Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Whiskey Wednesday: Luck of the Irish


I admit, it's cheesy to do this for St. Patrick's Day, but the holiday reminded me that I have yet to do a blog entry on Irish Whiskey. So this will be a brief primer and we will follow up next week with a tasting.

What is Irish Whiskey?


Well, it's whiskey from Ireland silly, from the people who invented the stuff. Yes, it's true; whiskey's birthplace is the emerald isle. Only from there was it carried across the North Channel to Scotland.

But alas, the Irish whiskey industry, once thriving, was reduced to only two distilleries by the 1970s: Midleton (makers of Jameson) and Bushmills, and they were owned by the same company. Since that time, they have been sold off. Bushmills is now owned by liquor giant Diageo. And in 1987, Cooley, a new independent distillery opened, and it has since opened a second distillery. Now things seem to be happening in Irish Whiskey for the first time in a long while.

There are three major types of Irish whiskey:

1. Single Malt Whiskey: As with Scotch, a whiskey made from 100% malted barley. Cooley, in particular, specializes in single malts, even making a peated version.

2. Pure Pot Still: This is a unique contribution of the Irish, a whiskey made from a combination of malted and unmalted barley distilled in a pot still. As far as I know, this designation exists only in Ireland.

3. Blended Whiskey: Again, as with Scotch, a whiskey made from a blend of barley and other grains. Usually, an Irish blend will have malted barley, unmalted barley and other grains.

And also as with Scotch, the biggest sellers (Bushmills, Jameson, Tullarmore Dew) are blends, but there is a growing market for single malts as well as a few pure pot stills.


What does Irish Whiskey taste like?

This may be a harder question to answer for Irish than for any other whiskey. The stereotype of Irish is the flavor that characterizes its blends: light and sometimes vaguely sweet. The traditional lightness comes from being triple distilled (unlike Scotch, which is double distilled). But the pure pot stills have a different, distinctively malty characteristic. And now, with the advent of pure pot stills like Redbreast and the single malts coming out of Bushmills and Cooley, it is getting hard to define the typical Irish Whiskey. In the next few years, the distilleries of Ireland will have to guide us in recreating this legendary whiskey. One thing is for sure, Irish Whiskey isn't just for St. Patrick's Day anymore.

Next Wednesday: Redbreast Pure Pot Still Whiskey

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