The Smooth Allure of Irish Whiskey: St. Patrick’s Day treats from Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

Forget the green coloured beer and toast Saint Patrick’s Day with a fine smooth Irish whiskey. Irish whiskeys were once the most popular in the world – notably in North America due to the large number of Irish expats. Prohibition forced the spirit underground and many badly made bootlegged pale imitators replaced the real McCoy.

When prohibition ended scotch and American bourbon took over in prominence. This caused problems back in the home country which was already suffering from other economic difficulties. By 1970 the number of Irish distillers had fallen from over 100 in 1886 to just two: Bushmills and Midleton which was a merger of Jameson, Powers and Cork Distillery.

Further mergers, shuffling, re-openings and the creation of a new distillery have led to the current situation. At this point the distilleries operating in Ireland are: New Midleton Distillery (the Irish Distillers Group main distillery: Jameson, Powers, Paddy, Midleton, Redbreast, and others), Old Bushmills Distillery (Old Bushmills, Black Bush, 1608, Bushmills 10-, 12- and 16- and 21-year-old single malts), Cooley Distillery (Connemara, Tyrconnell, and others) and the reopened Kilbeggan Distillery, which began distilling again in 2007.

Irish Distillers’ Midleton distillery has been part of the Pernod Ricard conglomerate since 1988. Bushmills was part of the Irish Distillers group from 1972 until 2005 when it was sold to Diageo. Cooley, which also owns Kilbeggan, signed an agreement in December 2011 to be acquired by Beam Inc.

The acquisition of Cooley, the industry’s only independent Irish whiskey distillery, marks Beam’s entrance into one of the spirits industry’s fastest-growing categories. (The Irish whiskey category grew 11.5% in 2010 to 4.86 million cases according to Impact Databank.)

Cooley is the distillery that shook up the market in 1987. Founded by John Telling with the goal of reintroducing the North American market to quality Irish whiskey, Cooley departed from the accepted definition of Irish whiskey as being triple distilled and un-peated. Teeling revived several historic brands such as Tyrconnell and created a family of Connemara double distilled peated single malts.

Today with both grain and malt distilleries, Cooley produces a complete range of Irish whiskey styles. The company’s Kilbeggan Distillery, first opened in 1757, produces Cooley’s flagship blended Irish whiskey. Cooley’s many accolades include being named European Spirits Producer of the Year for an unprecedented four consecutive years by the International Wine & Spirit Competition (2008-2011).

Connemara 12 Years Old Peated Single MaltCooley’s jewel in the crown is the Connemara pure pot still peated single malt Irish whiskey. Connemara 12 Years Old Peated Single Malt ($138.95) a small batch bottling of some of the first distillates of Connemara peated single malt shows a lovely nutty old barrel maturity. Mellow with flavours of smoke, vanilla and toasted almond, it’s refined with subdued peaty notes. Best enjoy it in a snifter or tulip shaped whiskey glass with no more than a dash of water to bring out its aged character.

Kilbeggan Our Finest BlendThe Tyrconnell Single MaltThe Tyrconnell Single Malt ($47.70) is a spirited beauty. Named after a famous Irish race horse that won at odds of 100 to 1 in the Irish Derby it’s distilled in the traditional pot still using barley and spring water.  The bouquet is aromatic with minerals, citrus rind, cedar and vanilla. Quite racy and fruity on the palate, it starts off delicate and silky and ends with a slight bite.

Kilbeggan Our Finest Blend ($34.95) is grain and malt whiskeys blended together to make a distinctive sweet tasting whiskey with a lovely malty finish. Sweet toffee on the nose carries through on the palate which is ultra smooth with good fruit and hints of spice. Perfect for making Irish Coffee or a hot whiskey.

I visited Bushmills last year in the quaint town of Bushmills, Northern Ireland. Bushmills takes its name from the River Bush and all the mills that used to be on it. It is deservedly a popular tourist destination attracting over 100,000 visitors a year. The royal license to distill in the district of Bushmills was granted in 1608 and that is the date printed on the labels of all Bushmills’ brand whisky. Bushmills can with fair authority claim to be the oldest distillery in the world.

