Saturday, March 15, 2008
Following on from my nigh-legendary guidance on drinking in general, here's a few pointers about Irish whiskey just in time for St Patrick's Day.
1. It's whiskEy not whisky. With an 'E' and it's Irish, without and it's Scotch. Some Yanks like to spell their Bourbon the Irish way, with the E. This is a mistake, since the vast majority of Bourbon isn't proper whiskey at all. In my opinion, of course.
2. Unlike the Scots, who cleverly kept most of their distilleries open, we stupidly shut nearly all of ours. Therefore, there are really only three distilleries left. To make up for that, they distil a bewildering display of whiskies to make it look like there are lots more than there really are.
3. Scots tend to make the most sought-after single malts. Irish distilleries make some excellent malts too, but what they really excel at is blends.
The Scots also tend to use peat to dry the malt in their whiskies, which can make them smoky. The Irish don't, with two notable exceptions.
Irish whiskey is generally triple distilled, which Scotch rarely if ever is. Hence Irish whiskey is generally the smoother tipple.
4. You have Bushmills on the North Coast of Antrim, probably located in the most Protestant, Unionist town in the world, but still aware of the marketing value of calling their famous product Irish, rather than Ulster, whiskey.
Bushmills make their own basic blend, Old Bushmills, which is sweet, young and good for skulling lots of during a whiskey binge, if that's your thing. Black Bush is the more upmarket blend, very tasty indeed and good value for money.
They also do a great range of single malts, including the green bottle 10 year old, which is yummy, and a truly sumptuous 16 year old, which is finished in three woods and tastes incredibly complex as a result.
At the top of the range is the 21 year old, matured in madeira casks, and a special 400th anniversary whiskey currently only on sale at the distillery, which is just fantastic. Also only at the distillery is the 12 year old reserve single malt.
In the past, the distillery has done limited edition single cask special editions. These are extremely overpriced gimmicks. Having said that, I'm open to receiving any of them on Christmas or birthdays!
The verdict: If you want that genuine Irish whiskey binge experience, the basic Bushmills is a good contender. If smooth single malts with vanilla and complex wine notes are your thing, feel free to move up the Bushmills single malts ladder as far as your pocket will allow you. The 16 year old is probably the best value of the lot.
5. Midleton is a little town just outside of Cork, where distilling has been going on for a very long time, and they're good at it.
This is just as well, because probably nearly all of the best known Irish whiskies are actually all made here now, especially since distilling in Dublin died out with the closure of the Jameson's distillery at Bow Lane, which is now a nice museum.
So prolific is Midleton, that they even make the grain whiskey that goes into Bushmills blends, and the whiskey that goes into Bailey's Irish Cream.
But what they're best known for are the Jameson range, which they inherited from Bow Lane, Paddy's and Powers Gold Label. Personally speaking, I don't rate any of these.
In fact, I'd go as far as to suggest that anyone who recommends any of these doesn't know their whiskey.
Powers and Paddy's are fine for kids to mix with Coke, or for use in Irish coffees and hot whiskeys, of course. Same with basic Jameson, which is just about good enough to drink on its own or on the rocks.
Further up the food chain are some heavily overpriced Jamesons, including the 1780 which is a 12 year old blend, an outrageously pricey 18 year old, and Crested Ten, which has a reputation in some quarters which is unwarranted.
The Jameson Gold is probably the best value in the brand range, but is generally only spotted in duty-free shops, more's the pity.
Midleton does make the extremely good value Tullamore Dew, which is very young as whiskies go, and quite popular in the US. For sheer bang for your buck, this is probably the best of the Midleton productions.
For quality though, one is forced to pay through the nose for the Midleton Very Rare, a deliberately limited edition whiskey sold in an ostentatious wooden box for figures upwards of 100 euro a bottle.
Each year the 'vintage' is slightly different, which adds to the collectible value. It's a lovely whiskey, whichever vintage you sample. But is it worth that money? Probably only to those who will leave it in the bottle for twenty years, untouched.
But Midleton does produce one genuine all-round gem of a whiskey. It's a pure pot still whiskey, a traditional method unique to Ireland, and it is superb and very reasonable value too.
This is Redbreast, of course, a 12 year old whiskey that has to be sampled to be believed.
And at the price it generally retails at, you can afford to put a bit more money to what you were going to spend on Jameson or Powers and get the proper good stuff.
There is another little historical anomaly produced at Midleton too. And thank God for it. Once upon a time, Ireland's many distilleries would produce bonded whiskies for pubs, wine importers and other independent establishments. All bar one of these no longer are produced.
There is one left though, Green Spot, which is produced at Midleton for Dublin wine merchants Mitchells. And it's fantastic. This is probably the best value Irish whiskey there is.
