Liquor 101: Irish Whiskey
The Irish may have created whiskey. They also may not have. The Scots stridently argue that they’re the original whiskey distillers. Apparently, the vikings also have a claim, though modern Scandinavians don’t seem to stake that claim in quite the same way as the Irish and the Scots do. While we don’t know definitively who started it all, we do know that it was someone in the British isles, somewhere between a long time ago and a very, very long time ago–depending on your measurement of time and your definition of whiskey. In any case, the Irish have been on this whiskey thing for a while. Bushmills in Northern Ireland has held their license to distill since 1608; the license was granted by King James I, the same king who gave Shakespeare a patent to act.
Despite its long and proud history, we haven’t heard much about Irish whiskey recently, except on St. Patrick’s Day, when rivers run green and bars flow with Jameson’s. From March 18th to March 16th, it seemed like only your old Irish uncle was still drinking Irish whiskey, while everyone else’s attention returned to single malt Scotches and American craft whiskeys. You could say that Irish whiskey has been out of step with current trends. While in the 18th and 19th centuries there were 100s of Irish distillers, by the early 2000s there were only three, each of them owned by even larger international liquor conglomerates. In other words, Irish whiskey had gone from being the Shakespeare of the whiskey world to being the Budweiser of the whiskey world, except without the high sales numbers. An unfortunate combination.
All of that is in the midst of changing. In the past dozen years or so, a good number of new distillers and even craft distillers have opened up in Ireland, bringing new energy while simultaneously restoring traditional methods. And that renovation of Irish distilling is beginning to be appreciated here in the US, where Irish whiskey is currently the fastest growing segment of the spirits market–though admittedly from a small base. Check out Eric Asimov’s New York Times article to read more about this resurgence in Irish whiskey, and to get whiskey recommendations from a few of the country’s most respected spirits writers.
I got my own education in new wave Irish whiskey recently, when I sat down for a couple of rounds of drinks with the brand ambassadors for two Irish craft whiskeys, Teeling and Glendalough. We met at a Glendalough Cocktail Pop-Up at Service Bar (which we’ll definitely have to visit again!). I’d already gotten a taste of Glendalough at a tasting at Cordial in Union Market, and was very much looking forward to seeing what it was like in a cocktail.
As I learned from my two new whiskey rep friends, the idea with Irish whiskey is that it’s the easygoing one. As one of them put it, it’s the whiskey you go for when you don’t want to have to fight through smoke to drink it. I’m not entirely sure, but I think that was a dig at Scotch. Glendalough Double Barrel is indeed a very easy whiskey to like. As I think is the case with most Irish whiskey, it was lighter in color and in body than the American and Scotch whiskeys with which I’m more familiar. To say that it is light and easy is not to mean, though, that it’s simple. Its flavor was a quiet but complex blend of dried fruit, honey, and maybe a little nut. My favorite part was the discernible sherry aftertaste. Being finished in sherry barrels is apparently pretty standard for Irish whiskey, but I was impressed by how strongly that sherry influence came through and by how smoothly it complemented the other flavors of the whiskey.
What We Tried
Cobbler: Glendalough Double Barrel, Amontillado sherry, maraschino liqueur, blackberry lemon syrup.
Irish Old Fashioned: Glendalough Double Barrel, demerara sugar, bitters.
What We Thought
I think the bartenders must agree with me about Glendalough’s sherry notes, mixing it as they did in a hybrid whiskey-sherry cobbler. The cobbler is a very old style of drink in which sherry–both long ago and now–is the predominate base (though sometime in the middle there, gin was), but any number of base spirits, including whiskey, could be used. Having whiskey and sherry share the drink was new to me, though. It worked very well. The Glendalough added a nice extra alcohol kick, but without dominating the drink. The whiskey and the sherry blended well together, and the raspberry lemon syrup was delicious without making the drink overly sweet. This was also a beautiful drink to look at, done up in a style that would have pleased any 19th century dandy.
The old fashioned was more straightforward. What stood out to me was how smooth it was, and how much the bitters played the starring role. My overall impression is that Irish whiskey plays well with others, in a way that certainly can’t be said of Scotch but even in a superior fashion to Bourbon. It’s discernibly whiskey, but with a light touch. Glendalough in particular, and perhaps Irish whiskey in general, seems to me to be something I should be mixing with far more often than just one day a year.