NEW YORK - Chances are if you order a single-malt at a bar, the bartender will ask you what region of Scotland (Speyside, Islay…) you're in the mood for. Well, a single-malt whiskey from Ireland and the woman who created it want to change that assumption.
The Sexton Single Malt Irish Whiskey came onto the U.S. market in late 2017 and has helped fuel a boom in interest in whiskeys from Ireland, which is traditionally known for its mass-market blends, such as Jameson and Powers. The Sexton, distilled in Northern Ireland (reportedly at Bushmills), is a young single malt (aged four years in oak barrels), packaged in a very eye-catching hexagonal black bottle with a skeleton wearing a top hat on the logo (see below for an explanation), and priced to make you do a double-take: $30 or less, which is extremely competitive.
And the creative force behind this drink is Alex Thomas, a master blender from County Antrim on Ireland's northern coast. Alex is one of the whiskey industry's few women to have the title "master blender." Inspired by the men and women who have come before her, Alex has cut her own path and is leading the way to Irish whiskey's new era.
As a whiskey enthusiast who also has Ireland high on his post-pandemic travel list, I couldn't pass up a chance to have Alex answer my nerdy questions. So pour yourself a dram and read on.
What is a "master blender" and how did you become one? Are you also a distiller?
ALEX THOMAS: A master blender is someone who develops a spirit using a combination of spirits with different characteristics by marrying, or blending, single malts, grain whiskies from different casks to create a particular flavor profile. It's the responsibility of a master blender to ensure the product remains consistent across different batches so what you taste today you will taste in the future.
Ultimately as a master blender, I am the caretaker of this amazing whiskey throughout its evolution while in the cask. I am responsible for the monitoring, planning, and developing the maturation of The Sexton Single Malt.
A bottle of The Sexton Single Malt Irish Whiskey. (Photo by Elaine Hill | Courtesy of The Sexton)
My grandfather and father both enjoyed drinking whiskey. My grandfather always said a hot whiskey could cure any ailment, so I was always fascinated about the magical liquid and only dreamt that one day I could be involved in its production. Being one of five daughters, I affectionately became known as "the adventurous one" and as my hometown was situated close by to distilleries, I was drawn to the traditionally masculine world of Irish whiskey making at a very young age.
When an opportunity came up to work at a distillery, I jumped at the chance.
I have spent 17 years honing my craft under the watchful eye of Colum Egan, one of Ireland's most revered distillers. And as my husband is in a similar line of work, I consider myself very fortunate to have them both providing me with inspiration and support. I quickly grew fond of the wood seasoning and aging process — the point in which the spirit gains its changing character and flavors. For me, it's the most exciting time in the whiskey-making process and where the magic happens.
As my confidence and desire to create grew in the craft, I decided to pursue my dream. In 2012, I received my distilling diploma and became master blender of The Sexton.
For those who may not understand the term, can you briefly explain what is a single malt whiskey and how it differs from a blended whiskey?
ALEX: There is always some confusion surrounding the term "single malt" but essentially it means that it is a malt whiskey that is created in a single distillery. A malt whiskey is made with only using malted barley as the grain whereas blended whiskey is a mixture of malt whiskey and whiskey made from other grains.
How did you get involved in The Sexton brand and in creating this dram? What went into choosing the spirit, aging process, the bottle design, and bringing it to the market?
ALEX: I wanted to create a whiskey that everyone would enjoy and that paid homage to those who came before us and those that had helped make me the person I am today. I wanted it to be approachable for those who thought whiskey was not for them and memorable enough for the whiskey connoisseur to enjoy the experience.
Most importantly, as the Irish whiskey category continues to rise, I wanted to introduce a liquid that could represent the changing face of Ireland — capturing the heritage and provenance of the past and the optimism and creativity of the future. I was given the freedom to be creative and The Sexton was born.
This unconventional whiskey is created from 100% Irish malted barley that is triple distilled in copper pot stills and consciously aged for a minimum of four years. The Sexton has a delicate fruity spirit that is so subtle it makes maturation a joy to watch.
The Sexton barrels are constructed using European oak — Quercus robar sourced from France. The European oak is dried for a minimum of 16 months before being handcrafted into barrels and toasted from the inside to The Sexton's specification using only oak scraps — a process that complements the delicate spirit coming from our still.
Our barrels are hand-selected and seasoned with oloroso sherry, which has been fortified to approximately 18% for a minimum of two years before being shipped to Ireland where they are filled with aqua vitae ("water of life") [a.k.a. the spirit] and laid to rest The Sexton Barrel Store.
Each barrel is unique and, like us, matures at different rates. Only when the marriage of spirit, sherry, and oak has reached The Sexton specification is it released for you to enjoy.
