McConnell’s Irish Whisky
In the spirits marketplace, price often tracks with and, in some cases, predicts quality. Occasionally, a product emerges that bucks that trend and proves surprisingly good at a reasonable price point. Enter McConnell’s Irish Whisky. In an auspicious coincidence, McConnell’s began selling whisky concurrent with the birth of America in 1776! In an interesting tidbit of trivia, in the 1900s, Irish whiskey producers adopted the “e” in whiskey as a way to differentiate from Scotch. However, McConnell’s already had over 100 years of history and opted to maintain the traditional “whisky” spelling.
You can’t fully appreciate Irish whiskey without understanding its history. Despite whiskey’s somewhat murky origination mythology, most historians agree that the Irish were at its root. Irish monks are credited with applying the art and science of distilling in 500-600 AD. They applied the secrets of preserving fragrances, inks, and alcoholic beverages acquired during travels across the middle- and far east, allowing the monks to convert the beer and wine they made into “uisce beatha,” Gaelic for the Latin “aqua vitae” or “water of life.” Initially distilled a sacramental and medicinal tonic, desire for the fiery and comparatively unrefined liquor grew among the citizenry as the monks traveled the countryside.
Pronounced “ishka bah-ha” in the original Gaelic, the English-speaking citizens eventually shortened (or mispronounced) the name to “uisce” or “uisge” and finally “whisky.” In time, the Irish added the “e” to differentiate from Scotch, resulting in the phonetically written name ‘whiskey’ or ‘whisky,’ depending on regional preference. As demand increased, so did the number of stills, and eventually, the Crown began taxing and eventually licensing production.
The earliest written record of whisky production dates back to 1405, and in 1556, the English parliament mandated still licensing. Whisky-making spread, and in 1661, the British Crown began taxing Irish whisky production. Kilbeggan is officially the oldest recorded whisky producer, beginning production in 1757. McConnell’s soon followed suit, and the rest, as they say, is history!
Fast forward to the modern day, and you’ll find a wide swath of distilleries producing quality Irish whiskies. Borrowing from a trend in Scotch, Irish whiskies have dramatically expanded in number and style. For years, Irish whiskey consisted of either malt, grain, or a blend thereof with little variation in casking. Increased experimentation and success with maturation cask expressions by Scotch distilleries emboldened their Irish competitors. Irish whiskies are increasingly available in various cask finishes, with sherry casking among the most popular. McConnell’s is no exception, currently producing both a traditional blended whisky matured in ex-fill bourbon casks and one finished in ex-fill sherry casks.
I recently had the pleasure of sampling McConnel’s flagship whisky, the aged-5-year blend. Comprised of a carefully selected blend of malt and grain whiskies, it’s taken Irish whisky lovers by storm. Scoring a whopping 93 points from the Ultimate Spirits Challenge, this whisky ticks many boxes, not the least of which is the “value” box. At a MSRP of $32.99, it’s an affordable option for an “everyday drinker” while still providing a luxe whisky experience. And (the good Lord forbid), it’s even affordable enough for (wait for it)… mixed cocktails (yuch….).
As a whisky purist, my interest is always “neat,” but I believe in the adage, “the best spirits make the best cocktails,” so there’s that. However, I see nothing wrong with holding this whisky as a sipper, and based on my own experience, I can understand its elevated score.
In the glass, McConnell’s Irish whisky pours deep gold. The initial aromas of ripe orchard fruits, sweet spices, honey, and a floral freshness lead to more traditional toffee notes, orange peel, vanilla chews, and butterscotch. Behind it all is a faint hint of milk chocolate, barrel spice, and, eventually, ethanol.
This whisky has an incredibly smooth entry, with almost no burn, compliments of its unusual 42% ABV. The mouthfeel is round, rich, and supple, reminding me of Italian leather (in texture, not taste). An initial sweetness rolls into creamy maltiness, with a hint of savory spice backing the overall richness. Hints of mown hay overlay an apple freshness, with supporting notes of butterscotch hard candies, flower shop, and a dash of molasses.
There’s a saltwater taffyness in the swallow, along with honey, citrus, tea cakes, and milky oatmeal. Milk chocolate reappears in the finish, with the recurring floral elements, brown sugar, and a hint of white pepper. The oak rounds out the finish, which ends relatively abruptly without much burn. In all, it’s a very smooth and delightful dram that’s deep without being complex. There’s an elegant simplicity reminiscent of much more expensive and longer-aged whiskies.
The Big Picture
McConnell’s Irish Whisky is a rare bird that walks a nicely balanced line between value and quality. While it may not scratch the itch for high-end luxe whisky, it’s worthy of inclusion in a broad-based collection. It tastes like a high-malt blend and takes full advantage of its five years of aging. Nicely done!