Tonight’s Sussex Whisky Appreciation Group [online] meetup sees the first international tasting of Currach whiskey and indeed, the first international tasting of Origin Spirits’ entire current range. Apparently, the #Swaggers beat a Singapore group to that accolade by just three days! Presented Stephen Randles, Origin Spirits Ireland is a ‘premium craft spirit producer specialising in innovative Single Malt Irish products’.
Launched in 2015, Origin Spirits’ range is made from 100% malted Irish barley. With a farm-to-bottle approach, Origin Spirits say: “We were inspired by Irish malted barley, widely recognised as being the best in the world. We wanted to celebrate the best of Irish terroir, ingredients and our heritage of distillation. It is this DNA which runs through each of our products. Each product is unique, yet shares the same ‘single malt’ backbone. Each brings one on a sensory journey to the heart of the Irish terroir.”
So why Irish barley vodka?
There are just two people involved in Origins Spirits. our host Stephen and [founder & managing director of Origin Spirits] Patrick Shelley, who spent 15-20 years working for LVMH as a sales & marketing manager. Stationed in Moscow, Patrick understood that the way to seal deals in Russia was over vodka but couldn’t understand, as an Irish whiskey drinker, why people held many odourless/tasteless spirit brands in such high esteem.
Patrick moved back home to Ireland to create a vodka fit for a whis[e]y drinker, a vodka made from Irish malted barley, a vodka with a single malt specification.
Origin Spirits don’t have their own distillery. They proudly contract distill at West Cork Distillers [website], a highly respected, independent, and expanding distillery since 2003. When West Cork Distillers expanded in 2014, it was reported that the still on the left [see pic] – known as the ‘Rocket’ – was, at the time, the fastest pot still on earth.
Not being distillers themselves, Origin Spirits initially called on the expertise of a team made up of Jim Swan, Ian Wisniewski, and Roy Court, who along with Patrick and West Cork’s John O’Connell, ‘put together the exact specifications as to how the single malt base for Kalak Vodka and Ornabrak Gin was to be made‘. Stephen tells us it took, in total, three years to get the settings and strengths right for their Kalak vodka, our first spirit in tonight’s lineup.
Story: ‘Kalak is a phonetic spelling of “Cailleach”, the Irish Celtic Goddess of Winter‘.
Stats: Made from 100% Irish malted barley, 4x copper pot distilled [taking the spirit to 96% abv, so it’s technically neutral spirit/vodka], lightly filtered [once], and reduced using reverse osmosis down to 40% abv.
- N: Very very light/desirably soft delicate fruity coppery spiritedness and a light white bloomer into a mild lactose note as well as [black]berry pollen and chocolate. Certainly a vodka worth exploring.
- T: It’s certainly vodka, but without the usual sour gackyiness because of this being a true heart cut. There’s a very light and soft [gin-like, without the juniper] sweet citrus delivery,…
- F: ,… finishing soft and rounded and very pleasant all the way through. Blackberry flowers at the tail with a touch more copper, citrus lemonade, and a dry-ish husky barley-base conclusion. Perhaps a potato or a potato/barley base would bring out more of the mouthfeel, but as a barley-based vodka, it’s very soft and clean.
- C: Popular with mixologists, and apparently, with Starbucks in America. For vodka fans, this should impress and may prove a vodka-whisk[e]y gateway.
Origin Spirits are one of only a few producers who create the base spirit for their gin [other examples include The Lakes and Holyrood], often regarded as inconsequential compared to the botanical mix. With Kalak as the base, around 30 botanicals were ‘auditioned’, distilled on their own to test their individual relationship with the spirit. Whittled down to just five, the ingredients [angelica, lemon peel, lemon verbena leaf, and Douglas Fir needles, alongside the obligatory juniper] are placed into the still to be rectified/distilled for a fifth time. This final distillation pushes the abv of the spirit up to 75%. It’s then reduced [using reverse osmosis] again, down to a ‘just right’ 43%. Macedonian juniper [“the best“] is used as there is simply not enough in Ireland. Reiterating the sustainable theme however, the lemon peel is sourced from Polish organic unwaxed lemons whilst the pine needles come from a forest next to the distillery.
