Apart from the odd glass of Jameson's at corner Irish bars which don't look like they could make a passable cocktail, I've managed to ignore Irish whiskey pretty successfully for most of my drinking life. And really, it wasn't the whiskey, it was me. "It's kind of like Scotch whisky, I'd always hear when I asked about it, "but, um, lighter." Wow -- doesn't sound too thrilling. "But it's really easy to drink!" Well, yeah, a glass of water also goes down easier than a dram of Laphroaig, but that doesn't exactly quicken my pulse either.
I wasn't a full-fledged Irish whiskey denier, but I was pretty close. "Well, it's good," I'd think whenever circumstances forced me to try some, "but it's not good like Scotch is good." But once I saw that, according to the Distilled Spirits Council, Irish whiskey was the fastest-growing spirits category in the US last year, I figured I'd better bite the bullet and drink the Bushmills. And the Redbreast, and the Jameson's, and all the other brands that have been catching on Stateside as of late. After trying a bunch of them, I came to realize that most Irish whiskey really isn't good like Scotch is good. But of course it's not supposed to be. And it's still good -- at times astoundingly so.
Now, this is by no means a comprehensive overview of Irish whiskey -- it'd be tough to do that with a mere seven brands. And my Irish education is just beginning. But with six months to go until St. Patrick's Day, there's plenty of time for more "research." In the meantime, I hope you seek out and try at least a couple of the whiskeys reviewed below -- and post in the Comments section about any of your favorites that I didn't mention. Slainte!
<strong><a href="http://www.bushmills.com/#BMBushmillsBlackBushDetail" target="_hplink">BUSHMILLS BLACK BUSH</a> (40% ABV, age not stated, $30)</strong>. Bushmills is one of the best-known Irish whiskeys around, and it's usually the brand most bars stock after Jameson's. I like standard Bushmills just fine, so I figured I'd upgrade a little and try the fancier-shmancier Black Bush. Like many other whiskeys, Irish and otherwise, Black Bush has been finished in Oloroso sherry casks, giving it a distinctive fruity flavor. I don't know how they do it with this brand, but it tastes a little like sherry overkill to me; such rich, raisin-y flavors just don't appeal to me unless I'm actually, you know, drinking sherry. There's also a good deal of earthy and woody flavor, especially on the back end, with a moderate amount of spice that gives it a bit more kick than many of its Irish counterparts. Not my thing, but that's not to say it won't be yours.
<strong><a href="http://concannonirishwhiskey.com/#" target="_hplink">CONCANNON </a>(40% ABV, aged 4 years, $25)</strong>. Concannon is known for its wines, not its Irish whiskey. But hey, when you've got a market growing by leaps and bounds the way Irish is, well, you jump on in. Strictly speaking, this isn't really a Concannon whiskey -- it actually comes from the legendary Cooley distillery, which makes a good percentage of the Irish whiskeys on the market today. Cooley ages this one in used bourbon barrels for four years, and then -- here's where Concannon comes in -- finishes it for another four months, in barrels that have been used to age Concannon's own Petite Sirah wine. The vino adds a burst of rich floral and berry notes up front, and a smooth, buttery mouth feel as it glides to the back of the tongue, leaving behind a moderate alcoholic tingle and a clean, lingering finish. This is a lovely, gentle wisp of a whiskey -- quite a romantic little dram in a weird way. Drink it with the one you love and see if you don't agree.
<strong><a href="http://www.jamesonwhiskey.com/Our-Whiskeys/Jameson-Reserves/Jameson-Black-Barrel.aspx" target="_hplink">JAMESON BLACK BARREL SELECT RESERVE</a> (40% ABV, aged up to 12 years, $40)</strong>. Anyone with a liver and a passing interest in Irish whiskey has probably tried standard Jameson's. But there are plenty of variations on the flagship brand, bottled at different ages and finished using various methods. The latest, Black Barrel Select Reserve, is a whole 'nuther animal from the standard bottling. It's been aged twice as long (12 years as opposed to 5-7), for one thing, in both used bourbon and used sherry barrels. The result is a rich and fruity whiskey, with flavors of raisins and marmalade balanced out by earthy, woody notes, with just a little heat on the finish. This isn't the Jameson's you know and love, but it's a new romance waiting to happen.
