The Sexton Single Malt is an Irish single malt that has done a good job of establishing itself in a competitive market. We talk to creator Alex Thomas to find out how she did it, why it was important to make a distinctly Irish spirit and how she relates to the last person to see our bodies before they are laid to rest…
“Growing up my grandfather and father always kept a bottle of single malt whiskey in the house. It came out on special occasions, like 21st birthdays and weddings. But it also mainly came out when people had passed away. All the friends and family got together and they celebrated the life of that person that had passed and told their stories,” says Alex Thomas, founder of The Sexton Irish whiskey brand. “That’s what I wanted The Sexton to represent; living life well and having those memories you’ll share with your loved ones.”
Thomas is one of the few female master blenders in the Irish whiskey industry. We meet at an event thrown by The Sexton called ‘Own The Night’, which features plenty of very tasty cocktails (more on them later), a sensory experience based on the whiskey’s profile and a live photography exhibition. She is there to spread the word about her creation, The Sexton Single Malt, and its launch in London, Belfast and Dublin in December 2018 following a promising debut in America.
Thomas landed her first job in the industry at Bushmills Distillery. Her husband had come home from a shift at the distillery in 2004 to tell her about a new job opening. “Growing up with the distillery on your doorstep, it was a dream come true for many of us to be able to work there. When an opening came up, I jumped at the chance,” says Thomas. “I started working in the maturation and distillation part of the business with the great Colum Egan and fell in love with the process of turning something raw into something so delicate and rich that people can enjoy. I decided to do my exams and become qualified, and in 2012 I finished my exams and received my distilling diploma. From there I founded The Sexton, and everything that followed has just been a dream come true.”
As Thomas speaks, photos are projected on the screens across each room showing images of people enjoying themselves with a dram in hand. The event space has a distinctive, macabre and gothic aesthetic influenced by The Sexton’s branding, which extends to the name. Anyone who’s big on Medieval Latin (where my people at?!) will know that ‘Sexton’ derives from the word ‘sacristanus’, meaning custodian of sacred objects, and is used to describe the person who prepared the grave, the last to witness the body before being laid to rest. “I wanted a name that would represent what I do. As a master blender and distiller, I am the caretaker of this amazing whiskey while it’s in the cask. The Sexton is about living life well before you meet the man that lays your body to rest, so that’s why I kind of came round the idea of naming it ‘The Sexton’. I wanted it to be something different, something approachable.”
That ambition obviously extended to the bottle design, which is unlike most you’ll see. It features The Sexton himself, a well-dressed skeleton (there’s even a skeleton horse and skeleton coachman). But the squat black hexagonal bottle is a striking image on its own, although it’s clearly going to be a challenging pour for a bartender with average size hands. “The distillery is up in the north coast of Antrim where there’s nothing more famous than the Giant’s Causeway stones, so that’s where the shape comes from,” says Thomas. “It’s dark, specifically because there’s a rich sherry colour to the whiskey so you’re getting that hint of what the darkness is going to be. I wanted people to get a little bit of that experience when they release it from the bottle… I’m sure the glass designer loved me!”
Thomas wanted it to stand out as she understands she’s working in an incredibly competitive market. “When I started in the industry there were only three distilleries. I knew that the branding needed to be bold and make a statement. Hopefully, those people who try it for the first time because of how it looks come back a second time for what’s in the bottle,” explains Thomas. “That’s the most important part. It’s the whiskey that is the main feature of The Sexton but the bottle attracts the attention to get you to try it first. It’s ultimately about the quality. From start to finish everything I use in that bottle is high-end quality, from the barley to the distillate, to the cask – everything.”
For all the fun and intrigue of The Sexton’s branding, the process behind creating this whiskey is where things get interesting. News has emerged recently that sources in the Irish grain industry claim that less than a quarter of the grain used to produce Irish whiskey is indeed from Ireland. This is not the case with The Sexton, which was made from 100% Irish malted barley. “The barley I use comes from the south east coast of Ireland, in Wexford and Tipperary. It’s a two-row barley, low on protein because I need to get at the sugar to be able to produce alcohol,” Thomas explains. Her use of Irish barley shows her commitment to provenance. But it’s more than this: “Ireland is my home, it’s where I’ve grown up all of my life and one thing I believe we do in Ireland well is make whiskey. Personally, I think we’re the best in the world and I wanted to represent Ireland as a whole.”
The Sexton is a brand without a distillery, a common sight in Irish whiskey. Thomas, however, hasn’t simply bought in the spirit. Instead, she was granted access to use the stills at Bushmills and runs her own distillation. “It’s wonderful, there’s no other industry that would allow that to happen, that would share their secrets. They taught me from the beginning to make Irish whiskey the best possible way I could so that I could represent the category well,” Thomas says. “My warehouse is on their premises as well. Hopefully, the future is big for The Sexton and who knows what will happen. But, for now, they allow me to do my work.”
Unsurprisingly Sexton Single Malt is triple-distilled, like Bushmills whiskey. Thomas opted to go down the same route because she enjoys the “smooth distillate it produces, a really sweet, fruity flavoured delicate spirit. Triple distillation also allows me to remove all of the things in the whiskey that I wouldn’t want,” she added.