- N: Stephen points out the incredibly long oily [slender] legs, coming from the rectified infusion inside the still that collects all the fats and oils]. You can smell the juniper, yes, but it’s the [organic/unwaxed] citrus lemon[ade] that shines brightest along with a low bonfire/firework note? – no, it’s lit sparklers!
- T: Compared to many gins, the low botanical mix here allows for the pin-point discovery of each flavour ingredient. With angelica and lemon the forerunners, it’s surprisingly bitter/earthy at first. The sweet citrus sourness follows with all the lemon references from sweetish bitter-lemon to lemon pieces that have sat stewed in the bottom of a G&T glass or a hot lemon cup for a while. I imagine it’s the lemons [and angelica] that create the mouthfeel.
- F: It really lingers, pleasing the palate centres accordingly. Douglas fir with bitter lemon citrus and a suggestion of rosemary, conclude.
- C: Tasting fresh, natural, and focused, might this be worthy of an SMWS Gn. bottling perhaps?
[Not scored], but one of the best gins I’ve enjoyed.
When Origin Spirits began making peated vodka, no maltster in Ireland at that time was peating barley in the malting process. Wanting to keep things all-Irish, they came up with an ingenious way of creating the world’s first peated vodka from [Irish] malted barley. They do it by dangling virgin casks [from the Kelvin Cooperage in Kentucky] over a peat fire to peat-smoke/char the casks themselves. The casks are then filled with Kalak vodka for 3-4 months. Origin Spirits found after that time, the spirit became too whisk[e]y-like. The spirit goes into the barrels at 43% abv because up to 3% is lost during the short maturation process.
- N: Like peated wash, or even more so, smoky wort. Further references included grilled sweetcorn & green tomato BBQ relish – street food styley – with waxy bike inner tubes laying amongst a plethora of bicycle maintenance tools and a sliver of white french butter.
- T: Starting off briefly as a sweet soft apple-y smoked mezcal, it tastes like a sweet malty peppery caramelised/charred smoked > wash being drunk whilst stood inside a huge maltings kiln,….. much of the emphasis on the smoke that is subtle but consuming. Following on from Wayne’s shellfish/fish references, for me, it was Ardrossan smoked [briny] kippers that featured on Ardbeg Day 2018 [WLP]. There are plenty more rubber references including slightly burnt tyres some plastics and some tar, but it’s the sweet vegetal spirit that carries it all along. I feel the distillate could do with an abv raise to beef it up a little, but that’s from a whisky loving pianist used to cask strength spirits.
- F: If you haven’t been inside a maltings before, you’ll get more than an inkling into the flavours and aromas, from this. You can imagine how the oak could easily dominate/steer if allowed to mature for a little longer. As it is, the smoke lingers as does the smoked barley base with another inner tube and an extra kipper bite to finish. Succulent smoky barley sugar at the death.
- C: Recommended for an Old Fashioned, this is perhaps the perfect vodka-to-Islay gateway spirit. It was justifiably popular amongst the Swaggers, and apparently, in one of the biggest market chains in Russia. So is the ppm quite high I ask? Steven reckons it’s around 10-15 ppm. I’d be interested in the Manchester Pyromaniacs testing it [hint hint].
Scores, let’s say, 80 points [for the fascination and originality]
Time now to move onto the seaweed whiskey! The specifications and framework for the distillation and charring of the casks for Currach Single Malt Irish Whiskey were established between Origin Spirits and John O’Connell.
Origin Spirits experimented with 7-8 seaweed varieties, settling on Kombu Atlantic seaweed for this expression as “the most democratic”. The release of this, the first seaweed-finished whiskey, was scheduled the weekend before Paddy’s day , a weekend that unfortunately coinciding with the COVID-related lockdown !!!
