In November 1960, a few weeks after John F. Kennedy won the presidential election, celebrated Irish novelist and critic Frank O’Connor came to Washington and blasted the millions of Irish-Americans who “do absolutely nothing for Ireland”. Not only didn’t they support foreign aid, but “they don’t even drink Irish whiskey”, O’Connor lamented.
“Go to New York on St. Patrick’s Day and everybody is out having a glorious time of it,” O’Connor said. “The pubs are kept busy by Irishmen and so they’re all serving what kind of whiskey? Scotch.”
The worst offender, according to the novelist’s book, was the president-elect himself—an Irish-American whose father had made a killing with a franchise importing Scotch at the end of Prohibition. O’Connor urged Kennedy to give up on Scotch and take up the spirit of Erin. (Covering O’Connor’s remarks for the Washington Post was a cub reporter named Tom Wolfe.)
Choices in Irish whiskey have proliferated over the past decade. Instead of two distilleries owned by one conglomerate—the way things stood until the mid-1980s—there are now three separately owned distilleries putting out a variety of very good and interesting whiskeys.
To get a picture of the new spectrum of spirits, I tried two whiskeys from each distillery: Redbreast 12-year-old pot still malt and Midleton Very Rare blend from the Jameson folks; Michael Collins single malt and Connemara cask strength single malt from the Cooley Distillery; and Bushmills 10-year-old single malt and Knappogue Castle 1994 from the Old Bushmills Distillery.
I can’t say I disliked the Midleton, though it does drift perilously close to blandness. I can’t see myself again spending anything like the $140 (Rs6,160) a bottle cost. Far more satisfying (and affordable) from the same distillery is Redbreast, a big, swaggering malt, thick and viscous, with just enough spice to cut through a sweetness that smacks of raspberries.
The Cooley distillery, founded in 1987, has been experimenting with whiskeys in the Scottish style, using barley malted over peat fires. The tradition in Ireland has been to bake the grain in closed ovens before mashing it and fermenting it, which is why Irish whiskeys have lacked the smokiness of their Scottish cousins. Irish distillers have also triple-distilled their whiskey as opposed to the double distillation of Scotch, which has generally made for a lighter-bodied spirit.
The most Scottish of Cooley’s whiskeys is its Connemara brand, with the peat asserting its presence not so much in smokiness, but in the taste of hospital-grade iodine. Which isn’t to say it is bad whiskey, especially when judiciously diluted with water. It’s just not what one is looking for in an Irish malt. By contrast, the iodine is well under control in the Michael Collins single malt, which Cooley makes for Sidney Frank Importing Co. It has all the doughy sweetness one expects from an Irish whiskey with just enough of the astringency associated with peat to produce a wonderful balance.
And then there is the Knappogue Castle 1994 and the Bushmills 10-year-old, which offer a demonstration of just how much a whiskey can be affected by its time in dunnage. Castle Brands makes its Knappogue Castle vintage whiskeys entirely from 10-year-old barrels of single malt purchased from Bushmills, yet the stuff is remarkably distinct from the 10-year-old malt that the distillery itself bottles.
Bushmills puts some of its whiskey in used bourbon barrels and some in old sherry casks, while Castle chooses only to use the spirit aged in the bourbon oak and even then selects barrels in which the whiskey is particularly light and delicate. The house style of Bushmills comes through in its 10-year-old expression: honey-rich and rounded. Knappogue Castle, by contrast, is bright and grassy with a lot of flavour for such a light-bodied spirit.
Irish whiskeys have come quite a long way in a short time. And a good thing, too, because as a character in O’Connor’s story, The Eternal Triangle, says: “Bad whiskey is the ruination of the world.”
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