Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day at the Home Bar
Pick up these innovative Irish whiskies to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day at your home bar.
Like many of you, I’ll be celebrating St. Patrick’s Day at home this year instead of going out to the bars. There’s, of course, Guinness in cans and bottles, but the holiday is also a big whiskey day. You could go with a dram of the usual but why not try something new? And folks, there is a lot of new Irish whiskey out there to try.
The long, strong upward curve in sales of Irish whiskey has led to a new generation of Irish whiskey brands. Ten years ago, writers could opine on the “trinity” of Irish distilleries: Irish Distillers (Jameson), Bushmills and Cooley (Kilbeggan). A decade of double-digit growth certainly changed things. Now, there are more than 30 distilleries in Ireland, and a lot of other brands buying whiskey that are teasingly shy about their sources.
Like the small craft distilleries in America, the new Irish producers realize that innovation is their best bet to get some attention, and generate sales. Also like America, the established distillers were quick to catch on to this idea. It’s all, of course, to our benefit as whiskey fans. Here are some of the new ideas in Irish whiskey you’ll want to try this St. Patrick’s Day.
To start large, Jameson has been doing a series of Caskmates whiskies ($33), finished in barrels that have held beer (stout, IPA) or cider. These are quite different, and have generated a lot of new interest in whiskey among craft beer drinkers (“Did you say IPA? I gotta have that!”). Not that new, but if you still haven’t tried the Jameson Black Barrel ($40) expression yet, you should: a higher ratio of the rich single pot still Irish whiskey and aging in a freshly re-charred bourbon barrel gives a distinctly heftier flavor to the spirit. There’s also the limited-release Jameson Cold Brew ($30), a drink at 30 percent ABV (so not “whiskey,” legally) that is Jameson “spiked” with cold brew coffee flavor. Think of coffee liqueur without the sugar and you’ve about nailed it.
Up north, Bushmills is also prepping some fun stuff, as I mentioned in my 2019 best thing I drank round-up recently. They have a bunch of cool experimental expressions that I hope they’re going to actually release, including a 27-year-old Cognac barrel long-finish and some 18-year-old malt finished in premier cru Bordeaux wine casks. That should have us all looking at the Bushmills name with a new found respect. In the meantime, Bushmills new Sexton whiskey delivers single malt character at a very affordable price ($31). It also comes in a unique hexagonal black bottle, short and broad, that at first looks like a concertina...until you realize that it’s modeled on the basalt columns of the Giant’s Causeway World Heritage Site, only three miles from the distillery. It’s a beautiful taste of young, flavor-packed malt whiskey.
The third member of that older trinity, Kilbeggan, has a new single pot still whiskey just out, with a bold red label ($45). Single pot still has come to mean a mash that includes both malted and unmalted (raw) barley, but historically other grains were often added to the mix, too. Kilbeggan does that with an addition of oats that gives this whiskey a distinct difference, a zesty edge to the single pot still fruitiness that will wake up your palate.
They also have released a 16-year-old expression of Tyrconnell Single Malt ($100) that is finished in oloroso sherry casks. The barrels were “seasoned” with Moscatel wine after the sherry was dumped. It’s an intriguing double shot of flavor that complements the malt of the Tyrconnell.
Tullamore D.E.W. was not part of the original trinity even though the brand sold well in global markets, because it had no distillery of its own for more than 50 years. But it recently opened one, which is a beauty, and the brand is stepping up its sourcing and blending game in anticipation of the new whiskies that will be coming out soon. Case in point is its new XO bottling ($29), which takes the triple blend of malt, grain and single pot still whiskies and finishes it for three months in Demerara rum casks from Guyana. I got a delightful character of buttery brown sugar from this luscious whiskey.
If you liked the double wood idea from Tyrconnell, you should also try Walsh Whiskey’s Writers’ Tears ($60). A favorite for obvious sentimental reasons and the brand has a new bottling, Writers’ Tears Double Oak ($65). This takes the two Irish whiskey types that make up Writers’ Tears—malt, and single pot still—and ages them in two types of wood, American oak used bourbon casks and French oak used Cognac casks. It makes for a flavorful and complex whiskey.
Connacht Whiskey Co. has a Pennsylvania connection that intrigued me; the co-founder and distiller are from my home state. That’s the origin of their Brothership Whiskey ($50), a unique blend of Irish single malt and American light whiskey (a kind of American-style grain whiskey). If you want something a bit more refined, their Spade and Bushel 10-year-old is a rare barrel proof (57.5 percent) Irish single malt that sells for $40 for a 375 mL bottle. On the other hand, if you want something a bit rougher, have a taste reminiscent of the old Irish moonshine, poitín. Connacht makes a single malt unaged spirit, which is distilled from County Wexford barley, that is called Straw Boys ($40). It is named for the tradition of wedding crashers who’d enter in face-covering straw hats, dance with the bride and groom, sink a drink and run out the door. Who wouldn’t, if you could get away with it?
There’s another new brand with a clear American connection, and a new spin on Irish whiskey. Dead Rabbit is named for the famous modern New York cocktail bar (and the infamous 1800s gang), and it has a whiskey ($40) that’s a bit bigger, at 44 percent ABV and a bit rougher than what was traditionally called Irish whiskey. Rougher? They take 5-year-old Irish whiskey and then finish it in small (looked to be about 15-gallon) new charred oak barrels, to give it that bourbon bash. It is an Irish/American hybrid, and it tastes like that. Intriguing. (Where does it source its whiskey? Well, their blender is Darryl McNally, who was the distiller at Bushmills...and that’s all I have to say.)
Teeling is a kind of “descendant” distillery, opened by the sons of the man who opened Cooley. They’ve been bottling great sourced whiskies at a great price, and now whiskies they’ve produced are coming to market. That’s not particularly innovative, but one in its range is: it’s a rare single grain Irish whiskey, bottled at 46 percent ABV ($50). It’s made from 95 percent corn and aged in California Cabernet Sauvignon barrels. It’s buttery and sweet, with just the faintest hint of wine character. Grain whiskey needs some good representatives, and this Teeling bottle is just that.
Slane is forging ahead with something that other distillers have been aiming at: sustainability. It’s going for locally-produced ingredients as much as possible, and 75 percent of the grain it’s now using for its whiskey ($30) is grown near Slane Castle itself. Going green in Ireland sounds like a solid strategy.
Lambay Whiskey leans heavily on Ireland’s maritime island geography and is named for an island off Dublin, and its sourcing whiskey from a small, independent Irish distiller. Is the island influence just in the name, then? No! Camus Cognac has aging warehouses on Île de Ré, off the coast of the Cognac region of France, and Lambay uses those briny Camus Cognac casks to finish their whiskey. It brings a delightful roundness to their 5-year-old bottling ($35).
Not to be outdone, Clonakilty is making its whiskey and aging it in its own seaside warehouse to get that signature marine character some Scotch whiskies develop. The sourced whiskey it’s blending in the meantime includes a quirky finishing program that uses barrels doused with some distinctive craft beers from small American brewers like Pelican (Oregon), Revival (Rhode Island) and Roy-Pitz (Pennsylvania). (They sell for between $50 and $60 a bottle.)
And on that note, I’ll raise my glass and bid you slainte, the traditional Irish toast, meaning, appropriately, to your health!