St. Patrick’s Day. People are going to wear all the green they can find, and party as hard as they possibly can. This will all be before 10 AM, since most places are going to be open early so as many people as possible can enjoy the day. Most people are going to be drinking green beer and stouts, and washing it all down with Irish whiskey or other hard liquors of their choosing.
Keep an eye on the Irish whiskey this year. It is seeing a popularity that it has not seen since before World War 1. It is a very fine example of whiskey, and thought by most to be the earliest style of whiskey in the world. It is known that the Irish have been making it for at least 600 years, though some think it was distilled as early as the 12th century. Barley is very easy to find in Ireland, and they roast that barley over the harder to find coal in the country. That is one of the key differences between Scotch and Irish whiskey; Scotch uses peat to roast the barley, which imparts a smoky flavor to the Scotch. The word “whiskey” itself comes from the Gaelic uisce beatha, “water of life”. They distilled this in various forms until the Irish placed a tax on barley malt in 1785, which drove many distillers to ply their trade illegally, and changed the overall complexion of the liquid by the addition of unmalted barley, which has remained part of the process to this day. This began a long downward slide into near obscurity, with a book titled “The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom” by Alfred Barnard listing the number of legal distilleries in Ireland at 28. This was also a time when, because of the distilling process Irish whiskey, it was considered one of the finest whiskeys in the world. It also gained in popularity around this time because the French vineyards were being ravaged by phylloxera, killing the French wine industry. By the turn of the 19th century, Irish whiskey was well on its way to taking over the alcohol drinking world.
And then everything went wrong. The growing temperance movements in the United Kingdom and the United States stared reducing demand in general, hitting bottom for the industry in when the 18th Amendment went into effect in the United States. World War I hit all of Europe hard, and then a generation of fighting in Ireland hit the island harder. Many distilleries closed or merged, leading to there being only four main distilleries now for all of the Irish whiskey produced. During this time, the Scotch producers stepped in and filled the void, as well as the Canadians. American whiskey production filled some more of the gaps after World War II. By the end of that war, there were only seven distilleries in Ireland. At its bottom in the 1970’s, Irish whiskey accounted for only 1% of the whiskey sold in the world.
Irish whiskey was considered one of the finest whiskeys in the world at one point. The requirements for being called an Irish whiskey are not remarkable complex, like they are for tequila or champagne, but they do contribute to its popularity. It is typically distilled three times in pot stills, which gives the distiller more control over the flavor. The triple distillation also takes out quite a few of the impurities that normally are not caught in only one distillation, which is more typical in other whiskey. It must be aged three years in a wooden cask, which goes a long way to mellow out and smooth over some of the rougher patches in many whiskeys. All of this helps to bring out some of the more subtle complexities while making it easy to drink. The bulk of all Irish whiskeys are blended, but if you look hard enough, you can find some single malt. If there is an age on a bottle of blended whiskey, each element in the bottle must be at least that age. Many whiskey lovers feel that because of the smoothness and sweetness of Irish whiskey, it is the ideal whiskey to use to introduce people who may not have been exposed to it before into the category.
In the last decade, Irish whiskey has been moving rapidly back to the top of the cocktail world. Part of this could be attributed to the owner of the Buena Vista Café in San Francisco, Jack Koeppler. He was served an Irish Coffee at an airport in Ireland, and was so enamored with it he was determined to recreate it. He did so, and has been serving it at that café ever since, up to 2000 a day. And with the craft cocktail boom hitting hard, bartenders all over the world are looking at old recipes and obscure liquors to try out. Irish whiskey fell neatly into that category, and they started to introduce those cocktails and flavors to their guests. Jameson has been leading the charge, driving up their sales by 30% over the last few years, and brining up overall industry sales by 20%. Sales are booming, and they are showing no signs of slowing. And all of it comes from just four distilleries in Ireland: New Middleton, Old Bushmills, Cooley, and the new kid on the block, reopened in 2007, Kilbeggan . Most of the brands come out of the New Middleton distillery.
When you are out for St. Patrick’s Day, or any night out on the town, take a moment to introduce yourself to this classically respected, yet newly discovered, style of whiskey. If you are looking for a great selection, the Dublin Pub has an amazing one, also boasting being the number one seller of Irish whiskey in Ohio (a popular seller: Jameson 12 year). Mix it in to your normal rotation, and you will also learn to appreciate this subtle and sweet liquor. Slainte!