“The light music of whiskey falling into a glass—an agreeable interlude.” – James Joyce
Is there anything more Irish than whiskey? Oh, fine, other than Kelly green, and that particular blend of melancholy and black humor that you find almost exclusively in the children of the Emerald Isle. But don’t you even think about saying, “Guinness.” Sure, yeah, it’s on tap in every pub in the blessed country, and tasty that way too, but Guinness is owned by Diageo, and they’re not Irish.
Right, where was I? O’Begley LLC, out of East Rochester, makes a very fine Irish-style whiskey and several variations thereof. As I understand it, the company is a father-son operation, Jim and Adam Begley, proprietors. Andy Walker has been working for them since 2012, and is the company’s lone distiller. A man of many talents, Andy was also working as a brewer at Rohrbach when I met him at an Upstate New York Homebrewers Association (UNYHA) meeting. I tell ya’, if you want to make connections in the craft beverage scene, join a homebrewing club.
Anyhow, I’ve been a fan of O’Begley’s Old Kilfountain Irish Style Whiskey since Andy shared some at the UNYHA Oktoberfest last year. With an honesty borne of sampling homebrews all afternoon, I told him that I didn’t care about the New York origins of their malt; I just loved a good whiskey. Thankfully, Andy’s an easygoing chap, and didn’t take offense. In fact, when I approached him about doing an article on O’Begley, he was all for it. They’d recently opened a tasting room off of route 14, in New York’s rather charming Finger Lakes region, so the timing seemed perfect to introduce whiskey into our lineup of featured potations.
Currently, the O’Begley tasting room is located about seventy miles southeast of Rochester, on the eastern side of Seneca Lake. You can see the lake from the tasting room’s front windows, a view that is rendered even more relaxing by a drop or two of locally-produced libations. Serving quarter-ounce samples from pour-control spouts, Andy ran us through the six-product lineup of house spirits.
Andy described this 100 proof (50% ABV) spirit as “barley moonshine.” Distilled entirely from New York state malt, Poitín is a white barley spirit, also called white dog. It’s never seen the inside of a barrel, so there are no oak tannins or wood esters to mellow the taste; just pure grain flavors. As in a Single Malt and Single Hops (SMASH) beer, this is perhaps the best way to taste the flavor contributions from the malt.
Despite its noticeable alcohol bite—you don’t get a 50% alcohol drink without that—the Poitín is fairly smooth; it is, as Andy put it, “Lightly sweet, a little bit grainy.” Ben remarked that it reminded him of the Sperryville, VA-based Copper Fox Distillery; high praise, since their rye white dog is one of his favorite spirits.
I found the Poitín much pleasanter than the more usual corn moonshine, and would be curious to try it in a cocktail, or even with Coke.
As previously mentioned, this 86 proof Irish-style whiskey was my introduction to O’Begley’s products, and probably remains my favorite. The nose is very similar to what I’d expect from a true Irish whiskey. Distilled from New York barley and oats, pot stilled, then aged for 18 months in 8-gallon barrels from Woodinville, it is, as Ben put it, “Clean, dry, smoky, [with] hints of vanilla and butterscotch.”
Young Single Malt
Where the previous two libations contain some unmalted grain, this cask strength, 123.6 proof whiskey is mashed entirely with malt. Labeled “young” because it’s only been in a barrel for about 10 months, the very dry single malt carries an indelible taste of aged oak barrel, with, as Ben noted, “hints of cinnamon and fennel.” That “barrel strength” claim is no joke; this one blazed a fiery trail all the way down to my belly, where it sat there smoldering until chased with some water.
This 96 proof whiskey uses the same mash as Poitín and Old Kilfountain, but it’s aged in newly charred oak barrels instead of used ones, and according to the tasting menu, is unfiltered. The nose contains a lot of caramel, and it has a sweeter taste, with more intense flavor contributions from the wood. Ben described it as “Caramelly, toasty-woodsy.” That sounds about right. A real fireside warmer, this one. I’d like to see how it goes in a Manhattan. Andy mentioned that they may soon be getting some barrels from Long Island that are made with New York oak. It will be interesting to see if/how much the terroir affects the flavors that the oak imparts to the whiskey.
