this post) and there have been moves by independent players over the years to bring a bit of authenticity back to Kilkenny's reputation as a city of beer. In 2014 local boy Ger Costello launched his own brand of red ale around the pubs of Kilkenny and it's still going strong though a standalone brewery has yet to materialise.
Now another approach has been taken by none other than the heirs of the Smithwick family themselves, again with a contract-brewed red ale, released under their "Sullivan's" marque.
This isn't the family's first attempt to break into the independent beer scene. Back in the late 1990s, during the first flush of Irish microbrewing, the Smithwicks intended to open their own brewery in Kilkenny, as well as a brewpub in a Dublin martello tower. The plans foundered when Diageo took exception to the words "Kilkenny" and "Smithwick" being used anywhere near beer that wasn't theirs. The Smithwicks became a successful legal dynasty after leaving brewing so one assumes that this time out they've done their homework on the intellectual property side. Diageo may no longer brew in the marble city but they still have a prominent visitors' centre, and the close association of the Smithwick's and Kilkenny beer brands with the town is something I imagine they'll want to keep as exclusive as they can.
here's why) and it's 4% ABV. It's darker than your typical Irish red, a deep shade of garnet, almost brown. The speciality grains are Cara Red and roast barley and they do all the heavy lifting in the flavour, leaving it with a lot of residual caramelised sugars and a hefty, almost burnt, roasted quality. The hops represent as only a very slight green vegetal tang, in the aroma and on the finish. I was pleasantly surprised to find that despite the sweetness it's still quite sessionable -- the roastiness dries it out enough to keep the caramel from sticking to your palate.
One could make the case that the last thing Irish beer needs is another mid-strength caramelly red ale, but if it's going to get one, it may as well be this.
The Maltings was on draught but in the Taproom fridge there was another Sullivan's beer, Birchfield Barley Wine. Ian made this on the Spiedel so it's not yet a commercial brew, evidenced in part by the somewhat vague "ABV 7.8-8.1%" on the label. I admit I hadn't made the connection to Smithwick's Barley Wine but Ian said that the recipe was influenced by that beer, and another late example of the style he used to make, Phoenix Barley Wine.
It's unsurprisingly boozy with a definite Belgian character: the plum and raisin taste and smell of a dubbel. The finish is quick and, like the red, there's a tiny flash of green acidity. While a bit too marker-pen hot at the moment, after two or three years in the bottle it would mellow nicely, given the chance.
The real reason behind its existence is to serve as a mixer with Maltings: adding a generous glug into your pint brings that lovely dark fruit complexity to the session beer, even as it renders it rather less sessionable.
So that's Sullivan's. It is, to all appearances, a well-funded highly-motivated operation with a strong brand and a definite sense of what it wants to be. I'll leave my eyebrow thoroughly raised over the "Est'd 1702" part of the strapline, and indeed the claim to be "Kilkenny's Brewery". I've little doubt that a full brewery set-up will come to pass in due course, though it may not be the city's only brewer by then. Meanwhile, Maltings can be found on tap around Kilkenny and beyond, and also at the Irish Craft Beer Festival at the RDS today and tomorrow.
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