"Sexton" is derived from the Medieval Latin word sacristanus — custodian of sacred objects, or more simply put, the caretaker of precious things. What better name for this whiskey? I am the caretaker of this amazing whiskey while it rests in the casks and once in the bottle, you become its caretaker. We are the Sextons.
Sexton is also a term used to describe the man who prepares the grave — the last man to witness the body and soul before being laid to rest. As such, the Sexton Single Malt challenges you before you meet the man that lays your body to rest to make choices every day that will contribute to a life story worth telling.
The skull and top hat featured on the front of the bottle is a nod to the Sextons of Ireland — the custodians of precious things.
Our striking, hexagonal lacquered bottle features the word "DUBH," [which is Irish for black], across the front referencing its color and how it disguises the rich sherry-colored liquid that lies deep within. The hexagonal shape was inspired by the world-famous Giant's Causeway stones located on the northern coast of Ireland.
How has the response been from whiskey drinkers so far? What do people seem to appreciate about the whiskey?
ALEX: I am extremely proud to say that The Sexton became the No. 1 selling Irish single malt whiskey in the U.S. in less than a year from coming to market, a title it still holds today.
From feedback, I feel like the aspect that consumers appreciate the most is how premium the liquid is yet how approachable the price point is. The Sexton can really elevate any night without the steep price point and I feel like that is a rarity these days.
The bottle catches the imagination and proves to be a huge point of interest, from the unique bottle shape to The Sexton — our well-dressed skeleton — people can tell our brand has a message and we like to encourage the "you have but a single life, drink a single malt" mentality.
Single malt Scotch whiskies are world-renowned. Some of the brands are behemoths. Yet Irish single malts seem to be under the radar. I'm not an expert or connoisseur but I am a well-informed whiskey consumer. Yet, off the top of my head, I can think of only three Irish single malts (other than The Sexton) — from Bushmills, Tullamore Dew, and Teeling. What challenges do Irish single malts face in the U.S. market that you hope to tackle? And how are Irish single malts similar and different from their counterparts across the Irish Sea?
ALEX: I am delighted to say people are falling back in love with Irish whiskey and we're working to create more awareness for the excellent single malts that come from Ireland. A lot of people know Irish whiskey for our blends but Ireland also offers some of the most incredible single malts on the market.
Consumers have started to explore with different taste profiles and age statements, which has made The Sexton especially intriguing. As leaders in Irish single malt, The Sexton delivers generations of whiskey-making expertise in a modern, youthful package, just at the right price point for bartenders to experiment with in cocktails and consumers to enjoy neat.
To me, what makes Irish malts so special is the history behind the category. Ireland was the first to manufacture single malt whiskey, thanks to the Old Bushmills Distillery. The additional years of knowledge and experience we have in making single malt whiskey has allowed us to experiment with new cask types and release new innovations.
The stereotype that women "aren't that into whiskey" has been pretty much debunked in recent years with the proliferation of blogs, books, social media channels, YouTube channels, TV programs, and more by and for women who enjoy all types of whiskeys. Women have been breaking down barriers in the world of whiskey — whether it is in blending and distilling, branding and marketing, journalism and writing, and overall expertise and appreciation. What are some of the ways you have been a leader/change-maker and what are some of the big changes you've seen over the years? And what more needs to be done?
ALEX: As the whiskey industry grows, women are undoubtedly becoming more involved and forging careers that they may have never chosen in the past. I am extremely proud to be one of the few females in the whiskey-making industry.
Awareness and appreciation for females in the industry has definitely increased over the last several years. For example, my colleague Helen Mulholland, who is the master blender of Bushmills Irish Whiskey and the first female master blender in the history of Irish whiskey, has been recognized and awarded for her contributions to the Irish whiskey category. She has recently received the prestigious Chairman's Award from the Irish Whiskey Association and was the first woman to be inducted into Whisky Magazine's Hall of Fame in 2018.
Nothing is more empowering than doing what you love and having the freedom to share that experience and knowledge — so that is what I, as one of the few female master blenders, tries to do — increase awareness and normalize the female presence in this industry.
My advice to anyone is to dare to dream and do whatever it takes to make that dream come true. The Sexton Single Malt is the result of my dream and its growing consumer appreciation is proof that I have been welcomed into the industry with the same love and passion I have for the industry.
Can you share a whiskey cocktail recipe that folks can make in their home bar?
ALEX: The Sexton is delicious served neat but is also phenomenal in any whiskey cocktail.
An Irish Manhattan cocktail. (Photo Courtesy of The Sexton)
THE IRISH MANHATTAN
2 parts The Sexton Irish Whiskey
1 part vermouth
1 dash bitters
Add ice, whiskey, vermouth, and bitters to a glass.
Gently swirl or stir with a mixing spoon for about 20 seconds.
Strain into a fresh glass and garnish with a maraschino cherry.