PR people are often in the business of seeking what we writers would call “trend stories.”
Trend stories more or less lump a handful of things together, by way of saying “here’s a zeitgeist that is in the middle of emerging, and you should jump on while it’s hot.” Marketing folks love them, because they provide ample opportunities to plug new beers or spirits, if they happen to fit the trend. They’re easy to write, fun to read, and actually provide a bit more service to the reader than a lot of other pieces, so they’re often a win all-around.
This is not quite one of those trend stories, because I don’t know if it can specifically be said that “Irish whiskey,” as a category, is on the rise in America, any more than the rest of the brown liquor market has been steadily swelling for a decade or more. What I can say is that within the confines of my own mind, one of 2018’s most prominent liquor stories has been my sudden and growing appreciation for the world of Irish whiskey.
I’ve never been much of a scotch drinker. Blessed, or cursed, with a palate that seems to be particularly sensitive to smoke or the suggestion of smoke, even moderately peated scotch whiskeys have a tendency to overwhelm my taste buds with impressions of “tire fire.” This is likely the reason why I also tended to largely ignore the world of unpeated Irish whiskeys up to this point, along with the reason that I imagine would be shared by most Americans—because they overwhelmingly just associate the style with Jameson. Which isn’t to slag on Jameson, per se—my appreciation of even that college bar shot classic has risen appreciably in the last year or two. But once the consumer realizes the subtleties of this market beyond the entry level blended whiskeys, the world of Irish distillates becomes much more compelling.
Case in point: Something like Prizefight Irish Whiskey, a new product from Pugilist Spirits that delivers something expected—a blend of single malt and grain whiskeys—with a twist, in the form of some American rye whiskey barrel aging. The results are not quite a platonic ideal “the best of both worlds,” but they’re not too far off, either.
According to the distiller, Prizefight is composed of 10-year single malt whiskey, blended with 4-year grain whiskey for that typical Irish whiskey “lightness,” and is finished for 6 months in barrels that previously held American rye whiskey from new Hampshire’s Tamworth Distilling. There’s no overall age statement, and it carries an MSRP of around $45 for a 750 ml bottle, putting it solidly in the mid-tier as far as cost for Irish whiskey is concerned. It weighs in at 86 proof / 43% ABV.
On the nose, I’m immediately surprised by how much influence I’m getting from the American side of things. There is a rye spice/rye bread graininess here, along with notes of tart green apples, butterscotch, grass, caraway, honey and wildflowers. But it’s certainly the peppery/rye spice notes that stand out for me, marking a whiskey that has soaked up more character than expected from its rye barrel finish.
On the palate, Prizefight is mouth-coating and slightly hot, bursting after the initial alcoholic rush into a bigger than expected profile of spice. This stuff is quite peppery, in very much the same way that American rye is typically described, but lacks the caramelization you’d expect from whiskey aged in newly charred barrels. Rather, the pepper/rye spice here is followed by green apple/stone fruitiness, followed by a moderate amount of honeyed sweetness. Light of body, it goes down pretty easy sipping neat, although there is a respectable burn. I’ve pretty much ignored the “Irish boxing” marketing imagery, but lord help me, I can actually imagine some world-weary immigrant pugilist downing this stuff at a turn-of-the-century saloon while temperance evangelists picket outside. It just does seem to fit the bill.
All in all, I’m sufficiently impressed by how the rye barrel twist comes through in this whiskey. It’s not the most complex dram you’ll find in its price point by a long shot, but it is quite lively. And I think that most certainly has a place.
Distillery: Pugilist Spirits, via West Cork Distillers, Skibreen, Ireland
Style: Irish whiskey
ABV: 43% (86 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $45 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.