The process for this Currach involves charring/smoking those Kentucky casks using seaweed as the fuel. The seaweed is placed at the entrance of the cask and set alight with a flamethrower [see pic] before the lid is put on. This is repeated 6 times for each cask. The seaweed-prepared casks are then filled with [3-4yo ex-bourbon-matured] triple-distilled West Cork Irish whiskey [at 46%abv with no colour/no chill-filtering], for 3-4 months – the point when it was deemed that all the flavours from the seaweed had been extracted.
- N: I find it very port and/or [sweet] red wine-matured [Scotch] whisky-like. On the quirky side, we’ve carbolic/butyric/creosote touches with something vegetal like cabbage umami miso? with putty=plasticine. It becomes more and more bizarre as it opens out [morning breath being one of the particulars]. Everyone one of our group suggested plentiful and varied flavours.
- T: An unusual zing to start, the higher abv making for a marked difference compared with the previous examples, along with significantly longer cask maturation pre-seaweed. With putty at first, it follows on with the same unusual miso-butyric earthy > mushroom-y/miso notes as the nose and becoming maltier on the turn. Overall, a really fascinating result on the palate which is sure to make for a Marmite malt.
- F: There’s an Irish/US-esque lactic/sweet finish, but it helped [my observations] that I knew the makeup of this presentation beforehand. It’s rather oily and rubbery at first before becoming dry and a tad butyric with the faintest hint of sesame & wasabi-covered Chinese crispy snacks. Butyric tar rubber and more putty at the death. It’s not super-salty though I’d definitely describe it as maritime vegetal.
- C: This is not at all as outrageous as one might expect, but as it opens out it becomes more quirky. I shall try this tomorrow without preceding it with the smoked vodka.
C: No further additions or amendments to yesterday’s observations. Much like Chichibu’s ‘wasabi’ soya bean beer cask [WLP], this is a must-try – and to think it’s just 3-4 yo whiskey! It makes you wonder what other whisk[e]ys from other distilleries would come out like, put under the same conditions. I can imagine Scotch suiting this approach very well.
Scores 79 points [which for the Scotch Business Whisky Masters [WLP] is one point away from a gold medal].
Sourced from fourth-generation Wild Irish Seaweed [sustainable] harvesters [see pic], this is Origin Spirits’ first cask ever to be influenced by seaweed. To honour this momentous/historic event, just 220 bottles from this premier cask were released at cask strength, with 20 further bottles held back for tastings like this – so a big thanks to Stephen for the opportunity to try it. Early on, Origin Spirits were not so “nuanced” with their ingenious seaweed cask-seasoning technique, initially placing a [grade 3 charred] US virgin cask upright, loading it with 10kg of seaweed and setting fire to it with a flame thrower over and over again [and taking the char grade up to 4-5].
- N: Similar to the standard Currach yet far richer and more resinousness, I find this [oloroso] sherry-driven, the illusion of. Stephen tells us it’s the Kombu [and wood chips] that bring those sherried /leathery tannins. Sweet, toffee caramel notes also apply. Later, I pick out streams of runny milky [white < ] chocolate and > tablet.
- T: Even though there’s far more seaweed used in the preparation of this cask, its effect is more subtle than the previous Currach, the seaweed more of a side note by comparison. Starting with an abv-driven lively/formidable sweet toffee, almost rye-like arrival [which is a joy every time], it continues with sweet rubbery bourbon-y toffee,.. the miso/fungal/nori sheets underneath, moving into chocolatey and rubbery bourbon-y toffee putty.
- F: With a medium fade, it’s the low-phenolic waxy carbolic seaweed notes that enhance the Irish/US putty confectionary notes at the death and add to the moreish curiousness.
- C: This is a fascinating young whiskey. What a start to the process. The strength carries it.
Scores 84 points
The votes are in. The peated Kalak vodka and the Founder’s single cask whiskey were easily the standouts amongst the Swaggers, though the gin was also popular amongst a group of malt heads. I shall be looking out for future releases that will include favourable results using red seaweed. Stephen tells us they [Origins Spirits] won’t release a whiskey just because it’s interesting, they will release it if it’s premium/world-class.
With huge thanks to Stephen and S.W.A.G. for another top tasting!