Cigar Aficionado

Welcome Back, Kilbeggan

Made in the oldest licensed distillery on earth, it’s one of the world’s most storied whiskeys, but for a long stretch, the facility was shuttered and silent and not much clamor was coming from the venerable Irish whiskey itself. Now with the distillery reopened and Jim Beam’s recent acquisition of the brand, it is set to relaunch in the United States with fanfare.

The rebirth of Kilbeggan will come with new packaging and will probably surface in March when St. Patrick’s Day on the 17th typically boosts Irish whiskey sales. Meanwhile, the brand that Jim Beam has chosen to spearhead its entry into that market has been enjoying a sales boom, rising 31 percent in the third quarter of 2012. (Kilbeggan came to Beam when it purchased Cooley Distillery in December of 2011.)

The distillery got its license in 1757 in the town of Kilbeggan on the River Brosna in Ireland’s Midlands Region. It has since changed hands—and names—a number of times. It has also weathered its up and downs. The founder’s son, the distillery manager at the time, was executed by the British for his part in the United Irishmen rebellion. Taxes on Irish distilleries rose and fell. A local temperance movement cut into the distillery’s market. The whipsaw of America’s Prohibition and Irish independence took a chunk of its international sales in the United States and England. Expansive Irish whiskey production consolidated into a few makers.

By 1957, the Old Kilbeggan Distillery had closed, but in the 1970s a local group began preserving the plant and maintained the license. The community also created a whiskey museum, refurbishing much of its antique equipment, including a water wheel and a steam engine. Eventually Cooley took over the brand name as well as the facility, which it used to store whiskey. In 2007, the Kilbeggan Distillery began making whiskey again with a restored pot still from the 19th century. Since then it has become fully functioning with a mash tun and fermentation vats.

Kilbeggan, which was traditionally a pot-still product (twice distilled as opposed to the usual thrice-distilled Irish style), is now a blend, which also includes column-still whiskey. While the blend had been made with Cooley-made spirits, as the product from the reopened Kilbeggan comes of age the blend uses increasing amounts of malt whiskey made there. The facility also makes 2 Gingers, an Irish whiskey exclusively distributed in Minnesota.

With a high malt whiskey content and being limited to two distillations, the blend, while approachable, has a hefty flavor profile that makes it highly suitable for cigar pairing.

Kilbeggan Irish Whiskey (80 proof, or 40 percent alcohol by volume, $23.99)

APPEARANCE: Rich light-yellow;, thick, quick legs.
NOSE: Floral and cereal notes and a slight hint of Bourbon that hints of the wood in which it was aged.
PALATE: An interesting progression of flavors that starts with thick honey and vanilla notes, proceeds to caramel and a wheaty grain character, before settling on tropical fruits.
FINISH: The fruit hangs on for a while and then gives way to sweet wood.

CIGAR PAIRING: Aurora 107 Toro (89 points, June 2011 issue of Cigar Aficionado) The first puffs of the Dominican cigar with an Ecuador carry heavy leather flavors that precede some spice notes and a touch of black cherry. The Kilbeggan pronounces the leather and finds a rich cereal core. The cigar gives the whiskey a little more structure and savory notes.

La Flor Dominicana Double Ligero Chisel (94 points, December 2011 issue of Cigar Aficionado)A great, wedge-headed shape that’s well-made, with a dark and streaky wrapper. This is a very strong full-bodied cigar with spice and wood flavors, plus a hint of orange peel. The Kilbeggan’s honey notes open up the sweet aspects and the cigar and the La Flor’s spice turns positively licorice-like. The whiskey gets a heavier body from the cigar, subduing the fruit and emphasizing its cereal character.