Sadly, it's produced in limited quantities and generally is only found in Mitchells' own shops, of which there are only three, and they're all in Dublin.
Verdict: Forget Paddy's and Powers. Of the Jamesons, Gold is the only one worth your money. But for gulping whiskey, Tullamore Dew is the one, for sipping whiskey go with the Redbreast, and if someone else is buying, try a Midleton Very Rare. But the one worth flying to Dublin just to buy is Green Spot.
6. The last of the three distilleries is Cooley, located almost on the border between British-owned Ireland and the independent free bit.
One thing Cooley has going for it is that unlike the other two, which are both owned by massive corporate conglomerates, Cooley is genuinely independent and hence deserving of support.
And a lot of people like what Cooley are doing, since they can't stop winning awards for their whiskies.
I once had a bad experience with their main single malt, Tyrconnell. I don't like it much and I don't like the fact that Cooley took the name from a venerable old whiskey once distilled in Derry at the now long-closed Watts distillery.
But Tyrconnell is loved by many, despite its youth. I'd be more inclined to look out for the limited edition finishes of Tyrconnell, though. They're marginally more interesting than the basic number.
The Greenore single grain whiskey is also, to my mind, completely worth ignoring, I'm afraid. The small amount of it they make inflates the price for what has to be the blandest whiskey in Ireland.
Their Kilbeggan blend is an adequate alternative to Paddy's or Jameson for those who want whiskey in their cola, and personally I'd recommend doing so just to give Cooley the business.
Cooley claims that their other blend, Locke's (also named for a whiskey that died a long time ago) is very hard to make and complex. I find it pretty bland again, even at 8 years old.
But before you think I'm completely down on the border boys, let me discuss what Cooley do uniquely and do incredibly well: peated Irish whiskey.
But JC, I hear you protest (because I have special powers which allow me to hear over the internet), didn't you say it's the Scots who peat whiskey?
Yup, they do. And if you've a taste for smokey Scotch, or a friend who loves Scotch who you want to convert to Irish whiskey, then you need to stock up on a couple of Cooley whiskies.
Specifically, you want to get the Connemara single malt, which just keeps winning awards.
It's very like a smokey island Scotch single malt, which was the point of the exercise really. In fact, it keeps outdoing Scotch equivalents at competitions.
And with a delicious 12 year old and a beefy cask strength option, there's a little range of options to enjoy, and though both of these can hurt the wallet a little, they're worth it if you like the basic Connemara number. Like pretty much all whiskey lovers do.
But for me, the real gem at Cooley is Inishowen (again, a name nicked from an old Watts whiskey).
There is literally nothing like Inishowen on earth. It's an Irish blend whiskey, with peated malt in the mix. In other words, it's the Giant's Causeway of whiskies, the missing link between Irish whiskey and Scotch whisky. Also a multiple award-winner, it is so reasonably priced that it's hard to fault it, despite its unique qualities.
Verdict: Everyone's waiting to see what emerges from the old Kilbeggan distillery, which Cooley has taken out of the mothballs, and hurrah for that. But judging on their current performances at Cooley, it could go either way. So for now, play it safe and stick with their peated range, Inishowen and Connemara.
6, There are other Irish whiskies out there. All are made by the above three distilleries for foreign markets, or for independent bottlers. I'd name a few, but apart from Coleraine (made at Bushmills and only recently improved to drinkable quality), or Millars Special Reserve (made at Cooley for a UK off-licence chain) I wouldn't accept a half-un of any of them to be honest.
7. Sadly, some of the best Irish whiskies are the remaining stocks of long-closed distilleries. As a result, these gems are generally very hard to find and appallingly expensive.
Examples would include 'Dungourney 64', which came from a single cask from the Old Midleton distillery that went missing for 30 years before being discovered and bottled.
Or Dunville's, a whiskey distilled in Belfast until the place closed Seventy years ago, a cache of which surfaced in Bushmills some years back.
Or Coleraine 1959, a limited edition 34 year old bottling of the last cask ever produced at the old Coleraine distillery.
Or Old Comber, which was bottled in the Eighties at around 33 years old from the last couple of casks remaining from the Ulster Distillery in Comber, which shut down in 1953.
Or Knappogue 51, which surfaced after 36 years and was bottled, and is now marketed as the rarest Irish whiskey in the world.
Which it probably isn't, as no doubt someone out there has a unique bottle out there of something ancient and preposterously rare.
But these are mostly museum pieces, articles for collections. Not for drinking unless you have deep pockets.
For St Patrick's Day, I'll be sipping some Green Spot, some Redbreast, some Bushmills 16 year old, and a little drop of Old Comber as a special treat.
Good luck and enjoy whatever you're having yourself! Slainte!