It’d be easy to dismiss Keeper’s Heart Whiskey as a gimmick. Particularly for whiskey denizens, acutely aware of marketing ploys, routinely used to raising well-trained noses to the likes of mainstay brands getting too experimental.
At first blush, the trio of offerings from Minnesota-based O’Shaughnessy Distilling Company—Irish + American, Irish + Bourbon, and 10 Year Single Malt Irish Whiskey—do seem cloyingly of-the-moment: Irish whiskey is having a serious moment, and the bourbon train is unstoppable; why not combine the two? That accusation even reached Brian Nation, Keeper’s Heart master distiller: “You hear ‘all Irish [whiskey] plus American [whiskey] is a gimmick,’” he tells us, in his charming Irish accent. “All we want is people to taste the product first. The reaction has been great, even in Ireland. Everyone is extremely surprised.”
A Storied Master Distiller
That Keeper’s Heart liquid is earning solid reviews isn’t shocking. Nation’s resume reads like the menu of Irish whiskey offered at your local watering hole: he’s had stints as distilling at Midleton, Redbreast, Jameson, and Powers. The aim for the unconventional union is to bring the best of Irish whiskey and American distilleries together, Nation shares: “We’re doing this in two ways; showcasing the art of blending with both spirits and the irish style of distillation, the quintessential pot still style.”
For the blends, Nation sourced Irish whiskies from The Great Northern Distillery, a behemoth contract distiller in Dundalk, Ireland, and the American bourbons and ryes from MGP Distillery, a powerhouse producer in Lawrenceburg, Indiana (the birthplace of more than 100 brands of American whiskey). The goal of the blends is a greater taste profile than something purely Irish.
For the pot still single malt they’re distilling, “We’re currently doing a mashbill of malted and unmalted barley, aging in American Oak,” Nation says. “It’s going to be a different taste and that’s what we like about this; it’s what made the move exciting for me.”
That move is proverbial and literal—Nation moved his family from Ireland to Minnesota to oversee the distillery—a big change and, in a time when many whiskey upstarts are non-distilling producers who merely buy and blend, a highly costly endeavor. Question why Nation and company would undergo that expensive route and he mentions David Perkins, the founder of (the absurdly tasty) High West Whiskey and an originator of the blend-and-distill-too model.
“If you can distill, you have a brand home people can come to, you can produce your own liquid and showcase the art of the blend, too,” Nation says. As to whether Nation would prefer to be known as a master blender or a master distiller, he’d like to be recognized for efforts in both areas.
For now, the first core product is the Irish + American Whiskey, the latter of which is a 95/5 rye from MGP (think Bulleit Rye). “There’s a boldness that comes from the earthiness of the pot still, and the spice of the rye, and this butterscotch flavor of the grain as well,” Nation says. “There’s a creaminess from the pot still that combines with the syrupyness of the rye; add in the backbone of the charred oak and it’s a great sipping whiskey that will also stand out in a cocktail, even at 86 proof.” Keeper’s Heart Irish + American is priced from $41.99.
Irish + Bourbon, Reviewed
The second offering, Irish + Bourbon, is more bourbon-forward, Nation says, noting “You get the pot still flavors developing towards mid-palate.” That MGP bourbon uses a mashbill of 76 percent corn, 21 percent rye and the remainder of malted barley, melding together to create a 92-proof bottle. Keeper’s Heart Irish + Bourbon is priced from $54.99.
After cracking a sample sent to us, the Irish + Bourbon has a hint of a grassy smell that accompanies Irish whiskey on the nose, but the first sip is all bourbon; delicious salted caramel and vanilla. That initial sweetness is short, as there’s a prominent crescendo into the pot still flavors—baking spices, pepper, espresso—but it fades into a lingering, salty-sweet note for the finish.
It’s unique, interesting, and loose; it’ll take your taste buds on a journey. It’s exciting enough to sip neat, but also excels in a cocktail (we made a Manhattan with it).
Seems like Nation achieved his goal for an expression that’s unlike the rest of the crowded market.
Single Malts and Beyond
The final product is a 10-year single malt, currently being sourced from Cooley Distillery (makers of Kilbeggan, Tyrconnell, and Connemara whiskey). “Malt whiskey tends to be drier on the palate so we wanted to enhance the mouthfeel,” says Nation, adding that a finish in a Malaga wine barrel brings a nice honey sweetness, apricot flavors and almond nuttiness to the whiskey. Keeper’s Heart 10-year Single Malt Irish Whiskey is 86-proof and is priced from $99.99.
That sourced single malt will likely fall by the wayside as Keeper’s Heart’s own produced distillate grows. Nation shares that those new products being created in pot stills in Minnesota will be stand alone brands, not to be blended with bought barrels.
Experimentation is also underway to develop new mashbills and cask finishes. “We’re doing a single barrel program now with finishing barrels like sauternes, cabernet sauvignon, and PX sherry, even maple syrup barrels,” he says.
Future innovations also include diving into various yeast libraries, trials with alternative strains to produce even further bespoke flavors. Can’t wait to try those results.