Close your eyes, imagine Belfast and picture the first thing that comes into your head. Some may think of the bars and pubs, some may think of the city hall or the big fish perhaps, but I’d argue that the vast majority think of Harland & Wolff, the two cranes which tower above the grand city. Why are two giant yellow cranes so popular? They were partly responsible for raising the Titanic, the largest ship in the world at the time. So, when a distiller names their whiskey after such a famous landmark, you and I have every right to get excited.
Titanic Distillers is having a bit of a reincarnation. Initially founded by £10.2 million lottery winner Peter Lavery in 1996, the distillery’s initial releases of 5- and 10-year-old sourced Cooley blended whiskey were popular and now command some decent money at auction. Peter’s initial dream was to convert part of Crumlin Gaol in Belfast into a distillery, which never materialised. Not to be deterred, he received planning permission to convert the equally impressive Titanic Dock and Pumphouse in Belfast, Northern Ireland, into a working distillery with associated visitor tour.
Everything about this venture sounds fantastic. There’s talk about the size of the responsibility as custodians of a historic brand, which is refreshing and comforting. But the exciting stuff lies in the distillery setting; the pump house has been around for 100 years and is getting a much-needed restoration. The plans include the installation of three large stills on a mezzanine floor overlooking the original pumping engines, with all of the original pump equipment and associated internal historical features of the building remaining to form part of the tour. This got me thinking about what the actual business plan is here. H&W, the Titanic and the Titanic Quarter are arguably some of the most prominent tourist attractions. I can only imagine the pull of a distillery where the Titanic was made will be substantial to tourists.
Having not really appreciated the old Titanic brand, I find the new branding sleek, sophisticated, and stylish. The central theme of the new brand is inspired by the spirit of the workers who built the great ship, a story of “blood, sweat and years.” The bottle, packaging, and website seem to be predicated on the shipyards and their workers. The branding screams pride and passion for one’s country and its livelihoods. Being proud of my roots, this sounded perfect and potentially my new ‘go to’ whiskey.
The opportunity finally arose when, for my birthday, I was gifted the Collector’s Edition box set, which included a 70cl bottle, a branded Titanic Distillers Glencairn, and whiskey stones, all presented beautifully. The first issue that arose was that the packaging was seriously inadequate; the stones, having got loose, smashed the Glencairn and ripped the label on the bottle (as you can see in the picture!). A full refund and apology were swiftly given; however, my first impression remained slightly tainted. Nevertheless, the whiskey inside the bottle remained undamaged! The box itself retails for a relatively hefty £59.95; however, if you don’t want another Glencairn and some whiskey stones, you can knock a whopping £25 off of it! For the sake of this review, I will review the bottle itself as it is for £34.95.
So, the whiskey itself is likely to be a Great Northern Distillery blend but does not indicate source, colouring, age or chill-filtering. It does, however, state on the website that Titanic Distillers have taken ‘great skill’ to create this blend of grain whiskies and single malts. It sits at a standard 40% but is described as ‘premium’ by TD, somewhat contradicted by the ‘simple’ connotation it has also been given.
Nose: Not a great deal of variety here, but I can pick out some figs and apricots. The primary aromas are from sweetened honey and vanilla, which dominate the nose. Overall, quite perfumy.
Palate: More vanilla sweetness is coming through, again with raisins and sultanas. There’s also a hint of orange zest coupled with some mild pepper to give some range.
Finish: The website claims there to be a hint of peat, which there is, but it’s not easily recognisable. Some more subtle sweetness comes through from the red apples, but the overall finish is too short-lived in my opinion and lacks some serious depth and complexity.
I really wanted this whiskey to be great; honestly, I did. I feel that the marketing on Titanic Distillers’ website completely contradicts the liquid. Firstly, the line, “balance its complexity – yet ensure it is simple to appreciate and savour,” I feel it does not match up to the whiskey. There is little to no complexity, let alone enough to balance. Secondly, “a long, lingering finish,” to me seems exaggerated. I found the finish short, maybe short to medium at a push. One of the taglines on the website is, “A blend of fine Irish whiskey: simple, honest, true” Whilst I agree that the whiskey is simple, there’s nothing that makes me feel this whiskey is honest; there’s no transparency at all. In terms of the ‘true’ statement, I’m not sure what it means. Is it true to its history or true to its roots? I’m not convinced either way.
Others may find it slightly different, but there was no depth or complexity for me. I got the pretty standard notes, but nothing stood out and really grabbed my attention. For nearly £35 there are some very good blends out there (check out our blind Irish blend tasting with Jonathon).
I think this is another case of brands getting something out there now, rather than waiting for at least three years before they come on the scene. Mike talked about distilleries being able to do just that, but is there may be an argument for either waiting that bit longer to produce something you think will really stand out or paying that bit extra for some excellent sourced whiskey. Unfortunately, neither has been done here. This brings me back to the tourist ‘pull’, is this more a case of producing whiskey to entice tourists rather than to excite proper whiskey lovers? Time will tell.