MMA star Conor McGregor arrived onto the Irish whiskey scene this week with typical bravado, brandishing his new whiskey bottling, Proper No. Twelve. The fighter's whiskey was released to coincide with the announcement of his October bout with Khabib Nurmagomedov, his first fight since his defeat to Floyd Mayweather in August last year.
It was during the press conference following the Mayweather fight that McGregor first revealed his plans to release an Irish whiskey bottled under his adopted moniker "Notorious". Unfortunately for him, the trademark for that phrase was already held by another Irish drinks brand, and after withdrawing from the legal battle, the fighter has labelled the whiskey Proper No. Twelve. The name is not a reference to the age of the whiskey, but an homage to his Dublin 12 neighbourhood of Crumlin where McGregor says "I learned the values of loyalty and hard work." He continued "I respect other Irish whiskeys, but I am coming in strong, with passion and with purpose. I am the founder of this company and I am going to give it my all."
In a week where even Bono is throwing his hat into the Irish whiskey ring, the release of McGregor's "own" whiskey marks the beginning of Irish celebrity whiskeys. Celebrity endorsement of whiskey is not new. Mila Kunis, Matthew McConaughey and David Beckham are each the face of various world whisky campaigns. In other markets, George Clooney has a tequila, Danny Devito has a limoncello and Graham Norton has a range of very successful wines. The move into celebrity brand ownership however has only recently begun in the whiskey world. McGregor's venture is in partnership with Proximo, the parent company of Bushmills in Northern Ireland, although as of July this year he has founded Eire Born, a company which lists McGregor as CEO and is the official owner of the Proper No. Twelve brand.
Many new entrants to the market, including McGregor purchase whiskey from already mature stocks held by the existing distillers and label it under their own branding. To be sold as Irish whiskey, the spirit must be produced on the island of Ireland and aged for at least three years in a wooden cask, meaning a quick turnaround is only possible by purchasing whiskey already produced on the stills of Midleton, Bushmills, West Cork, Cooley or the tiny Cooley-controlled Locke's Distillery.
The whiskey released this week varies dramatically from the Notorious whiskey McGregor brandished following the Mayweather fight. On the label of that whiskey, not only was whisky spelt without an ‘e’ twice (which is historically a legitimate spelling even in Ireland) but it was labelled as triple distilled, single pot still in style and aged 5 years. Proper No. Twelve, while still triple distilled, bears no age statement beyond the required minimum of three years and is a blend of malt and grain whiskey, suggesting that the source of the whiskey may have changed from initial teaser to release.
So what is in the bottle?
Grain whiskey forms the backbone of most blends and is made relatively cheaply from maize or corn in a large, very efficient column still. McGregor’s blend also contains malt whiskey from Bushmills, which is made in the familiar onion-shaped copper pot stills most people would typically associate with whiskey production.
Whiskey bottlings are typically a blend of casks numbering from single digits to hundreds. The whiskeys are then blended by an expert in order to achieve the desired flavour profile. McGregor tried close to 100 blends before settling on the contents of the Proper No. Twelve bottle. The whiskey was blended in Bushmills by David Elder – formerly of Guinness and who McGregor describes as his Master Distiller – and then bottled in Bushmills. The tasting notes describe the whiskey as "sophisticated yet smooth" and "approachable with hints of vanilla, honey and toasted wood".
Our Tasting Notes
The colour is a deep, burnished golden brown. Whiskey normally takes its colour from the cask, but there is no way this colour is from the cask alone.
There has been a significant addition of spirit caramel colouring E150a, an entirely legal practice which is nonetheless controversial in the industry - some people think it misleads customers to believe the whiskey is older than it is, while the counter argument is that consumers desire consistency of colour across different batches of the same whiskey.
Nose: On the nose, the whiskey is sweet, there is a whiff of the typical Bushmills floral and fruity character. There are aromas of sweet almonds, spun sugar and candied nut. There is a faint hint of vanilla, but not a massive amount.
Palate: The flavour is much less sweet than I expected. It is incredibly mild, with a bitter caramel quality that I can only describe as unsweetened Werthers Original. I spent a long time trying to get more out of the whiskey but other than a bit of nuttiness, and quite a lot of tannin, there is not much there. I kept going back to it, even adding a drop of water to open it up, which at 40 per cent ABV I usually don't find necessary, but all I got was more tannin, this time of the apple skin variety and a bit of ginger bread spice. Grain whiskey usually contributes more sweetness, but I didn't get much in the way of caramel or popcorn typically expected from the grain whiskey.
Finish: By contrast to the palate the finish was strong, with a burnt toast, charred oak character. I walked away with the impression of charcoal.
Summary: An accessible whiskey, though not strongly flavoured, at an affordable price point, made by one of the island's most respected distilleries. I expect this will end up being mixed or served over ice with something sweet.
Proper No. Twelve will be available in Ireland and the US with a suggested retail price up to €35 in Ireland and up to $29.99 in the USA, positioning it at a similar price point to Jameson. It went on sale this week in branches of Tesco and at Dublin Airport.
Seáneen Sullivan is a whiskey expert and founder of L. Mulligan Whiskey Shop and L. Mulligan Grocer Pub.