St. Patrick’s Day Libations; by Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

We’re all Irish at least for a day in March when St. Patrick’s Day rolls along. St Patrick, a missionary who worked in Ireland converting inhabitants to Christianity, died on March 17 in the fifth century. His day has been seized upon as the greatest excuse for a party ever. It’s a public holiday in Newfoundland and Labrador on the nearest Monday to March 17. The rest of us can be content with wearing green and eating and drinking Irish.

Cook up an Irish stew, some colcannon (mashed potatoes with cabbage or kale) and Irish bacon or get creative. On a trip to Northern Ireland, I found lots of delicious twists on tradition Irish dishes. Yes there were often five or more versions of beloved potatoes on the menus but those were sides to the exciting main dishes.

Irish Cheeses

A Selection of Irish Cheeses

There was fresh fish, oysters and mussels plucked from clear Atlantic waters. Tender lamb and 28 day dry aged beef came from animals raised on the green grasses of the countryside’s rolling hills. Scones hot from the oven served with rich thick whipped cream and local jams were far too prevalent a temptation. Irish farmhouse cheeses numbered over 80 selections from blues to cheddars to creamy camembert-types.

The menu in the Oak Restaurant at the Slieve Donard Resort boasted Lissara Farm free range chicken, sirloin steak from John Killen’s Farm and rack of County Antrim pedigree Dorset lamb. Desserts included a light and airy lemon carrageen moss pudding (a type of local seaweed). At Balloo House, voted pub of the year in 2009, the delicious chowder was thick with chunks of smoked haddock. Finnebrogue venison shepherd’s pie with celeriac mash was comfort food knocked up several notches of sophistication.

The thick, triple cooked chips (fries) which showed up on many menus are reason alone to visit Northern Ireland.  You’d ditch your diet for them as you would for the champ (mashed potato with chives), colcannon, buttery mash, sautéed potatoes with leeks and potato bread.

At Mourne’s Seafood restaurant in Belfast I dined on a fresh, gently cooked seabass with bacon and clam velouté. Tiny scallops were translucent and tender while monkfish was punched up in flavour with Sicilian peppers.

Preparing the Pigeon

Preparing the Pigeon

Ardtara Country House is a member of Ireland’s Blue Book, an association of unique manor houses, historic hotels and restaurants. These independently owned properties often supply a superb meal along with accommodation and Ardtara lived up to that promise well. The dishes were inventive, beautifully presented and featured local farm produce. Carpaccio was a slender slice of dry aged fillet of Comber beef with peppery wild watercress and warm brioche. Lamb was done two ways – the loin and a shank pie presented together. Homemade Irish whiskey ice cream with coffee panacotta capped the meal with panache.

The icing on this cake of good eating was Belle Isle near Enniskillen in County Fermanagh. This country estate on its own island has a top cookery school which offers day, weekend and four week diploma courses. Master Chef Liz Moore started my lesson with a wood pigeon, feathers and all, laid out on a cutting board. “Belle Isle’s a shooting estate,” she announced. “We do a lot of game here.” Whereupon she cut the breast meat out of the pigeon in one deft move without having to pluck it. This is a place where students can learn how to Shoot, Pluck and Cook. Now that’s farm to table.

Irish Whiskey Selection

A Selection of Irish Whiskey

As for libations…what could be better than an Irish whiskey. I wrote at length in WineAlign last year about the state of Irish whiskies in the current market. Here’s a recap of a few pertinent details. The distilleries operating in Ireland are: Midleton Distillery (the Irish Distillers Group main distillery: Jameson, Powers, Paddy, Midleton, Redbreast, and others), Bushmills Distillery (Old Bushmills, Black Bush, 1608, Bushmills 10-, 12- and 16- and 21-year-old single malts) and Cooley Distillery (brands such as Connemara, Tyrconnell, Locke’s, as well as Kilbeggan Distillery which reopened in 2007). There are also a growing number of the independent Irish bottlings such as The Irishman, Teeling Whiskey Company and Feckin Whiskey.

Cooley (now owned by Beam Inc.) 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 unpeated. He revived historic brands such as Tyrconnell and created a family of Connemara double distilled peated single malts.

Inishowen Peated Blend Irish WhiskeyLocke's 8 Years Old Pure Pot Still Single Malt Irish WhiskeyCooley’s Inishowen Peated Blend is blended from peated and unpeated malts and grain whisky. The brand originates from the A.A. Watt distillery in Derry, in the late 1800’s. It’s named after the Inishowen peninsula on the northern tip of Ireland, which was well known as prime for the illicit production of “poteen”. (By 1822 there were as many as 800 illicit stills in operation.) This is gently peated with sweet fruity elements and a vein of malty sweetness throughout. It finishes with a slightly spiced bite. Value priced, it’s a nice balance of malt and grain with whiffs of peat.

Also from Cooley Distillery and an excellent value is Locke’s 8 Year Old Pure Pot Still Single Malt. Double distilled in traditional pot stills, it’s made from whiskies aged between eight and ten years. Smooth, medium-bodied with lots of pot still character, it’s nicely rounded with sweet, malty, fruity notes and spicy oak. Vanilla and a touch of peat (ten per cent of the malt used was peated) make it very tasty indeed.

Bushmills Black Bush WhiskeyBushmills Malt 10 Year OldBushmills can with fair authority claim to be the oldest distillery in the world. The royal licence to distil in the district of Bushmills was granted in 1608. Situated in the quaint town of Bushmills, Northern Ireland, it takes its name from the River Bush and all the mills that used to be on it. A popular tourist destination it attracts over 100,000 visitors a year. 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. (Alas not available at present in our market.)

Bushmills 10 Year Old 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 with a high proportion of malt whiskey matured in oloroso sherry casks has nutty, caramel and fruity sherry tastes.

Jameson Gold Reserve Irish WhiskeyWriters Tears Pot Still BlendFrom Midleton Distillery, Jameson Gold Reserve is an opulent and complex whiskey. A blend of selected casks of triple distilled Jameson whiskey, up to 20 years old, it features some whiskey aged in “virgin” (i.e. first use) American oak casks, others in former bourbon barrels and sherry casks. Creamy textured with a rich, sherry, caramel bouquet, it’s full-bodied and layered. Sweet honey, toasted oak, notes of spice and pepper come though in the ultra smooth taste.  It’s quite the stunner.

A new whiskey which appeared in recent years, Writers Tears, comes from 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. Other Irish blends contain some proportion of grain whiskey, the output of the less traditional Coffey still.

Raise a glass and toast the Irish on this year of The Gathering Ireland 2013, the country’s invitation to the world to come home and enjoy Ireland’s colourful history, culture and people. To celebrate, about 8,000 people around the world have been invited to march in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Dublin. It will be some party – the city’s copious pubs just might be drained dry.


Margaret Swaine

For all of Margaret’s whisky reviews click here: Margaret’s Whisky and Spirits

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