Just two miles from the spectacular Giant’s Causeway the distillery lies in an area of outstanding natural beauty. Their guided tour unravels some of their trade secrets, from the special water from St. Columb’s Rill, the use of the finest malted barley, to the art of triple-distillation in copper stills and aging in oak casks. At the end of the tour is a sampling of the famous whiskeys – for an up charge of ₤12 you can have a tasting of five different ones including 21 Year Old Blackmills.

If you go, be sure to spend the night at the Bushmills Inn Hotel. It’s an old Coaching Inn whose oldest parts could possibly date back to the time of 1608. It was however in the 1820’s that the main hotel was built. In recent years it has been restored and renovated with the addition of new rooms. With open peat fires, gas lights and stripped pine floors in the public rooms, it’s cozy – you’ll want to snuggle away next to the fire and sip some old Bushmills malt. The restaurant offers classical and new Irish cuisine such as pan fried peppered filet of beef flamed in Bushmills.

To mark its 400th anniversary in 2008 Bushmills came out with an innovative brand called 1608.  This fine, rich and deep whiskey is made using a special process that toasts barley into crystal malt (so named for its crystal shape). The barley malt takes on a dark chocolate brown colour and imparts a chocolate toffee flavour to the whiskey.

Bushmills Malt 10 Year OldBushmills Black Bush WhiskeyBushmills 16 Year Old Irish WhiskeyBushmills 10 Year Old ($39.95) matured for a minimum of 10 years mainly in bourbon seasoned barrels has aromas of sweet smoky honey, vanilla and milk chocolate that carry through on the creamy palate. Bushmills Black Bush ($37.00) with a high proportion of malt whiskey matured in oloroso sherry casks has more nutty, caramel and fruity sherry tastes. Bushmills 16 Year Old ($79.95) is distinctive for its aging in bourbon and oloroso sherry casks followed by several months in port wine barrels.  It’s the most popular whisky among the staff at the distillery. Layered and multi-flavored there are juicy fruity notes with a wine punch at the finish.

Jameson Rarest Vintage ReserveAnother refined Irish whiskey is Jameson Rarest Vintage Reserve ($302.35). Notes of bourbon can be found in this mellow, sweet and silky whiskey as some of the spirit is aged in second fill bourbon casks. The bourbon cask whiskey along with old grain whiskies are married with rare pot still whiskey and aged in port pipes that impart a fruity pruney richness to the whiskey. The result is a creamy smooth spirit with nice fruit and dark chocolate complexities.

A mysterious new whiskey appeared in recent years called Writers Tears, from the previously unknown Writers Tears Whiskey Company. Its pedigree can be traced to The Irishman whiskey line-up.

The Irishman whiskeys are the creations of Bernard Walsh who enjoys special access to the warehouses of certain Irish distillers. He selects the casks that are vatted together to produce his whiskeys. He came up with a new type of whiskey: a blend of malt and pure pot still whiskeys. This is a “pot still blend”, since both malt and pure pot still are distilled in the traditional pot still. All other Irish blends contain some proportion of grain whiskey, the output of the less traditional Coffey still.

Writers Tears Pot Still BlendThe Irishman Single MaltWriters Tears Pot Still Blend ($47.95) evokes the type enjoyed at the time of Yeats and Joyce a century ago in Dublin. A blend of pot still malted and unmalted barley, triple distilled and matured in American bourbon casks, it`s velvety smooth with bourbon notes on a bed of malt. It slips down with ease leaving a honeyed vanilla tinged fruit and kick of ginger to linger hauntingly.

The Irishman Single Malt ($59.95) is triple distilled and matured a decade in bourbon and sherry casks. A limited batch produced whiskey it is rich and full with great depth. Uplifting floral honey notes grace the bouquet. Creamy textured with yummy flavours of honeyed almonds, toasted malt and fruit, it lingers happily for a long time on the palate.

Today it can be said that Irish distillers are exploring all the subtleties that the wonderful combination of barley and water can produce. The silky smooth dance of Ireland’s whiskeys on your palate will have you believing in fairies in no time.


Margaret Swaine

Find a shopping list of St. Patrick’s Day treats here.