There are no classic Irish cocktail books. It’s worth bearing that in mind when taking up the spoon and mixing glass and attempting to concoct an Irish whiskey cocktail.
It’s not that Irish whiskey is incompatible with mixing excellent drinks—after all, what drink gives more pleasure than a properly constructed Irish Coffee?—but it has a habit of quietly refusing to participate when you try to do something unfortunate with it. That’s a fancy way of saying that when you mix Irish whiskey with something too pungent or use too many ingredients in general you won’t be able to taste the whiskey in the resulting drink.
Irish whiskey shares a great deal of DNA with Scotch, and yet when it comes to mixing drinks they end up living a continent apart. Mix Scotch with anything up to and including mezcal, Fernet-Branca and/or Worcestershire sauce and you will taste the Scotch. Mix Irish whiskey even with something as mellow as red vermouth and you end up with a glass full of red vermouth—rich, potent red vermouth, true, but good luck pulling much whiskey out of the blend. That’s not to say Irish whiskey is essentially neutral in cocktails, the way vodka is. It’s just polite and, uncharacteristically considering where it comes from, more than a little shy.
That doesn’t mean you should avoid it. Sure, most of the traditional Irish whiskey cocktails aren’t worth a whole hell of a lot. The Tippearary—a World War I-era blend of whiskey, red vermouth, and green Chartreuse that has been getting a fair bit of play these days—is a good showcase for the Chartreuse but not much else. For the Emerald, an Irish-whiskey Manhattan from the bar of the old Waldorf-Astoria, see above. The Blackthorn, from Harry Johnson, the 19th-century master mixologist, is a little better, using as it does the lighter dry vermouth, but it’s still on the awkward side: You taste the whiskey, but it’s pulling against the (dry) vermouth, the (dry) bitters, and the dashes of (dry) absinthe it’s paired with.
But there are ways to make Irish whiskey sing in a mixed drink; to use its light, grainy muskiness and sly richness to mix something subtle, soft, and alluring.
The foremost modern mixer of Irish whiskey is Jack McGarry, co-founder of New York’s acclaimed and hideously popular bar, the Dead Rabbit. McGarry’s trick, however, is to frame the whiskey with a relatively high number of well-chosen, often exotic other ingredients—e.g., ginger-orange marmalade, Elicser Combier (that’s a French liqueur), orange-cream citrate—all used in small amounts. In the hands of a master, that works spectacularly well: the dashes and splashes highlight flavors already in the whiskey or round out what’s missing, and the drinks end up harmonious and oh-so-pleasant. But you really need to know your whiskey and the rest.
An easier approach, I’ve always found, is to plug your Irish whiskey into recipes for successful drinks based on other, bolder whiskies and then dial everything back a notch. Thus, for example, green Chartreuse gets dialed back to the lower-proof, less-intense yellow version, Angostura bitters to orange bitters, and red vermouth to the semi-sweet “bianco” or “blanc” style. (I’ve always found full-on dry vermouth is pushing things too far: Like all whiskies, Irish works well with a little sweetness in the mix.) Instead of sherry, which has a pungency of its own, try a white port or a Rainwater Madeira.
My favorite deployment of this approach is in something I call Royal Hibernian Punch, an eighteenth-century style “Punch Royal”—where you mix spirits with lemon, sugar and wine—lightened to work with Irish whiskey. I usually make this smooth, pleasant and, as the Irish say, “moreish” (as in, it makes you want more) drink by the bowl, but it’s easy enough to make in individual servings. Here’s how to make a big, friendly glass of it, enough for several toasts to the Emerald Isle.
Royal Hibernian Punch
Ingredients:.5 oz Granulated sugarPeel of half a lemon (or 2 or 3 lemon twists).5 oz Lemon juice2 oz Irish whiskey (I like Green Spot, Black Bush, Tyrconnell or John Power’s here)1 oz Rainwater Madeira or white port2 oz Cold water
Directions:Muddle the sugar and lemon peel in a shaker. Then add the fresh lemon juice and stir briefly.
Add the rest of the ingredients to the shaker and fill with ice. Shake and strain into a Collins glass full of fresh ice. Garnish with a little fresh grated nutmeg.