“By common consent, Irish whiskey comes third in the league after Scotch and bourbon,” wrote novelist and drinks writer Kingsley Amis in the 1970s. “Irish whiskey in general is indispensable only as the foundation of Irish coffee.”
This perception persists, although in a somewhat softened state. Irish whiskey now wears the ermine-collared cloak of a noble spirit, since history suggests that Ireland may have been home to the first grain whiskey ever made. The knowledge of its creation traveled to Scotland, where it begat Scotch, and thence to America, whence bourbon. If you enjoy a nice bourbon, pay your respects. Irish whiskey is the great-grandfather of your favorite dram.
Yet, when it comes to cocktails, Irish whiskey has been set adrift on a barren ice flow. It has floated through a world devoid of iconic cocktails, or fellow spirits with whom to fraternize in a glass, or even much in the way of mixers or garnishes. Lesser Irish is knocked back by the shot at dive bars. The fancier Irish is graced only by the company of rocks glasses and ice cubes.
And maybe a little coffee, as Amis notes. Irish Coffee is the one mixed drink everyone seems to associate with Irish whiskey. And that’s a little sad—it’s a fine drink, but also cartoonish and lacking in subtly. It’s mostly a vehicle for caffeine and whipped cream, with a little Irish on the side. Irish Coffee’s flag flutters limply in the cocktail winds, and is given a bit of lift only by St. Patrick’s Day, when swillers of green beer stumble down the day’s exit ramp.
While the concoction is associated with the Emerald Isle, it’s actually not one often drunk by Irish people. It only became a success when Americans started mixing them up.
Which raises the question: why isn’t there a classic Irish whiskey cocktail? Other spirits all have been embraced one or more drinks, some in vast number. Rum has the Daiquiri, and tequila the Margarita. Bourbon and rye have too many classics to enumerate. Even Scotch has the Rob Roy, and Canadian whisky has the Toronto.
A name association game will, in addition to Irish Coffee, often yield the Irish Car Bomb, a drink with a name so insensitive that the mere mention of it is an invitation to vitriol and scorn. Please note I never mentioned it.
Why Irish whiskey has been overlooked in the cocktail canon may involve vagaries of history, as well as circumstances of flavor.
First, the history. While Irish whiskey may have the most golden pedigree of all whiskey, it also has had some rough spells. It was called for in several drinks in Jerry Thomas’ pioneering 1862 bar guide and other early mixology books, but this comet burned briefly. Notably, Irish whiskey fell on hard times in the first half of the last century. American Prohibition gutted one of its chief export markets, and then the creation of the Irish Republic in 1948 led to duties and falling exports to Great Britain. The number of distilleries in Ireland plummeted and Irish whiskey began to vanish from the shelves, at a time when modern bartenders were tasked with creating a roster of post-Prohibition drinks.
But perhaps more hobbling was Irish whiskey’s flavor profile. It’s central calling card is that it’s usually triple distilled, which yields a “smooth, luscious approachability,” as my fellow Daily Beast columnist Lew Bryson writes in his book, Tasting Whisky. This lends itself to something that’s naturally made for sipping. Irish whiskey is, essentially, a pre-mixed cocktail in a glass.
“It may be too mellow for its own good,” says Joaquín Simó, proprietor of the bar Pouring Ribbons in New York. “It’s soft and round and confectionary, and all these things give it a low barrier of entry for people to enjoy.” He suspects that the gentle nature of Irish whiskey meant that few drinkers saw the need to doctor it up with other ingredients. That wasn’t the case for rougher spirits, like Jamaican rum or Monongahela rye, which all but demanded sugar and mixers to file down the burrs.
Bartenders also discovered that mixing additional ingredients often overshadowed the pleasing native flavors of the spirit. Simó notes that many vermouths can sucker-punch Irish, and so a lighter hand is required. “Carpano Antica will run roughshod over this whiskey, so you need to find something a little more mellow,” he says. Simó suggests cutting the sweet vermouth with some dry.
The authors of the Cocktail Codex, published last year, also noted that Irish whiskey can come off a bit flat in classics like the Manhattan, but it can do well with citrus, provided one doesn’t reach for a funkier, single pot still Irish whiskey.
The Dead Rabbit, the award-winning New York bar founded by Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry, has done much to draw attention to Irish whiskey, and last year released its own brand created in collaboration with The Dublin Liberties Distillery. Their cocktail book features a variation on Jerry Thomas’ Improved Whiskey Cocktail, which they say is further improved with Jameson’s Black Barrel aged in charred barrels, and so takes on some of the vanilla-forward assertiveness of bourbon.
In casting about for lost classics, Simó mentioned the Cameron’s Kick, which appeared in the Savoy Cocktail Book (1930). This is a split base drink featuring Irish and Scotch whiskies, enlivened with lemon juice and orgeat syrup. Simó suggests this could make an admirable pure Irish cocktail, by replacing the Scotch with a share of “more structured” Irish whiskey (such as Connemara, Knappogue or Redbreast).
But it’s the orgeat—an almond syrup—that makes this both surprising and a potential classic. (Later recipes swapped out orgeat for orange bitters; fie on these.) “The soft nutty notes of the orgeat play into the strengths of the Irish whiskey, but without overpowering it,” he says. “Something like maple syrup or demerara has to be used sparingly, but orgeat can be used more liberally. It’s a great way to round out a flavor.”
Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Enjoy your green beer and Irish Coffee. When you’re ready to join the adult table, come on over and have a Cameron’s Kick.