By Richard Thomas
When the legendary Master Distiller Barry Crockett hatched the idea for Midleton Very Rare in 1984, I doubt he knew it would be the start of a truly seminal brand, one of the earliest examples the modern class of annual limited edition whiskeys. New Midleton Distillery had only been in operation for nine years when Crockett embarked on its creation, and he had only succeeded his father as Master Distiller some four years before.
It all seems like destiny now, but the Irish Whiskey was still firmly in its nadir at the time; John Teeling wouldn’t open the Cooley Distillery until 1987, so the Irish Whiskey industry was still just New Midleton and Bushmills. Nothing else was left. Indicative of this is that Crockett drew on a mere 32 casks to make Midleton Very Rare, with an age range of 9 to 13 years. Compare that with this year’s release, the 39th installment of Midleton Very Rare, drawing on many more casks with a range of 12 to 33 years.
The series ran the remainder of Crockett’s career (to 2013), the whole of Brian Nation’s tenure as Master Distiller (2013-2020), and now carries into the stewardship of former Master of Maturation and current Master Distiller Kevin O’Gorman (2020-present). The look and the style has changed quite a bit over the years, and nothing exemplifies that better perhaps than that inaugural 1985 edition: insofar as I am aware, most who have tried it think it rather ordinary. Midleton Very Rare evokes quite different responses nowadays.
Grappling with this review of the best of the Midleton Very Rare series presents a particular problem, because the only person I can imagine that may have tried all 39 vintages of the brand would be Crockett himself. Maybe him. It’s such a venerable limited edition series that the bulk of its releases go unremarked on. Even so, I was able to piece together a picture of the brand for the 21st Century, and I took the attitude that finding good commentary on a 20th Century installment as high praise indeed.
That said, here are the five best vintages of Midleton Very Rare, in descending chronological order.
Midleton Very Rare 2019: This was one of those expressions where opinions diverged sharply. Our own reviewer gave it a B+, and that was a mark that many in the whiskey-writing community concurred with. However, Whisky Advocate gave it 94 points, a tie with the best installments in the recent years of the series, and just as many observers agreed with that assessment. In reviewing their remarks, this bottling wasn’t as rich as the typical Midleton Very Rare, but brought extra subtlety to the show. So, this one is a case where different tastes came away with different conclusions; if you like complex, lighter-bodied Irish whiskey, this probably a bottle worth snagging.
Midleton Very Rare 2014: This was the first Brian Nation release in the series, drawing on pot still and grain whiskeys up to 22 years old. Relative to the other Brian Nation-fashioned whiskey on the list, it was a rich and robust expression, and deviated but little, if at all, from the series as developed under Barry Crocket. Hence, opinions on it were undivided, and it received high marks across the board.
Midleton Very Rare 2010: I was given the “heads up” about this vintage shortly after entering the world of whiskey scribbling, as it was the current release at the time and considered outstanding. Although richly sweet, with a body like apple pie jazzed up with raisins and honey, there is a rosy, floral aspect to it as well. That latter note really made this edition stand out in the minds of those of us who were there and trading notes about it.
Midleton Very Rare 2008: If the rosy, floral aspect of 2010 made it a stand-out expression for 2008 it was the earthy, woody aspects of this one that gave it high marks. The cedar and coffee notes contrasted with the staple Irish sweetness. This is also far enough back when people could be forgiven for thinking that Midleton Very Rare was a regular product, rather than a series of distinct limited editions. Individual bottles didn’t have information about the age range it was made with, and there was much less fanfare about these things a decade and a half ago. I knew plenty of folks who thought this was the same stuff each and every year; good, but unchanging.
Midleton Very Rare 1996: This one gets on the list for a simple reason, namely that it is the oldest example of Midleton Very Rare I have ever heard anyone refer to specifically and on good terms. For 20th Century examples of Midleton Very Rare, it’s such a distant memory that I commentary comes in three varieties: vague memories about the brand from either the 1980s, 1990s or both; how ordinary the inaugural release was; or good references to this one.