Walsh Whiskey Company has been on the vanguard of the Irish whiskey revival, winning many awards in recent years. Having tasted Walsh whiskies with Bernard Walsh in pre-covid days, and having a bit of an inkling about his visit to Niagara in 2019, my bold query, as Bernard called it, has come true. The exciting icewine-finished expression of Writers Tears’ is on release! The tasting event at the Park Hyatt Terrace Room overlooking Toronto, was a splashy event arranged by Woodman Wines & Spirits, the company that could see the future of Walsh Whiskey as it grew globally with much acclaim, and wisely took them on.
Good Food Revolution: You’ve produced a selection of different finished whiskies. When you originally visited Niagara in 2011 to taste ice wine for the first time; how much longer did it take to connect with Bruce Nicholson at Inniskillin about your idea?
Bernard Walsh: I was first introduced to Inniskillin Icewine in 2011 by Russ Woodman and loved the taste and whole story. I have visited Toronto every year since then (even in 2020 & 2021) and each visit I return home to Ireland with a bag full of Inniskillin. In 2019 I was introduced to the then head winemaker at Inniskillin Bruce Nicholson and we set a visit for January 2020 when myself and my wife Rosemary visited Niagara-On-The-Lake and then on out to the vineyard at Inniskillin. It was during this visit that, along with Bruce, we selected 12 wonderful and precious casks.
GFR: Is cask selection one of the most enjoyable parts of production?
BW: For me, unquestionably it is. It is a real quest without any guarantee that you will be successful. We might not be able to access any casks. The casks we do access might not be to standard, or there may be too few available to us. Then you have to arrange shipping, which is more complicated in these times and then hopefully all the casks arrive in good condition. Finally, you get to work with them, but they may not take to the whiskey. You meet all kinds of people along the way. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly! I find it exhilarating.
GFR: How was the process of cask selection with Nicholson?
BW: Inniskillin, represented by Bruce, were generous with their time and their insights. I got to spend a couple of days nosing and tasting and learning the deep background of Inniskillin’s Icewine harvest, production and maturation processes. We enjoyed our time together and it certainly never felt like business.
GFR: You’ve chosen to work with Vidal icewine casks as opposed to riesling casks… any particular reason for that choice?
BW: Firstly the taste; the Vidal delivers a beautiful sweetness of peach and apricot which I could envisage working extremely well with Writers’ Tears. There is also a mead-like honey-note in Vidal which helps greatly in layering-in complexity.
GFR: After working on a whiskey finish, how often do you taste to explore the evolution of the spirit?
BW: There is no precise answer as it depends on the cask and previous liquid in it. If it’s a new cask type/liquid (like icewine) it will get more attention than a tried and tested (rum or Marsala). So for the icewine, I made visits to the whiskey warehouse every month to see how the casks were weaving their magic on Writers’ Tears. At around month ten, I had a strong view that twelve months would be just right. I did leave one cask much longer just to see how far we could take the experiment but when all was said and done, the twelve months was optimum.
GFR: At what point do you decide to bottle? I know it’s not an exact science to get to this point…
BW: There is no cookie cutter for this. I believe it is both an art and a science – hand in glove. Tasting semi-regularly is key as you watch the whiskey develop. While ice wine casks took twelve months to weave their magic, my Mizunara Japanese Casks only took six months. That’s because they are virgin Japanese oak which deliver a very spicy note pretty quickly and the last thing we wanted was to overcook this one.
GFR: The porosity of the cask plays a big part in the enchantment of ‘spirit travel’ and the ageing process… how long does it typically take for this to happen?
BW: Yes, the porosity of the cask has a huge effect. Take our Virgin Oak Japanese Casks; the grain in this oak is not as tight as European or American Oak. The result is that the uptake in the wood is rapid (as well as the Angel’s Share). This allows for quite rapid exchange of vanillins from the wood to the whiskey. This has to be balanced with the commercial realities of reducing loss through the Angel’s Share.
