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Seabourn Club Herald Vol. 21.3 November 2011 : Page 48

Grapes & Grains S u perStoc k

Grapes & Grains

Susy Atkins

Irish whiskey warms your soul — and that’s no blarney.

It’s a cold, damp winter’s night in Ireland, with a fine mist of rain and a whiff of turf smoke in the air. We’re heading to the pub, but instead of my usual glass of wine or pint of Guinness, I’ll be ordering something quite different. The weather calls for it. A small shot of strong, dark golden spirit, deeply aromatic and with long, warming flavors of barley sugar, spice and citrus, with a subtle but fiery kick on the finish.It’s time to drink Irish whiskey.

Irish distilling has a turbulent history. Whiskey has been made for well over 500 years, and in 1608, licenses were granted by the king to a small set of distillers. The stage was set: a few licensed whiskey producers versus illegal, small-scale makers of poitin (illegal spirit is called poitin in Ireland). Then, in the early 19th century, many more licenses were handed out, the industry opened up to major production, the Jameson’s Bow Street distillery was founded in Dublin and Irish whiskey finally became renowned and widely enjoyed.

It didn’t last. By the end of the 1800s, the Scottish whisky trade had clamped down on its rival country to the southwest, with companies buying up Irish grain plants only to shut them down quickly — a fairly successful attempt to eliminate the opposition. Higher taxation didn’t help during the next era, and by the 1980s, Irish whiskey was in bad shape. Happily, the past 20 years have seen a revival, and three distillers now turn out a wide range of labels and styles of whiskey — some of it very fine indeed. Now is a great time to discover this wonderful spirit.


So, besides being spelled differently, does Irish whiskey taste different than Scotch whisky? Experts would answer yes, emphatically. Irish whiskey is made with barley, as is Scotch whisky, but most Irish brands use a high proportion of unmalted barley in the mix, whereas Scotch whisky uses malted. The reason? In Ireland, malted barley was subject to high taxes. The result? Unmalted barley is said to “enhance the oily mouthfeel” of Irish whiskey, according to Dave Broom, author of The World Atlas of Whisky. “Traditional Irish pot still has a mouth-coating oily texture mixed with apple and spice,” says Broom. “It has none of the cereal notes you get in Scottish malt.”

In addition, Irish traditional pot still whiskey (i.e., many top brands) is not double but triple distilled, which should, in theory, enhance its clean, pure finish. That said, there are exceptions.Cooley produces a whiskey called Connemara that is double distilled and made with peated barley (the barley is dried over a peat fire), for example. But all whiskey is aged in old wooden barrels, Which is what adds the color and so much of the aroma and flavor of the finished spirit. It’s been suggested that up to 60 percent of a whiskey’s final flavor comes from the wood it’s aged in, and the origins of the various barrels give different “finishes,” whether they are old sherry barrels, port barrels or used Madeira casks.


Bushmills is the distillery of the north. It’s not far from Scotland, then, and there has been a great exchange of ideas (as well as that age-old rivalry) between distilleries on either side of the north channel for centuries. The Bushmills operation, near Coleraine, started in the late 18th century and triple distillation began in the 1930s. Its most famous label is the rich, fruitcake-flavored Black Bush, although many fans adore the 10-, 16- and 21-year-old Bushmills whiskies too.

Then there’s Cooley, a surprisingly young, modern distillery sited on the Cooley peninsula in County Louth, near Dundalk on the east coast. The distillery was making spirits for Baileys when it was taken over in 1989 and assumed its new identity as a whiskey maker. Just a couple of years ago, the company bought the 18th-century water-powered Kilbeggan distillery about 60 miles to the southwest. The World Atlas of Whisky describes its whiskies as “honeyed,” as there are often sweet notes to the spirits produced here. For something very distinctive, try the Connemara whiskey referred to above, which is made with peated barley for an extra smoky aroma.

For many whiskey drinkers, however, Jameson is the most famous Irish name, and it is made by Irish Distillers. The ancient Dublin distillery is now a tourist site and heritage center, which is well worth visiting. But Jameson is made at the vast Midleton distillery, way down south near Cork. Back in 1850, the decision was taken to mix unmalted and malted barley to make the spirit (in order to save on tax) and the characteristic fresh, perfumed, Jameson Original is significantly un-Scotch-like to this day. Irish Distillers have pioneered the use of wood, and keep vast stocks of whiskey mellowing in sherry, port and Madeira casks. They make Powers and Redbreast as well as the Jameson’s label whiskeys, and a tasting of the full range shows many different characteristics in each, from the toffee-scented Jameson 12-year-old to the very rich, deeply spiced and lingering Redbreast.Back to my pub visit. Because we’re visiting my husband’s homeland of Northern Ireland, we’ll probably be served Bushmills, and we’ll drink it on the rocks, simply because that’s how we like it.

But however you drink it, or whatever brand you prefer, there’s something very special about Irish whiskey. It conjures up years of struggle against the state and Scotland and taxation and licensing laws. Somehow it has survived all of these to emerge in the 21st century as one of the greatest spirits in the world. Slainte!

Whiskey Traditions

My late father-in-law, who loved the occasional whiskey (and lived well into his 80s), used to drink it without ice, but “cut” with a little water. Or he’d order a Guinness with a small shot of “Bush” on the side. Sometimes he and his friends would take a “naggin” — a small 200 ml bottle of whiskey — home with them.

And when we had a cold, he would make a hot toddy of Irish whiskey topped with freshly boiled water, a few cloves and a spoonful of sugar. I make the same today, and always add a slice or two of freshly chopped lemon.

Healing? Delicious? Or just plain ’ol ritual? No matter the reason, whiskey suits many tastes.


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