The final defining characteristic of Sexton Irish Single Malt is its oloroso cask finish. Thomas established a relationship with the Antonio Paez Lobato family, who have over 70 years experience, in Jerez in Spain and the barrels are processed to her own specifications, from oak type, toast level, type of wine used and length of time of the seasoning. “I sourced the European oak in France, moved it over to Spain where it was air-dried for 16 months, toasted from the inside to a medium-high level and then seasoned for two years with oloroso sherry that I picked along with the family,” Thomas explains. “It’s then moved over to Ireland with around five to ten litres inside so the cask is really fresh”. Her approach to maturation mirrors her meticulousness with her selection of raw material and distillation process. Distillers and blenders working with cooperages to this extent are not uncommon, but there are plenty who aren’t as involved to this extent.
The Sexton is matured in first, second and third fill oloroso sherry casks, an approach Thomas settled on after a lot of trial and error. “At first I only wanted first-fills, but these are really heavily coated with the sugar coming in from the sherry and it was too sweet, which may have brought in new palates but I’m a whiskey maker so I wanted people who drink whiskey,” Thomas explains. “So I introduced a little second fill, but there was still something ever so slightly missing. I then introduced a couple of third fills and that nuttiness started to come back in from the European oak and it was like a day made in heaven! It was a eureka moment for me, the flavour profile just changes so much having that little bit of the second and third fill in there.”
The big question that remains is, how does The Sexton Single Malt taste? Well, it’s safe to say I was impressed. But before we get to that, Thomas was kind enough to let us sample her new make and the sherry used to season her oloroso casks as well as The Sexton itself, so here are our thoughts:
The Sexton Single Malt New-Make Tasting Note:
Nose: Homemade blackberry jam, crisp fresh malt and a little floral honey. Desiccated coconut, soft vanilla, marmalade and spearmint emerge underneath, as well as a hint of anise and soft marshmallow.
Palate: Hot white pepper spice initially, then a wave of fresh tropical fruit, buttery pastries and damp hay.
Finish: Banana foam sweets linger.
The Sexton Single Malt Sherry Tasting Note:
Nose: Savoury salty notes with some dried fruit, caramel and rich walnuts, then a touch of minerality and bittersweet herbs.
Palate: Refreshingly dry, with bright citrus, dried stone fruits, pecans and rounded sherry spice, then a touch of oak.
Finish: Good length with sherried peels and a touch of salinity.
The Sexton Single Malt Tasting Note:
Nose: The nose is rich, sherried and highly resinous, with oily walnuts, thick slabs of dark chocolate and plenty of dried and dark fruits such as stewed plums, cooked blackcurrant and raisins. A light maltiness emerges underneath with marzipan, caramel and a pinch of drying baking spice.
Palate: Robustly elegant, with prunes, Manuka honey and a little tropical fruit while the mid-palate is filled with stone fruit, oak spice, marmalade with zest, polished furniture and a hint of dried herbs. Treacle toffee, cocoa and a little menthol note add depth.
Finish: Mulberry jam, coffee icing and some woodiness lingers and dries into more maltiness.
Overall: An approachable, affordable and very tasty dram. The flavours are balanced, there’s some depth there and, to be honest, I helped myself to a second dram. I can’t help but think this whiskey also has a profile that lends itself to mixing and cocktail creation. Speaking of which…
Thomas has something in common with many modern whiskey producers, in that she’s keen for the spirit to be disassociated from the tired image of it being an old man’s drink. “I had a real strong belief that if people got to experience single malts at a younger age, they would fall in love with whiskey,” she says. Thomas wants people to enjoy The Sexton Single Mal, whether they drink it neat, with a mixer or in a cocktail. “My father is a very traditional whiskey drinker: you either drink it neat with ice or with a little bit of water. But he embraces the fact that I’m the next generation and I want to drink it my way. We don’t eat in the same restaurants, we don’t live the same lives, so it’s about being unique and experiencing it your way.”
After trying a cocktail, or two, at the ‘Own the Night’ event (what? It was important research), it was clear that The Sexton mixes beautifully, as Thomas has found through her own personal research. “To be honest, it’s a perk of the job getting to try the different takes on what the mixologists work with and I must admit, I haven’t found one that I haven’t liked!”
The following examples, Bury the Hatchet, Love it to Death and Laid to Rest were all on show during the event and are easy enough to make at home. Enjoy!
Bury the Hatchet
Combine 50ml of The Sexton Single Malt, 25ml of lemon juice, 12.5ml of sugar syrup) in a glass, then top with soda water and add a 15ml sweet sherry float. Garnish with a wedge of lemon.
Love it to Death
Combine 50ml of The Sexton Single Malt, 25ml of fresh lime juice, 12.5ml of Aperol, 2 dashes of absinthe, 20ml of sugar syrup in a glass, then serve garnished with thyme and orange peel.
Laid to Rest
Combine 25ml of The Sexton Single Malt, 5ml of Pedro Ximenez sherry, 20ml of manzanilla sherry, 12.5ml of spiced claret syrup in a glass serve over crushed ice. Garnish with mint leaves and dried spices.