By Richard Thomas
When animal feed giant Alltech decided to expand from brewing beer into distilling whiskey, they not only brought distilling to Lexington, Kentucky after half a century, but they also brought malt whiskey back to Lexington distilling. The distilling industry in the Heart of the Bluegrass once had a distinctly Irish flare to it, so bourbon was not the only thing distillers were making in Lexington. Contrary to what the Herald Leader thinks, malt whiskey was made in Lexington right up until 1919. The next year brought Prohibition into force, snuffing out the local practice of making malt whiskey, and its revival had to wait several decades for the arrival of Dr. Pearse Lyons, Alltech’s founder.
A native Irishman, Lyons comes from a distilling background, having worked as a biochemist in the Irish whiskey industry until 1980. Owning his own distillery was a longtime dream for Lyons, and by opening Town Branch Distillery he made that dream come true. Town Branch is named for its bourbon, but as Lyons is an Irishman, he also wanted to make something a closer to his roots: Pearse Lyons Reserve, an American malt whiskey.
Although Pearse Lyons Reserve is inspired by the Irish style of whiskey making, and Irish whiskeys are largely (but not exclusively) aged in used oak barrels. Pearse Lyons puts an unusual twist on that practice by using the old bourbon barrels that the brewery side of the company has just finished using for its bourbon barrel ale. Pearse Lyons is bottled at 40% abv.
The whiskey comes in a magnificent bottle, a fat cylinder of clear glass that shows off the golden appearance of the spirit, and is topped with a classy wood and cork stopper. It really is such a nice bottle that I recommend it as a keeper. Simply wash the label and glue off, and find something fun to do with it. In the glass, the whiskey has a light honey-amber coloring.
The nose of the Pearse Lyons Reserve is sweet like molasses, topped by a raisin-like note. It also has a distinct malty strand, as well as some minor notes of vanilla and oak. It’s a mellow nose, and very suggestive of what follows. The taste carries all of the same characteristics, although the woody vanilla and oak flavors come a bit more to the forefront. Overall, it’s a balanced and subdued whiskey, with just a little bit of complexity to it. The finish starts with a bit of a spicy bite, which is kind of a shock given how mellow the whiskey has been up until this point. It then winds down quickly, but warmly, ending on a woody note.
When I visited Town Branch, I saw Dr. Lyons recommend on the visitor’s film drinking his malt whiskey with a big dollop of water. When I do add water to my whiskey, it’s only a “splash,” which I define as a capful. However, I decided to (partially) follow Dr. Lyons advice and used a triple capful splash of water this time. The addition certainly brought the malty and woody aspects of the whiskey to the forefront, while suppressing the molasses sweetness. As is often the case with adding water, whether that is a good thing or not depends entirely on the personal preferences of the drinker.
I usually see Pearse Lyons Reserve retailing for $33 or $34.
Pearse Lyons won a silver medal at the 2012 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.