As we close in on March 17th each year, our thoughts, and rightfully so, turn to Irish whiskeys. Although not as popular in the U.S. as bourbon or scotch, Irish whiskey has been making giant strides in market share since the late 1980s. In the past decade, the number of Irish whiskey distillers in Erin has soared from a mere three to 11. There are those who say Irish whiskey is the now the fastest growing spirit.
Priding myself on being rather ecumenical in my sipping, a few bottles of Irish stand tall in my bourbon-laden liquor cabinet among a smattering of tequila and scotch choices. Unlike the tequila that I visit year-round and the scotch, which I barely touch, I pretty much reserve my intake of Irish whiskey to the weeks and days leading up to St. Paddy’s Day. And, every year my thought is the same: Why don’t I drink this wonderful potion throughout the year? Likewise, my answer is always the same: Beats the heck out of me.
As with some other life-changing discoveries, Irish whiskey didn’t start out to be Irish whiskey. We have penicillin today because Alexander Fleming was an utter failure at housekeeping. Viagra didn’t do anything for the heart pain for which it was created, but, hey, the little blue pill is responsible for more men snapping to attention than Old Glory.
Legend has it, in the early 1400s, a group of Irish monks returned home from a stint in the Mediterranean sporting the Emerald Isle’s first-ever sun tans and an education in perfume making. Leave it to the Irish to figure out how to transform the process for making perfume into distilling a quite drinkable spirit. Eventually, Irish whiskey evolved from this inspired effort. If this timeline is accurate, it was roughly 90 years before the first distilled spirit was recorded in Scotland. The word “whiskey” is derived from the Old Irish uisce beatha (pronounced ish-ka ba-ha), which translates to water of life. Indeed.
If bacon is the candy of meats, Irish whiskey is the candy of brown whiskeys. Its relatively low proof, often around 80 (40 percent alcohol) for non-specialty labels, and semi-sweet flavor make it ideal for sipping straight or with an ice cube. Usually Triple distilled using pot stills, this wonderful elixir uses a mash bill primarily of barley.
To really get things rolling with a shot this St. Paddy’s Day, try a Car Bomb, which is a half-and-half concoction using Irish whiskey (Typically Jameson, but any Irish juice will do in a pinch.) and Bailey’s Irish Cream. If you are in the mood for chugging, go with the Irish Car Bomb, which is the shot dropped glass and all into half a pint of Guinness Stout. Swallow it all quickly because the Baileys will curdle in a matter of seconds. It sounds disgusting, but tastes like a chocolate milkshake. Moreover, after a couple of Irish Car Bombs, you will be ready to kiss the next shillelagh you see.
Below I’ve listed a couple of Irish whiskys for your consideration. So, this St. Paddy’s Day, between the band playing songs that either make you weep or want to take a swing at the party goer next to you, take a pour, raise your glass and shout, “Slainte!” Pronounced slan-cha for you first timers.
Getting your Irish on can be quite affordable. Jameson Irish Whiskey and Bushmills Original Blended Irish Whiskey are widely available for well under $30 a bottle. If you are going to take my Car Bomb suggestions or maybe whip up some Irish coffee, these are fine choices. They are both 80 proof and relatively mild. They also offer more carefully crafted and longer aged whiskies that make for better sipping. I’m a big fan of Jameson Caskmates Stout Edition aged in stout-beer barrels.
Costing about twice what you will pay for one of the bottles mentioned above, Teeling Irish Single Grain Whiskey uses a mash bill that’s 95 percent corn and 5 percent barley. Perhaps that’s why I like it as much as I do. It’s a tongue-teasing 92 proof. The hook is, it’s finished in Cabernet Sauvignon casks. As with many bourbons, hints of caramel, vanilla, toffee and cocoa contribute to the nose, taste and the long finish.
These picks only scratch the surface. There’s a wide world of Irish whiskeys out there.
Russ is a long-time bourbon and craft-beer drinker who also produces the BEER2WHISKEY channel on YouTube.