Every March, you’ll hear the praises of Irish whiskey, Baileys, and Guinness sung in the run-up to St. Patrick’s Day, our annual bacchanal of corned beef and cabbage, green beer, green rivers, step-dancing and drunken singing.
But it’s different this year. New Irish distilleries are popping up, and the large guys have not been lazy, either. Irish craft brewers are also finally moving out of the garage stage; there are now more than 70 breweries on the island. And, there’s a new product that has caught on with locals and is fast making friends here in America: Irish gin. The good news is that some of this bounty is coming to America and I suggest you sample it on St. Patrick’s Day.
Whiskey is, of course, a signature of the Emerald Isle, and it’s still on one hell of a tear, growing strongly since the early ’90s. Jameson, which is made at the Midleton Distillery, is by far the biggest seller, and the brand has told me they welcome the new competition; it helps expands the category. That’s good because there’s now a tremendous variety of whiskey available.
Midleton recently finished a huge expansion, which means there will be plenty of Jameson available in the future. Early pioneers in wood research, the brand has grown to include Jameson Black Barrel, which is aged in re-charred bourbon barrels to squeeze fresh flavor from used wood. There’s also the Caskmates series, which makes use of barrels that have already aged beer and cider.
The Midleton Distillery is also home to the fabulous Irish single pot still whiskies that add raw, unmalted barley to the grain mix, producing a deliciously fruity spirit. The best-known is Redbreast, whose line includes a luscious fruit bowl of a 12-year-old whiskey, as well as potent cask strength and 15-year-old bottlings. You may have also seen its Green Spot and Yellow Spot, so named for the old practice of daubing barrels with spots of paint to reserve them for different customers.
Tullamore D.E.W. has built a mighty new distillery just outside of the town of Tullamore, and it’s a beauty. The whiskey from there will soon be old enough to be ready for blending; in the meantime, the blenders have sourced some excellent casks for both the regular bottlings and the superb 14- and 18-year-old single malt whiskies. The expressions are aged in barrels that have previously held sherry, madeira, port, and bourbon. Its newest addition is the XO Caribbean Rum Cask Finish, which was aged a second time in used Demerara rum barrels.
Up in Northern Ireland, Bushmills makes distinctly smooth single malt Irish whiskey and also quaffable blends. Not surprising, really, when you consider Scotland is only an hour away by fast boat. (That’s not a joke! I can personally attest to this fact.) The classically delicious Black Bush, aged in sherry casks, was recently joined by a bourbon barrel-aged expression, named Red Bush, full of vanilla and caramel, with hints of coconut.
In addition, there are some new names on the distilling scene that you might not have heard before. Sourcing whiskey (buying from established distillers) is an old Irish tradition that several newer brands are carrying on today. Knappogue Castle buys and blends single malt Irish whiskey to make its 12-year-old and Twin Wood bottlings. Slane has built a distillery (at famed music venue Slane Castle), but is sourcing its Triple Casked spirit for now.
Teeling, which opened Dublin’s first distillery since 1976, is sourcing fine casks and blending them. I’ve found its Small Batch and Single Malt whiskies to be an excellent combination of value and quality; expect more good things from them in the future.
Glendalough—which is “hard to pronounce, but easy to drink,” as one liquor store owner put it to me recently—makes a couple of interesting whiskies, including its popular Double Barrel offering. West Cork is proudly Irish-owned, and notes that all its whiskey is Irish-made. Their 10–year-old single malt is a beauty.
The Sexton Single Malt is a new bottling introduced this past winter, which is aged in Oloroso sherry butts and blended by Alex Thomas, one of the island’s few female whiskey blenders. My sentimental favorite, Writer’s Tears, has finally made the jump to America; glad I don’t have to go to Dublin to buy it anymore!
Enough about whiskey! Ready for a beer? Of course, you are! Well, here’s a fresh pint of Guinness. Even though I’ll be in Barcelona on St. Patrick’s Day this year, given just how ubiquitous Guinness is, I’m sure I’ll find a bar that has it on tap.
But there are also more Irish beer options now, even in America. One of the first Irish craft brewers, the Porterhouse, is finally stateside. Sound familiar? It’s Dublin brewpub, which opened in 1996, is a popular tourist destination. The company just opened a new, €6 million production brewery last month in the city. I’m partial to their Oyster Stout and Plain Porter, and am looking forward to trying the new Bounty Hunter, a coconut porter.
O’Hara is a name that American drinkers of Irish beer should know. We’ve been enjoying its excellently rich dry stout for a bit over a decade. It’s brewed in County Carlow, and you can try its Red Ale as well as the stout. The company probably has the widest distribution of any of the non-Guinness options.
Lough Gill is brewing beer in Sligo Town and also exporting to America (okay, mostly to New York at this point) a range that includes Thieving Bastards Pale Ale and Round the Clock Breakfast Stout, which is made with Irish oatmeal and coffee.
A couple more: Boundary Brewing is a co-op venture in Belfast, and we’ll be getting draft beer from it soon. Kinnegar, way up in County Donegal, is sending beer to Florida, and I hope we can get some of its more farmhouse-y saisons and sours.
Irish gin is very popular right now. While I never thought I’d ever write that sentence, if you’re an Irish-20-something you are drinking the locally made spirit. One of the more interesting ones is Bertha’s Revenge, a “milk gin” produced from whey, a by-product of the cheese-making process. Vallyvolane House Spirits, which produces the gin, ferments and then distills the whey. The spirit is then infused with a complex blend of botanicals, which includes cardamom, cumin, and clove, along with sweet citrus. “The whey element adds a really wonderful smoothness and soft mouthfeel to the spirit,” says co-founder Antony Jackson.
From milk to…gunpowder? That’s Drumshanbo Gunpowder Gin from County Leitrim, and yes, along with a mixture of locally foraged meadowsweet and “Oriental botanicals,” it’s made with gunpowder. Gunpowder tea, that is. Its fans in the U.S. are also quite enthusiastic about it.
The Dingle Distillery (in Dingle, natch) is making a number of spirits, but Dingle Gin is the one that’s really caught on. Watch out for a whiskey in the future; it’s getting better as it ages. Whiskey maker Glendalough, mentioned above, also has an excellent gin.
Finally, there’s Conncullin Irish Gin, made by the Connacht Whiskey Co. in County Mayo. The brand’s distiller Rob Cassell is actually American and an old friend. (He’s from Pennsylvania like me, to boot!) The liquor has an “immense” amount of juniper, balanced with a complex array of things like rose hips and elderberry.
It’s really quite an impressive list. Here’s to St. Patrick’s Day!