In Ireland, the countryside is wrapped lushly in a myriad of emerald hues; the vibration of independence wars and patriotism mingle in the spring green pasturelands, legends entwine within the dark boughs of ivy, and a sense of mystery and enchantment flow through the trees, wrapped in kelly, jade and of course, shamrock green. Bursts of luck and laughter spill forth from the local pubs, and within the clinking of glasses and boisterous thoughts, glints of the amber of Irish whiskey can be seen flashing intermittently between foaming pints of beer as lively music fills the air. Each glass of this liquid gold holds one of the oldest forms of whiskey, clear and distinct from its smoky Scottish and bright North American counterparts.
Though there is a fierce debate between the Irish and the Scots about who was the first to begin distilling whiskey (spelled whisky, if you’re drinking Scotch), it was actually missionary monks between 1100-1300 who introduced the distillation process to the Irish as they made medical tinctures and anesthetics. This uisce beatha, or “water of life”, breathed a new element of life into the Irish people, and its popularity rose quickly. By the 19th Century, this water of life dominated the world market, and whiskey (the later anglicized word) became a constant in polite society, from the court of Queen Elizabeth I to Czar Peter the Great of Russia. As any great beverage flourishes, so often does it fall, and thusly in Ireland famine, independence war, high taxes, and, finally, American Prohibition, led to the industry’s demise and to the shutdown of hundreds of small, independent distilleries. Currently, only four distilleries exist in Ireland making further distinction of this beautiful beverage.
Whiskey itself is a difficult drink to embrace for some people, due to its high alcohol content and strong flavor profiles. Between the five very distinct whiskey varieties, Irish whiskey sets itself apart whether a person is new to the spirit or a die-hard connoisseur. Irish whiskeys, like Jameson, contain “pure pot still” whiskey, which is a process unique to Ireland. Unlike single malt scotch that is made from malted barley, pure post still whiskey comes from malted and unmalted barley that gives many Irish whiskeys their distinctive and smooth flavor. In order for a whiskey to be considered Irish whiskey, it must be distilled and aged in the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland, and is often (though not always) distilled three times and aged for a minimum of three years. Because of the absence of peat in the malting process, Irish whiskey does not have the same smoky and earthy overtones frequently found in Scotch whisky. Many flavors in Ireland’s whiskeys will include clean malt, caramel, hazelnut, honeyed herbs, oak and velvet, which makes them very easily drinkable.
One of the most fun aspects I find in drinking Irish whiskey is the traditions surrounding it. Irish hospitality is legendary, and traditionally Irish social life in rural areas revolved around the holding of ceilis in one another’s houses, which involved having the neighbors over telling stories by the fire and drinking whiskey. Everyone enjoyed the presence of plenty of craic – that’s the Irish word for fun. Good news and remembrance of recently departed friends all would be toasted with a glass of whiskey. The end of the evening would be celebrated with a bit of dancing and singing, and more whiskey. In the far past, it was tradition to float a shamrock in a glass of whiskey on St. Patrick’s Day, though now it is pretty much only metaphorical for getting very, very inebriated.
For those who are interested in drinking some straight-up fantastic Irish whiskeys, I might suggest Bushmill’s 16 Year-Old Malt, Redbreast 12 Year-Old pure pot-still, Jameson 18 Year-Old, Connemara Cask Strength or Knappoque Castle 1995. If you want to try the original single malt whiskey from Ireland, pick up a bottle of Black Bush and be sure to bring your fiddle. For those who would prefer a less-than-straight Irish experience, I might suggest trying one of the following:
Whiskey Plush recipe
1 oz Irish whiskey
1 oz Bailey’s® Irish cream
1/2 oz simple syrup
4 oz milk
4 dashes Angostura® bitters
Shake all ingredients well with ice and strain into a chilled wine glass. Garnish with grated nutmeg, and serve.
Dancing Leprechaun recipe
1 1/2 oz Irish whiskey
3/4 oz Drambuie® Scotch whisky
3/4 oz lemon juice
–Shake ingredients with ice. Strain into a glass with ice cubes, and garnish with a twist of lemon.
1 1/2 oz Irish whiskey
1 tsp brown sugar
6 oz hot coffee
heavy cream to taste
–Combine whiskey, sugar and coffee in a mug and stir to dissolve. Float cold cream gently on top. Do not mix.
However you choose to enjoy delving into the magic of Irish whiskey, remember this Irish blessing:
There are 4 things you must never do: cheat, steal, fight, or drink.
If you cheat, may you cheat death.
If you steal, may you steal a woman’s heart.
If you fight, may you fight for a brother.
And if you drink, may you drink with me.