Catch me any other day of the year and I might give incontrovertible arguments that the water of life came from Scotland. But on St. Patrick's Day from where I'm sitting, it's unfriendly (not to mention unsafe) to doubt that this magic elixir was born in the magical Emerald Isle.
Although it's hard to prove the charming myths that whiskey originated in Ireland -- one suggests St. Patrick himself brought it out of Eire -- and while Scotch now rules the world of brown spirits, Ireland has its own claims to a past hegemony that should at least be remembered on this day. To wit:
1) The first whiskey-distilling license was issued in Ireland (Old Bushmill's, 1608).
2) Ireland once had some 2,000 working distilleries.
3) In 1900 it still had 400 (Scotland has around 80 today).
4) A hundred years ago, Irish whiskey outsold Scotch in America.
5) The column still, the necessary instrument for making blended Scotch, was perfected by an Irishman: Aeneas Coffey.
6) And, if you're a single-malt snob, you'll be proud to know that despite Coffey's tinkering, the island whiskey makers were the last to bend to the temptation of blending whiskey.
Alas, that all came to naught around 1920 for a combination of reasons. First was Ireland's unwillingness to blend, which made its whiskey more expensive and less marketable to fainter souls during the time when milder Scotch whisky was making its great run at the spirits market. Then, came Ireland's bid for independence from England, and perforce an end to sales in the British market. As if that weren't enough, Irish whiskey marketers then collided with Prohibition, which came to the United States in 1920 and cut off that important sales outlet. By the time the smoke cleared in 1933, cleverer smugglers from Scotland and Canada had supplanted the taste for Irish whiskey with their own in the States.
But in our century, Irish is making a comeback of sorts with tasty new expressions. After years of shrinking, the market is starting to grow and three distilleries now operate on an island where barely two were hanging on some 40 years ago.
The only shame now for Irish whiskey is that it's not better experienced or appreciated. So often it is drunk merely as a nod to the occasion on St. Patrick's and then tossed back in one gulp and chased by green beer. Much Irish is also consumed as an Irish coffee, all sweetened and creamed. I think we can agree that neither experience gives a fair estimation of the spirit. This is especially true since Irish malts are typically triple-distilled and unpeated (Scotch is double-distilled and peaty) and therefore the profile of the taste margin is much more elegant, delicate and deserving of special attention.
In an effort to raise awareness of the whiskey, the editors of Cigar Aficionado agreed to taste some of the better products of the island's two largest distilleries. To avoid the above pitfalls, we tasted the whiskey neat or with water only (nothing green or caffeinated) in laboratory conditions (read: not in a pub on March 17). Our impressions follow:
A rare Irish single malt, it's distilled at the Old Bushmills Distillery in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, where only malt whiskey is made (Bushmills blends use grain whiskey from the Midleton Distillery). The whiskey rests in a combination of Bourbon and Oloroso Sherry casks.
Nose: Honey, weedy, floral with slight Sherry.
Taste: Anise with a tight grip, chewy, sweet coffee with a hint of maple.
Finish: Chocolatey and toasty, but short.
Bushmills 16-Year-Old Single Malt -- Three Wood
Six years older and with the addition of Port wine aging, the big sister is more refined than the 10-year-old.
Nose: Spicy, with honey, maple and a bit of citrus.
Taste: Notes of ginger, coffee, rose petals, wine and wood.
Finish: Longer and informed by the Port barrels.
A high-percentage pot still whiskey (much of it aged in Sherry casks) informs this blend made at the Midleton Distillery in Dublin.
Nose: Cream and toasty vanilla notes followed by a very heavy maple whiff.
Taste: All the notes of the nose come to the palate and are joined by licorice. The texture is syrupy.
Finish: Turns chewy and bready with a certain grittiness.
Also a blend from Midleton, this whiskey is a testament to the diversity of products that come from a plant that also makes some very plain spirits (which will go nameless). The 18-year-old is a combination of full- and medium-bodied pot still whiskeys with light grains. Most aging was done in Sherry and Port barrels. The blend was finished in American oak (Bourbon).
Nose: Elegant, flowery, vanilla aroma, with a hint of tobacco or cigar box aroma.
Taste: Further elegance with tea roses, spice, vanilla and Sherry.
Finish: More savory and leathery than on the palate.
A note on politics: In some circles it's considered proper to distain Bushmills in favor of Jameson's because of the former's Northern Ireland origin in an area that is predominantly Protestant. The notion that the distillery is segregated by religion is misguided since it is owned by the same company (Pernod Ricard) that makes Jameson's in Dublin. Furthermore, that company is based in France, a predominantly Catholic country.
For more Irish fare, click here.
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