By Richard Thomas
As a rule, Irish whiskey is a blend of grain (unmalted barley) whiskey, malt whiskey, and pot still whiskey. What separates Tullamore Dew from its competitors is the brand’s strong emphasis on malt and pot still whiskeys in its blends, as well as its preference for aging in such a way as to impart light, fruity flavors to the whiskey, a distinctive taste compared to the usual toffee and woody style of most Irish whiskeys.
The whiskey in Tullamore Dew 12 Year Old Special Reserve is actually between 12 and 15 years old, aged in ex-bourbon barrels and finished in old sherry casks, a combination aimed at bringing out the sweet side of a very malty whiskey. Keeping all that in mind, I approached the 12 Year Old with no small amount of curiosity about how all that extra time in the barrel would effect the company’s core flavor profile.
Tullamore Dew’s 12 Year Old comes in a variation of the company’s distinctive square glass bottle, with a heavy foil-topped plastic screw cap. The foil is a nice touch, even if the plastic cap is somewhat ordinary. The overall impression is of a more ornate spin on Tullamore Dew. The whiskey is bottled at 40% abv.
The 12 Year Old has a bright, clear gold color, and the nose comes across crisply, with floral-citrus scents balanced against a slight woodiness and a touch of sea spray. That nose hints at a well-balanced, more complex rendition of the standard Tullamore Dew, which is why the taste was such a surprise. On the one hand, its light and silky, just as I expected, but on the other, the predominant flavor is the mellow oak and vanilla, under-laid by slight notes of citrus sweetness, maltiness, sherry nuttiness and toffee. The longer aging period clearly imparted substantial qualities from the old bourbon barrels, more so than the nose might suggest. The finish is a long one, starting out a little spicy and takes its time winding down into a slight warmth and an oak aftertaste.
I’m not a big believer in the idea that adding water to whiskey “unlocks flavors.” What I find instead is that when water alters the character of a whiskey, it is to enhance some flavors while suppressing others. In the case of Tullamore Dew’s 12 Year Old Special Reserve, a splash of water brings out the woodier and saltier aspects much more strongly. For some that might be an improvement, but fans of Tullamore Dew tend to like it for its sweetness, and therefore might not appreciate the lurch towards oak and sea spray that a little water gives to this whiskey. That is another thing I believe about adding water: because of what water actually does to whiskey, whether it is an improvement or not has a lot to do with the drinker’s individual tastes.
In the United States, Tullamore Dew 12 Year Old usually runs between $38 to $45.
Tullamore Dew 12 Year Old won Double Gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2006, 2007 and 2008. It also won a Double Gold at the International Spirits Challenge, as well as the Best Irish Whiskey trophy from that competition in 1999 and 2000.