Nearly barrel-strength, this 121 proof whiskey is a stronger, more concentrated version of the regular Dubh Reserve. The nose has those same sweet, caramel notes, but as you might expect, they’re stronger here. I had this spirit neat, but like a fine scotch, adding a few drops of distilled water would probably help to smooth it out, and bring more of the distinct flavors to the fore. As it was, Ben got some “Cinnamon notes, maybe port, a strong, woodsy spice,” from it.
Pioneer Green Malt
The final entry on the O’Begley house distilled list, this 100 proof white spirit is mashed with sprouted 6-row barley, which gives the nose a rather unique, almost grassy character. “You get a fennel kind of thing, in the back,” Andy said. It has some herbal notes that you wouldn’t expect from a whiskey-type spirit, even a unoaked one. As Ben noted, “It’s almost gin-like.” Andy agreed, commenting that you could probably use the Pioneer Green Malt in any cocktail that would normally call for gin. I’d like to see how it does in a real classic, the martini.
All together, now
Sometimes, the best drinks come from mixing spirits, which is why there cocktails proliferate like rabbits. It would cost a pretty penny (though not as much as most other spirits of the same quality), but if you were to pick up a bottle of each of these and mix them into one shot, you’d get a libation that smells amazing, has all flavors of the component whiskies, and is smoother than any one of them by itself. Having been privileged to try this concoction, Ben commented, “If you took away the peaty scotch flavor, it makes it almost like [Dimple] Pinch.” I think the Pioneer Green Malt added a grassier component, but otherwise I agree with Ben’s assessment.
To round out the article, Andy gave us a tour of the distillery; due to the lack of a sign denoting its presence, I wouldn’t have found it without his help. The system, which Adam Begley mostly built himself (more on that at the O’Begley website), includes a 420 gallon mash tun, 120 gallon still with copper distilling column, and several fermentation vessels. Except for the distilling column and heavy-duty gaskets on the mash tun and still, it doesn’t look that much different from a craft brewery.
Their typical mash uses six bags of 6-row barley, fortified with some additional enzymes. That concoction hangs out in the mash tun for a week before being boiled. The vapor goes through some legit-looking pipes and into the still pot. Andy puts the heads and tails from the last batch back in, and runs it through all the layers of distillation—and for at least some of the products, filtration. The first and last bits of the batch, the heads and tails, are not what you drink. The middle, the hearts, are the good stuff that gets barrel-aged, or not, as the case may be.
When asked if distilling were difficult to learn, Andy explained that he’s been homebrewing for years, and since he is also a skilled cook—I can vouchsafe that his German potato salad is excellent—he relates both brewing and distilling to that. Makes sense to me, since I also connect brewing to the culinary arts (you can check out my Baking with Trub post here).
Find the Whiskey
At this point, O’Begley is mostly distributed locally, though some has made its way into the New York metro area, New Jersey, Maryland and Washington DC. A fair number of Upstate New York breweries, liquor stores, and restaurants carry it, too. And of course, there’s the O’Begley tasting room in the Finger Lakes, which also features spirits from several other area distilleries. For more information on where you can find their products, check out the company’s Find Us page.
Photos by Benjamin Wilson
Update: I thought you had to go to the Copper Fox Distillery to get their unaged rye spirit, but that was incorrect. Just yesterday, I saw it at Whitehouse Liquor & Wine in Henrietta.
“About Us.” O’Begley. Accessed July 30, 2015.
James, Joyce. “25 Whiskey Quotes from the Famous Drinkers Who Loved It Best.” First We Feast. March 1, 2014. Accessed July 30, 2015.