<strong><a href="http://www.kilbegganwhiskey.com/Default.aspx" target="_hplink">KILBEGGAN</a> (40% ABV, age not stated, $20)</strong>. If you don't know a whole lot about Irish whiskey, this blended brand is a good, inexpensive place to start. Kilbeggan has been in business since 1757, although it was defunct for several decades in the 20th century. Despite its long history, it's still not well known outside Ireland. Perhaps it's because it's not particularly flashy or complex, but damn, this is really nice -- like a textbook definition of what Irish whiskey is supposed to be. Kilbeggan is light, with notes of vanilla, caramel and almond along with some malt, and a dry, grainy finish. It's perfect for mixing or as an everyday dram. It won't change your life, but it'll definitely brighten your belly-up-to-the-bar time. Simple, unpretentious, and very enjoyable.
<strong><a href="http://michaelcollinswhiskey.com/whiskeys/single-malt" target="_hplink">MICHAEL COLLINS SINGLE MALT 10 YEAR OLD</a> (40% ABV, aged at least 10 years, $40)</strong>. One of the first things I learned about how Irish whiskey differs from Scotch whisky (apart from the spelling) was that Irish is generally distilled three times, whereas Scotch is distilled twice, giving Irish a somewhat lighter flavor. OK, I thought, I know the ground rules now. And then along comes Michael Collins, which is not only distilled a mere two times but also contains peated malt -- something you'll commonly find in Scotch but hardly ever in Irish. My first sip convinced me there's still a difference; it hit the front of my tongue with a light vanilla/honey sweetness, and I thought, yup, that's Irish whiskey. But once it hit mid-palate, it fairly exploded with peppery spice and dry peat/smoke notes. It mellowed out on the finish, with tobacco and maybe a wee hint of mint. Does it taste like a Scotch whisky? Well, kind of. But much more importantly, does it taste <em>good</em>? The answer is an unequivocal yes.
<strong><a href="http://www.singlepotstill.com/redbreast.do" target="_hplink">REDBREAST 12 YEAR OLD CASK STRENGTH</a> (57.7%, aged at least 12 years, $60)</strong>. OK, all you Irish whiskey naysayers, get in line and get a taste of this baby -- I challenge you not to be impressed, or even dazzled. Redbreast 12-year is a single pot still whiskey, which means it has both malted and unmalted barley (Scotch only has malted). It's got a rich, fruity nose, and a whole mouthful of flavor -- wood, dark berries, spices, cereal -- that just keeps unfolding and evolving from sip to sip. If Irish whiskey is supposed to be "easier" than Scotch, then this puts lie to the myth. A complex, challenging and delicious whiskey that's earned the many kudos it's received.
<strong><a href="http://www.tullamoredew.com/" target="_hplink">TULLAMORE DEW</a> (40% ABV, age not stated, $20)</strong>. Like Kilbeggan, this is your basic, no-frills Irish whiskey, with a price to match. I've read some pretty harsh reviews of the Dew, but I have a soft spot for it in my heart, since I remember seeing it in my parents' liquor cabinet back when I was an impressionable young sprog, and for a long time it was the only Irish whiskey I'd ever heard of. Being as objective as possible, I really don't think it's that bad. All the familiar notes of vanilla, honey, caramel and grain are there, along with a little ripe pear and banana, and the result is thoroughly pleasant. If you want something a little more refined under the Tullamore Dew banner, give their 10-year or 12-year-old bottlings a shot. If you just want something simple, cheap, and quaffable, you could definitely do worse.
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