GFR: Casks, especially sherry butts, are quite costly; is this why the whiskey industry, beginning with single malts, started to experiment with this more?
BW: No, all of us in the business of producing the perfect drop, or ‘taoscán’, of whiskey are in it to explore the possibilities of what happens when different whiskey styles meet different types of wood and maturation processes. Ultimately there is a cost factor to anything that is scarce, but like a special meal, concert, sporting experience or a luxury personal item….what’s rare is wonderful, and our customers see the value in what we do with these rare and sometimes exotic finishes that we produce.
GFR: Before the Industrial Revolution, most Irish whiskey was aged in European wine casks. When and why did this change?
BW: It changed as the Irish whiskey sector scaled down, or collapsed, from twelve million cases in 1900 to 400,000 in 1970. Our coopering skills faded out with that collapse. Meanwhile the United States’ bourbon industry got motoring and, given the surplus of bourbon barrels thrown off by the need for virgin casks in the bourbon industry, it was a natural fit for Irish whiskey to mature mainly in what was available and suited to the new distillate.
GFR: What would you pair this with? I see it as more of a post-prandial sipper…
BW: I can see many pairings for Writers Tears’ Icewine Cask Finish. But the one that jumps out first is a cheese platter after dinner. Replacing say a port or dessert wine. Stunning!
GFR: How do you see this new ice wine finish selling in the marketplace on a global scale?
BW: It is selling extremely well, aided by the fact that it has already been recognised by the Irish whiskey industry as the Best in Class in the Limited Edition Blended Irish Whiskey Category at the ‘2021 Irish Whiskey Awards’
GFR: I imagine each expression you work on is like having a toy… which is your favourite?
BW: I see them more as my children and, just as I never choose between my four girls, I can’t favour one of the expressions over another. That said, as with all new children, I am most excited about this new Writers’ Tears Icewine release!
GFR: After seeing the decline for so long in whiskey production in Ireland, where it was once a robust and renowned industry, what does it feel like to be part of the renaissance?
BW: It is a very humbling and fulfilling experience. I am proud to play a small part, like many did before me for hundreds of years. It is made particularly special that we nearly lost the Irish whiskey category altogether after a series of unfortunate events and decisions across the 20th century. It is also special because ours is a small country in Ireland, with no natural resources other than our people and the great Irish diaspora abroad. Irish whiskey is close to being recognised as one of our ‘natural’ resources given it is the product of Irish barley, water and craft. If I am stretching it to call it a natural resource then I can fairly say that it is once again recognised internationally as a world class spirit that is enjoyed globally as people both rediscover and discover it for the first time. The Chinese say – may you live in interesting times – I certainly am lucky to be doing just that!
Writers’ Tears Copper Pot LCBO $52.95 (750ml bottle)
This is a rich gold with aromas of vanilla spice cake, apple and ripe pear and it’s a big spicy mouthful on the palate with fruity replay and hits of butterscotch too. There’s a lengthy finish carrying the fruit and spice together in this 41% abv dram.
Inniskillin Vidal Icewine LCBO $49.95 (375ml bottle)
Donald Ziraldo himself came to talk at this history making venture, with Bernard Walsh.
Vidal, that thick skinned grape, makes a luscious icewine with aromas of honeyed peach, apricot and tropical fruit flavours with a really delicious mouth filling balance of acidity and sweetness. The fruit carries through with more flavours of sweet mango, lychee and a slight spice element.
Writers’ Tears Icewine Finish LCBO $99.95 (750ml bottle)
Deeper gold, the icewine comes through in the whiskey with honeyed fruit aromas of peachy apricot to complement that spice cake flavour and quite smooth, even restrained, with a higher abv of 46%. Fruit and baking spice carry into an elegant finish. I would have this whiskey after dinner with just a splash of spring water to open up those essential oils carrying all that luscious flavour.
(All rated out of a possible five apples)
Writers’ Tears are represented in Ontario by Woodman Wines & Spirits
Woodman Wines & Spirits are a Good Food Fighter.
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