In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I lead a tasting of Irish whiskeys last weekend. Planning an event like this turned out more difficult than I expected. With tasting classes on rye, bourbon, and single malt Scotch under my belt, I thought Irish would be a breeze. There are only four distilleries to choose from after all. Ah, there’s the rub. Four distilleries, but dozens of styles and expressions. How do I choose? What makes something uniquely “Irish?” John Hansell posed this very question on WDJK last week. I’ll let you read through what his readers had to say. Ultimately, it was decided that Irish whiskey is spirit distilled from grain and aged in oak for a minimum of three years within the confines of either the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland. That is quite a broad definition to be sure. All that you’ve heard about triple distillation, no peat, and pot still* are tradition not law. Many people say that Cooley completely changed the game. That’s true, but Midleton produces quite a variety of whiskeys themselves (pure pot stills, blends with and without pot still components, single malts, etc.) Even the folks at Bushmills don’t stick to the “traditional” recipe of pot still + single malt = blend. This was troubling because I wanted to pick very “Irish” whiskeys, while staying away from Bushmills White Label and stock standard Jameson. You can see why I had difficulty coming up with a tasting menu. With Richard’s help, here’s what I ended up with:
Bushmills 10yo Single Malt (Bushmills) – Using Irish barley, triple distilled and aged for at least 10 years in “mostly bourbon casks,” this whiskey felt very “Scotch-y” to many of us. I was particularly reminded of Auchentoshen.
Redbreast 12yo (Midleton) – Arguably the most uniquely Irish selection, Redbreast is one of a very few pure pot still whiskeys commercially available. Unanimously the favorite of the tasting, this dram was praised it’s unique character and liveliness.
Paddy Old Irish Whiskey (Midleton) – A favorite among the Irish in the audience, Paddy surprised many of us. Many an Irishman cut his whiskey teeth on this one. Paddy is composed of a high percentage of single malt and a small amount of pot still. This gives it a malty, caramel character with just a few hints of the green barley poking trough. Personally, I was impressed with the complexity this dram offers for the value ($35 for a liter). Careful though, this one has a somewhat hot finish that turned some people off.
Tullamore Dew Blended Irish Whiskey (Midleton) – Tullamore Dew is a blend of single malt, pot still, and grain alcohol. It is one of the smoothest whiskeys around. Smooth, but not all that complex. Those of us who grew up with it have a fondness for this easy drinking dram, but the rest of group wanted something a little more aggressive.
Greenore Single Grain Whiskey (Cooley) – Made completely out of corn, double distilled and aged in bourbon casks for eight years, its no surprise that Greenore tastes very much like bourbon. I am particularly remind of some of the micro-distilled bourbons (I’m looking at you Tuthilltown). Several attendees described this as fermented corn flakes. It was kind of a toss up as to who thought that was a good thing. I enjoyed it for what it was, but it’s not very Irish to taste like bourbon.
Connemara Peated (Cooley) – Ah, our only peated whiskey. Some have called Cooley a Scotch distillery that happens to be in Ireland. This dram is the source of that statement. I feel the peat in this dram is overstated, creating a somewhat boring peat monster. There is none of the complexity you will find in its Scottish cousins. For the group, the peat freaks were mostly with me and the peat haters disliked this one immensely.
There you are, three of four distilleries represented (can’t get actual Kilbeggan yet as far as I know). I predicted that everyone would fall in love with Redbreast and I was right. I have yet to find someone who does not enjoy it. The second most popular was harder to gauge. I would say there was a pretty even spread. I don’t know if we learned anything about Irish whiskey, but we did have a good time.
*Pot still whiskey is whiskey produced in a copper pot still from a mash of both green (unmalted) and malted barley.