in popularity amongst Irish whiskey as a whole.
One of the ‘last men standing’ at the time of the decline was Old Comber, a staple within any Irish Whiskey drinker’s home and one of the last great pot still Irish whiskey brands. But even this great whiskey giant was consigned to the ages, and the last whiskey was distilled there in 1956. Fast forward 55 years, and a great proprietor of old brands, Echlinville Distillery, has revived the Old Comber brand. A tough gig, to restore a double distilled, pot stilled original of Irish whiskey. Echlinville’s very own, Jarlath Watson, describes having to tread, “very carefully.” The link is already even there; the Bruce family in the early 20th century within County Down had their fingers in both Old Comber and Dunville’s, Samuel Bruce as the owner of Old Comber and James Bruce as a Director of Dunville’s. It was almost as if Echlinville were destined to restore Old Comber to its former glory.
Now I must admit, only having been indoctrinated into Irish Whiskey 5-6 years ago, I was unaware of the popularity of the Old Comber brand. But after sniffing around a few auction sites and watching the ‘Whiskey Talkin’ documentary, I have been delightfully informed of its reputation, value and importance to Irish Whiskey history. Another confession: I have particularly enjoyed Echlinville’s revival of the Dunville’s brand, so when I heard they were bringing another historic brand into their portfolio, it was elated to find out that it was another County Down original.
For those who watched the ‘Whiskey Talkin’ documentary, you will recall that whiskey historian Fionnan O’Connor recently discovered the mash bill for Old Comber. The documentary then cuts to Echlinville Master Distiller, Graeme Millar, starting the momentous fermentation. Sadly, this blueprint and subsequent barrelled spirit are currently around five years away from release (they will become the iconic seven-year-old Old Comber whiskey). Being a member of copious amounts of whiskey groups on social media, I was, however, alerted to the release of an Old Comber on Echlinville’s website shop, which I immediately purchased. Having watched the documentary the night before, I was intrigued to know more and taste a bit of history.
The whiskey itself is described as a “work in progress” and has “predominantly” Echlinville pot still within the bottle. The whiskey is a non-age statement, but since Echlinville’s own spirit is around five years old, I can’t imagine it being anything more than that. It’s bottled at 46%, which in my opinion is perfect for it; it doesn’t overcomplicate it but gives it a slight edge. Unlike Echlinville’s tendency to use sherry barrels for finishing, they have utilised some port casks to finish here. There is a suggestion that it’s around 70% malted barley, with no indication of the rest of the mash bill.
A quick note on the bottle design: this is another brainchild from Mark Thompson, who is charged with the Dunville’s bottle design. I think it is stunning, and if Jarlath wanted to ‘tread carefully,’ he is tip-toeing gingerly like an eager ballerina. I think it would have been easy to copy the original designs, but Mark has contemporised the look whilst still keeping true to some of the Old Comber’s original design.
Nose: A burst of fragrance on the nose to begin with, distinguishable perfume and short hints of lavender shortly after. There’s a sweety infusion of fizzy cherry cola bottles, fruit salads, pear drops and love hearts that strike some nostalgia into me. Some ginger and pepperiness slice through the sweetness and give it some balance. A real sweet-fest on the nose, very nice indeed.
Palate: An explosion of creamy goodness. An initial burst of peppercorns and spiciness then comes a wave of chilli chocolate, but with less burn and more warmth.The double-distilled nature of it means that the actual viscosity of it comes through. Cakey notes of Victoria sponge and Battenberg are both commonly identified. The port cask has had a real influential impact on this; the creaminess, spiciness and cake notes then transition to berry desserts.
Finish: the flavours linger on for a while given the 46% ABV/ Kiwi fruits and nectarines, dark chocolate, mince pies and fruit cake all dawdle on the palate and leave you wanting more.
I have been banging the Dunville’s drum for quite some time now, and I’ve always envisaged how Echlinville’s pot still is going to taste once matured. The Dunville’s 1808 was a little taster of that, but I believe the Old Comber is an even bigger preview of the things to come. This whiskey is delicious, and it’s not even the actual Old Comber reincarnation whiskey, which will have to be equally unique to match this. Having not tasted Old Comber before, I can only imagine that this whiskey embodies the true spirit of Old Comber. That said, if anyone can rustle up a sample of the original Old Comber I would happily write another review comparing the two!