Craft Irish Whiskey for St. Patrick’s Day
We got our first taste of the Irish whiskey revival last spring at a Glendalough pop-up at Service Bar. Since then, we’ve grown in our appreciation for Irish whiskey as a more companionable spirit for mixing. We understand now why so many old cocktail recipes specifically call for Irish; and it’s not because they didn’t care.
Just in time for St. Patrick’s Day, we had the chance to check in on Glendalough again at their whiskey Master Class. Glendalough’s been busy, learning everything they can about whiskey in general and Irish whiskey in particular. Their goal is to produce craft whiskey with an Irish sensibility and a worldly air. In pursuit of that goal, they’ve done their history lessons, but even more importantly they’ve pursued a practical education, mainly by means of barrels.
Back in the 1930s, the barrel makers of America scored a big coup when it was established that in order to be called a straight Bourbon or rye, whiskey needed to be aged in new American oak barrels. Scottish and Irish whiskey makers followed suit, deciding that they too would use fresh, American barrels. It meant big business for American lumberers and coopers, and a homogenization, what Glendalough co-founder Donal O’Gallachoir calls a ‘Bourbonization,’ of whiskey; virtually all whiskey produced since the ’30s has contained the peculiar characteristics of new, American oak.
It occurred to the folks at Glendalough that, being an Irish distiller, they didn’t need to abide by the rules set by the ATF, even less by the American lumber industry. So, they started experimenting with barrels that were old, non-American, or both. All of their whiskeys spend time in two barrels. First, they’re aged in used Bourbon barrels, a nod to Bourbon as the pioneer in new wave craft whiskey but also perhaps a statement that Glendalough would like to start where the average Bourbon finishes. Speaking of finishing, once the primary aging is complete, is transferred to a second barrel for a final touch. The effect of the finishing is quite remarkable.
Glendalough’s base whiskey is the Double Barrel. You might call it their Irish-American whiskey. Like all of their whiskeys, it starts in a Bourbon barrel, which imparts a smooth, caramel flavor and color. Its 2nd barrel is an Oloroso sherry bottle made from European oak, which lightens its color and palate and contributes a softly fruity influence. The overall effect is of an easygoing whiskey like you’d expect an Irish whiskey to be, but with a rounder, fuller base than usual.
One tidbit of history the Glendalough folk learned is that Irish whiskeys weren’t always the light and easy style we know. Before the double-whammy of WWI and Prohibition forced some changes, Irish whiskey was quite a bit more muscular. With their 7 Year Black Pitts Finished Single Malt, Glendalough builds that muscle back. The whiskey is finished in porter ale barrels, which are then given back to the brewer, whiskey and beer forever influencing one another in a virtuous cycle. The whiskey tastes heartier and maltier than Double Barrel, with almost no oak bite at all.
For 13 Year Mizunara Finished Single Malt, Glendalough looks to Japan for the finishing barrels, not wanting to leave any of the barrel or whiskey making centers of the world out. Made with Japanese oak by the oldest barrel maker in the country, this whiskey is smooth as you’d expect a 13 year old Scotch to be, light to look at and taste, with a hint of the funky sweetness of honey.
Glendalough hasn’t reached the end of their experimentation with barrel finishes. We got a few tastes of the new things they’re working on, like a dry and mild Calvados finish, a 26(!) yr old whiskey finished in Madeira barrels, and a bready pot still whiskey with a smack of green apple flavor. One thing that wasn’t ready yet for tasting: an Irish oak finish. Glendalough decided that we can’t know what an Irish whiskey was meant to taste like until we have it in an Irish barrel; but they have to cultivate the trees first.
County Wicklow Cocktail Recipe
- 2 oz Glendalough 13 yr Mizunara Finish
- 2 dash Jerry Thomas decanter bitters
- 2 dash mole bitters
- 1 tsp alfalfa honey
- a capful of club soda
- Combine bitters, honey, and soda in a mixing glass, and stir until the honey has dissolved.
- Add ice, and stir until the ice is noticeably melted.
- Strain into an ice-filled old fashioned glass.