Cigar Aficionado

Wine-Barrel Matured Irish Whiskey Debuts

Nobody ever accused Ireland of making great wines, but one product for which it is renowned—whiskey—just got a little more interesting with some help from California wine.

Extra maturation of whiskey in barrels formerly used to make Petite Sirah is the unique twist to Concannon Irish Whiskey. Concannon, a family winery with a strong Irish legacy, supplies the casks to Ireland’s Cooley Distillery, which then uses them to finish whiskey previously aged in ex-Bourbon barrels for at least four years. The wine-barrel finishing process takes about four months. That whiskey is then blended with other Cooley stock—also aged in ex-Bourbon—to create the blend.

The time in wine oak gives the light, floral whiskey rounder berry as well as a creamy texture and a hint of wood.

The fourth-generation vintner John Concannon says that Irish is the fastest-growing category today and that his family’s business with its Irish legacy is uniquely positioned to make an Irish-American connection. “It’s cool to be Irish right now,” he enthuses, adding that Irish can be a felicitous entry point to the whiskey world.

Concannon further points out that his company has had a history of innovation, having created America’s Petite Sirah after his father, Jim, and Uncle Joe began growing that grape varietal in 1961. “We like to try different things. The four-month finish gives the whiskey the essence of Concannon.”

Concannon traces his Irish roots back to 1865, when his great-grandfather, James, emigrated to Boston. Finding that city unwelcoming (help-wanted signs of the time openly stated “Irish Need Not Apply”), he moved his family around the United States and eventually settled in California’s Livermore Valley, where he became a vintner in 1883. Subsequent generations kept the business going—even surviving Prohibition by making legal altar wines for religious sacraments.

Cooley for its part is something of a craft distiller, having been founded in 1987 to create the old Irish brands Tyrconnell and Locke’s.

At that time, the rest of the industry in Ireland had been consolidated by the Irish Distillers Group, which made such whiskies as Jameson’s and Power’s at the New Midleton Distillery and Bushmills at the Old Bushmills Distillery in Northern Ireland. Cooley was recently bought by Beam Global, maker of Jim Bourbon.

New Midleton has since passed into the hands of Pernod Ricard, and Diageo now owns Bushmills.

(Tasting notes and cigar pairing on the next page)

Concannon Irish Whiskey (80 proof or 40 percent alcohol by volume, $24.99)

APPEARANCE: Very light yellow color (almost Champagne), with medium-thick, slow legs.

NOSE: A comely mix of flowers and berries with a touch of honey and the slightest whiff of smoke.

PALATE: Smooth, round honey flavors take over immediately, chased by a nuance of spice and cinnamon on the roof of the mouth. Then the wine-cask influence lets itself be known with berry flavors along with bit of woodiness and lemon.

FINISH: Ends up very sweet and syrupy on the palate with some savory wood notes.

CIGAR PAIRING: By the color you’ll be tempted to go very light with this whiskey. While that works, Concannon, with its lushness and structure, also deserves to run with more medium-bodied smokes, to which it can donate sweetness.

"Concannon is one of the best Irish Whiskeys I've ever had. I've enjoyed it with med-full bodied sticks and its a good pair." —May 5, 2013 12:55 PM
"Just to revive an article from a few months ago, figured I'd comment on Concannon Irish whiskey: I'm on my 4th (5th?) bottle and I keep finding more things to like about it! My local shop has it for under 20 bucks so I'll keep buying! Try some!" —October 26, 2012 23:02 PM