According to the Oxford dictionary, the term “wayward” denotes an individual who is difficult to control or predict due to their obstinate or contrary behaviour. This same term was used by former British Prime Minister Robert Peel to refer to Daniel O’Connell, an Irish politician and activist, whom he dubbed “that wayward Irishman”. Despite this label, O’Connell remained steadfast in his advocacy for peaceful reform in Ireland throughout the 1800s, earning him the moniker of “The Liberator” for his leadership in the Catholic Emancipation movement.
Interestingly enough, this historical figure’s lineage has a unique connection to the world of whiskey. Specifically, Maurice O’Connell, the great great great grandson of Daniel’s younger brother James, ventured into the whiskey industry when he and his wife founded Wayward Irish Spirits in 2017. Their passion for producing exceptional whiskey was showcased at Whiskey Live 2019, where they provided a tantalizing preview of what’s to come.
Wayward Irish Spirits started as a bottler/bonder, and I could be corrected in this but would be the first in recent Irish whiskey history to release a vatted malt or a combination of two single malts from two distilleries (Cooley and GND). This is already a practice in blended Scotch but something we might see more of in Irish whiskey. They also commission young spirits and contract to distil using their barley grown in the Lakeview Estate – Wayward Irish Spirit’s home in Killarney.
Maurice’s family has been in the Lakeview Estate for over 900 years and this location’s significance lives in their whiskeys today. It’s the most beautiful and picturesque whiskey brand home I’ve seen but it also goes beyond that. Within the estate is their maturation warehouse aptly called ‘House of Contentment’ which is from a loose translation of an old Chinese symbol that can be found above the doorway coming into the ancient stone storehouses. Although what the symbol means might be of a more risqué origin, the whiskeys inside this warehouse do seem content from what I’ve tasted. A probable explanation could be the microclimates in the area that causes swings and extremes in the temperature and humidity in the House of Contentment. This allows for a richer (and often quicker) maturation. The stone walls and low ceilings could potentially contribute to this magic as well. This is one truly unique thing about Wayward Irish Spirits.
In my review of Gold Spot, I listed factors that can influence the flavour of whiskey at each stage of production, one particularly critical factor is the quality of casks used for maturation. In this regard, Wayward Irish Spirits have demonstrated a remarkable ability to source high-quality casks and maintain strict control over their usage. I’ve never heard a whiskey brand say they source bad casks, but I’ve tried a handful of whiskeys where you could tell something was off with the cask used (both from small and slightly bigger brands). It’s hard to avoid in the business and something smaller brands and distilleries would be more exposed to given they can’t blend a bad cask behind a vatting of many casks. This makes sourcing quality casks for smaller brands even more important and Wayward doesn’t compromise.
Another area they don’t compromise is on cutting or proofing the whiskey which I believe makes a difference. They employ a ‘gentle cut’ process of slowly adding water (many weeks and months) so as not to shock the whiskey and avoid saponification or the turning of esters into soaps. Who wants soap in their whiskey, right? Is it easier to just add the water to the bottling strength and proceed to bottle and sell? Yes, but that’s not how Wayward does it. Every bit of care is taken to ensure that the whiskey that ends up in the bottle is the best version of that batch.
Their first release was the inaugural batch of The Liberator whiskey which was launched in 2020, a few weeks before Ireland and most of the world went on lockdown. I’m sure that was a challenge on its own but for brands that launched during this time, it was a double-edged sword. While it’s true that online tastings have made it easier to reach a wider audience, the abundance of options can sometimes make it difficult for brands to stand out from the crowd. This was especially evident with Batch 1 from Wayward Irish Spirits, which garnered mixed reactions due to its unique and unconventional flavour profile. Despite this initial divisiveness, I found myself completely hooked on the brand and highly recommend trying to get your hands on a Batch 1 Liberator if you still can. It’s truly a one-of-a-kind Irish whiskey that’s sure to leave a lasting impression.
I’ve been a supporter since Batch 1 and have bought and tried all of their releases except for one-off bottlings and foreign exclusives. To date, they’ve gone way past the batched malt whiskeys finished in port and have bottled some very interesting whiskeys. The list includes The Liberator batches 1 to 5, the small batch storehouse special release and its cask strength versions (the small batch geared towards bartenders and their first cask strength release for whiskey aficionados), Port n’ Peat (a highly regarded whiskey by those who’ve tried it), The Lakeview Single Estate Irish whiskey which is from their barley matured in the estate, and both the Malt x Moscatel cask strength and the recent release at 46% ABV which I’m reviewing below.
The Liberator Storehouse Special Malt + Moscatel Batch 4 46% ABV – limited to 400 350ml bottles and retails at €43
Nose: Gala Apples, honey, jar of walnuts. Subdued, easy on the nose, and reminiscent of when your preparing your ingredients for baking,
Palate: Malty on the fore with lots of fruits. The apple quickly gives way to orange peels, green banana, some lemon and cloves at the back. The mouthfeel is a nice balance, not too light and not to syrupy. On second sip, grapefruit comes to mind and sticks. This is like freshly squeezed grapefruit juice with 46% alcohol.
Finish: Grapefruit bitterness. I can’t get my mind off grapefruit.
The Liberator Storehouse Special Malt + Moscatel Batch 1 Cask Strength 56% ABV – limited to 400 350ml bottles and retails at €60
Nose: Apples, apricot, honey and heather, bread pudding.
Palate: Fruits and spice explosion. Really nice texture that covers the mouth. Honey and Szechuan peppercorns. Five spice. Pineapple. Red lemonade. Raisins, coconut, and maraschino cherries – Weird combo to read but if you’ve tried Filipino fruit salad with a dash of brandy, it’ll make sense!
Finish: Long and leaves a tingling chilli sensation with mint and herbs.
Moscatel Sherry 18% ABV
Nose: Rum & Raisins, oak, plum sauce
Palate: Light and silky texture which was a bit unexpected from the nose. Raisins, cherry, wine gums, gooseberries, fizzy cola, and a savoury umami note peaking at the end.
Finish: Vanilla coke, bread pudding, mandarin oranges.
My tasting notes for the cask strength and lower ABV were written separately but I revisited both liquids when I was completing this review together with the Moscatel sherry the casks were finished in (Huge thanks to Maurice for the sample). As far as I’m aware both batches were from the same 2016 double-distilled single malt. After tasting both whiskeys, I found myself particularly impressed with their quality, although I ultimately gave the edge to the cask-strength version. In my estimation, this particular expression exhibited a greater level of complexity and layering when compared to its 46% sibling, thus earning it a slightly higher rating overall.
The 46% is great as a drinking whiskey (you can see my bottle is nearly gone) but the 56% I can sit down with and enjoy unpicking it. Luckily, they are priced accordingly and can still be sourced today. Overall, the balance of distillate and finishing is what’s worth commending here. Fruit + Fruit = Fruits I guess but finding the right balance and releasing the liquid when it’s at its peak is a hard thing to achieve. I also like that I got different notes from the sherry itself versus the whiskeys showing that the casks didn’t overpower the whiskeys and truly complemented it.
Whiskey in many ways is wayward – it’s difficult to control with all the elements associated with making it but Wayward’s uniqueness with their ‘maturation terroir’, their approach in doing what’s best for the quality of the whiskey and not the cost, and now using their barley to add to their ever-increasing library of flavours, are very compelling reasons to follow this Irish whiskey player from the west!