Cooley 2003 13-year-old Exclusive Malts 10th Anniversary

Isn’t social media a wonderful thing? At times it can cross boundaries and connect individuals across massive distances with the mere swipe of a finger or double tap. Mainly around whisky, I end up having conversations with enthusiasts across the globe about bottles, distilleries or just pointing them in the right direction. Occasionally, we may even meet if they are on a pilgrimage to Scotland.

In terms of distance the Whisky Barrel is situated in the delightful Fife town of Cupar, which is ironically just up the road from where I live; no we’ve never met. Their website has a sizeable presence and assortment of the latest and rarest releases. Our paths have crossed on social media (mainly Instagram), where they’ll tease everyone with bottle photographs of new arrivals. I’ve no doubt over the years pushed a few customers their way with my reviews that are devoid of commission links. I don’t need commission, nor does this site exist to generate funds via click bait or fake news. Conversations instead are to be had online and 2017 marks a special anniversary for the Whisky Barrel, as it’s their 10th birthday celebration.

In true Fife fashion they’ve decided it’s the perfect excuse to open some whiskies and commemorate the milestone with a series of exclusive releases throughout 2017. What awaits remains a secret, but for their first bottling, those Whisky Barrel types have thrown a curve ball into the party mix by bottling an Irish whiskey. This is a genre I rarely cover or consider at Whisky Rover, mainly because it’s lackluster from my experiences. I have noted recently a stampede from various bloggers to sign up to pledge allegiance to several new Irish distilleries in the hope they’ll be treated to a VIP trip. That’s their prerogative and the main interest I have with the Irish sector is the forthcoming game changer that Waterford promises to deliver. Premium Irish? Is there such a thing? With their focus on the core ingredients it promises to change a few perceptions based on my tasting of the some of their new make; article forthcoming soon.

For the record my father is from Northern Ireland and I spent many a fine holiday in and around Bushmills, which seemed to be family tipple of choice and a lovely distillery to visit. Despite this heritage, whiskey has not caught my attention although it’s certainly on an upward curve nowadays. I see it as something vastly different to Scotch in general and more for the tumbler brigade and those seeking their Irish roots through a mundane concoction.

We used to joke, or actually still do, regardless of whatever Irish whisky you purchased it was probably from Cooley’s. For a while, very few distilleries were in operation and the rules the Irish operate within allow a more American approach where liquid is bought from a central facility and then bottled as something else. Ultimately it makes a mockery of the whole craft approach and traditions that the canny marketers latch onto. At least what we have here is a Cooley given it was distilled in 2003, with the distillery opening in 1987, and is very reasonably priced from the Whisky Barrel. Nowadays owned by Beam Suntory, the distillery is responsible for a series of products including Connemara, which I find quite enjoyable for its price point.

My own experiences with Cooley are limited, with the most vivid being a couple of Scotch Malt Whisky Society casks that they were trying to shift at over £300 a bottle a couple of years ago. Unfortunately, after tasting the contents I felt nearer £30 would have been more appropriate. Still, what we have here is younger in comparison being bottled at 13 years of age. It has spent the majority of its life in a bourbon cask, before being finished in a sherry hogshead for 2 months upon the request of the Whisky Barrel. So this certainly on paper is a finish, rather than a double maturation and the aim will have been to give a luscious undertone and reddish appearance to the celebration.

Bottled at 52.7% by the Creative Whisky Company, cask number 200501 resulted in an outturn of 180 bottles. It’s still available as I type this and my sample initially came via the Whisky Barrel although I have a bottle share incoming.

Colour: hazelnut wood
Nose: even with such a short finish, there's a noticeable redness to the whisky sitting alongside your caramel and apple. There's a floral flourish almost rose-like but more subtle, then a rhubarb and rubbed brass concoction. Cinder toffee sweetness and a touch of ginger. Then, right at the back a vegetative herbal quality best summarised as tarragon and basil remnants in the glass. With water and a little patience I felt more nutty flavours arose with a touch of strawberry.
Taste: now this is rather surprising! I'm talking about the oozing texture and that touch of oiliness. It's a thick, robust whiskey with more redness and sugary sweetness. There is a touch of tartness midway through that revives on the cusp of the dry cranberry finish. Elements of dark chocolate, cinnamon and all-spice all drift happily by. Water takes off the edge but delivers a ground coffee presence with a rich treacle toffee and a hint of rubber. 

Overall: as the sherry cask is a hogshead rather than a butt, there's been more interaction over a shorter space of time. I wasn't expecting the chewy texture on the palate. Nor the boldness of the flavours within. A before and after comparison would have been really interesting. However despite my lowly Irish whiskey expectations this has turned out to be a pleasant surprise indeed.

The next release in the Whisky Barrel 10th Anniversary series is a 30-year-old grain from the closed Dumbarton distillery and I'll be reviewing it later this month. My mind is prone to speculation and I did wonder if the Whisky Barrel have conceived their anniversary bottlings almost as a defined tasting. Say, 5 or so releases, slowly increasing the character leading us towards a heavy beast of a whisky at the summit. That's my imagination, but it would be pretty cool if this turned out to be the case in reality, as this is a rather promising opener.

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