Killowen came on the scene in late 2019 and produced the ‘experimental series’ from 2020: a range of seven different whiskies that encouraged us to broaden our perceived whiskey biases, challenge the norms but, most importantly, introduce not only Ireland, but the world to a distillery that is punching seriously above its weight.
We’ve introduced you to Killowen on the Water of Life before, and therefore, rather than regurgitate history, we’ll focus more on the whiskies themselves, including the make-up, tasting notes and the verdict. So, from the top, in chronologically released order:
1. Jamaican Rum Cask. A Dark rum finished small batch, cask strength, non-chill-filtered ten-year-old blend. 54.9%. £76.
Nose: Initial notes of nectarines and fleshy peaches give a freshness and a sweet layer, then comes the typical rum cask influences of pineapple and coconut. All the bite of the sweetness is then somehow mellowed out and balanced by the vanilla pod notes.
Palate: LOTS more vanilla to go with coconut and blackcurrants. It keeps fluctuating on the palate between sweetness and mellowness; it’s delicious. Burnt brown sugar, vanilla latte, and coffee beans give this profound depth and range.
Finish: Medium finish with notes of espresso, apricot and more vanilla, providing a strong finale.
2. Txakolina Acacia Cask. The cask was specifically chosen for its aroma and freshness, coupled with virgin Acacia heads, creating this small-batch spirit. The whiskey inside is sourced at a minimum of ten years old and is non-chill filtered and with no added colouring. It’s a healthy 55.8%. £76. For those unaware (I certainly was), txakolina is a sparkling, very dry white wine with high acidity and low alcohol content produced in the Spanish Basque Country, Cantabria and northern Burgos in Spain
Nose: Lots of zesty freshness with lemon sorbet and lime zest predominantly coming through. Then more fruit with Granny Smith apples and green grapes. Then there’s a beautiful wood spice note just to give some range.
Palate: a lovely marriage of wood spice and pear drops coming through very apparently, then it’s balanced with some vanilla creme caramel. There’s an indication of the sherry influence too, with dried fruits like apricots making their individual claims!
Finish: Lots more wood spice coming through, maybe a tad too much, would have preferred more of the fruit that’s just apparent; lychee and fleshy peaches. More length of the finish just tipping at medium to long-range.
3. Tequila Cask finish. Sourced ten-year-old blended whiskey finished in Mexican Tequila casks- The cask has been heavily charred in a previous life. Non-chill filtered and no colouring. It is bottled at 55.4% ABV. Only 388 50cl bottles were released. £76.
Nose: Lots of sweetness upfront with raspberries, pink lady apples and Haribo Tangfastics cherries. Some zest in there too, with orange skin oil and boozy Christmas pudding. Bit of a bite at the back end with some cloves, black pepper and herbal.
Palate: Caramac bar, dime bar or any combination of caramel and chocolate. Lots of alcohol-soaked raisins, prunes and sultanas. Towards the end, it’s more chill chocolate with peppermint. Some wood spice too with a little smoke for good measure.
Finish: Some pleasant warmth from the pepper and cloves; I’d say a medium to long finish again.
4. Islay Cask. A10-year-old blend of the Bonded Experimental series. A peat Islay cask finish. 398 50cl bottles, cask strength, non-chill filtered, no colouring, 10-year-old blend bottled at 55.4% ABV. £76.
Nose: typical maritime notes, saltiness and briny seaweed. Definite smoke, but nothing overpowering; in fact, the spicey vanilla tart comes through and gives it more variety and substance. There’s certainly some fruit, lemons in particular with ripened pears.
Palate: surprisingly gentle smoke, but softer than expected with milk chocolate and honey taking prominence. Lots of spice too, with clove and white pepper, giving it a beautiful warmth
Finish: a very nice balancing of sweet and smoke. The vanilla and some fruit balanced with the smoke and peat influence of the Islay, married with a gentle heat.
5. Pinot Noir Burgundy Cask finish. Small batch (388 bottles), cask strength, non-chill filtered, no colouring, 10-year-old blend. 56% ABV. £76.
Nose: Beautifully explodes with fruit on the first nosing. Initial stoned plums and peaches quickly morph into red grapes and strawberry sorbet. There are slight hints of satsuma oranges. Cola bottles and marzipan give this serious depth.
Palate: More fruit comes through exponentially, with cherries, nectarines, and stoned fruits galore. Raspberry sherbet and fizzy cherry coke make this seriously appealing. There’s a lovely balance of honey too, along with some citrusy notes.
Finish: lovely warmth, some peppercorns and cinnamon to finish.
6. Oatmeal Imperial Stout Cask. Small batch (350 bottles), cask strength, non-chill filtered, no colouring, ten-year-old blend. Before stout, the cask previously held whiskey from a Dublin Distillery and prior to that, an American Bourbon. £76.
Nose: an initial blast of cola bottles and marzipan. Then lots of fruit comes through too, ripened plums and red grapes. There’s a heaviness to it as well, feels full-bodied, caramel-like and malty—lots of cereal type notes and Horlicks at the back end.
Palate: the body comes through again, quite heavy but delightful—lots of chocolatey raisins and chocolate orange. There’s a pleasant warmth, which feels like ginger snaps and cinnamon oatmeal porridge.
Finish: some smoke at the back end, short to medium, caramel notes
7. Virgin Hungarian Oak Cask. The final in the Killowen 10-year-old Bonded Experimental Series. A blend of two single malts and one grain, matured in handmade Hungarian Oak casks. Bottled at cask strength 55.8%. A small batch of 356 bottles. Non-chill filtered and no colouring. £76.
Nose: Quite herbal to start with, wood spice and spearmint in buckets. Lots of sweetness comes through too, with fizzy cola bottles and aniseed.
Palate: lots of spice come through now with cloves, peppermint, star anise and aniseed. There is some sweetness finally balanced with them too, zesty orange marmalade, hard-boiled sweets and lemon sherbet.
Finish: the most prolonged finish of the bunch; it is LONG. White pepper and cloves remain, and the heat just builds throughout.
First off, a big congratulations to Killowen for having the gumption to release seven potentially unheeded whiskeys and peculiar cask finishes onto the scene within 18 months. When Mike talked about sourced whisky, Killowen acknowledged and chose this course of action. Whilst anyone can source whiskey, it takes a professional and competent person to source good whiskey, and that’s precisely what Brendan has done here. That’s only half the battle; the other half is choosing the proper cask, and selecting seven very different casks could be somewhat challenging, I would imagine.
The fact that he has named it the ’experimental series’ shows good initiative and forethought; I had never even heard of Txakolina before, but I’m now asking why more distilleries do not finish their whiskies in it. Maybe Killowen has become a trailblazer for new and exciting concepts; Hinch has released an imperial stout cask finish, and Islay casks are becoming more and more popular; Cotswold distillery uses the same concept (review inbound).
What’s interesting is that this was Brendan essentially putting something out there and telling the whiskey world, “right, this is Killowen whiskey, this is what we’re all about, if you like it, great, and if not, well then no problem.” Well, the world has responded, and the fact that all whiskies are sold out and only appear on auction websites for around double the money proves that the concept is an accepted one, and if this is what Brendan and Killowen can do with sourced whiskey and casks, imagine what they can do with their own stuff.
During my interview with Brendan, he stated that they’re planning for a big year. Their very own whiskey comes of age, and I can only imagine that the finished product will embody the experimental nature and pioneering inventiveness that went into the experimental series. I, for one, will look forward to getting my hands on a drop of that stuff.
*All samples kindly provided by Martin McShane. Pictures kindly approved for publishing by Irish Whiskey Auctions.