Welcome to Alcohol Geography, Playboy.com’s monthly attempt to educate you, our loyal readers, on the finer points of where your favorite poisons originate and the natural topography that inspires a distinct adventure for your seasoned tastes. From Skye and Speyside malts in Scotland to the vodkas of Russia, get ready to be the ultimate drink connoisseur.
Last year, something called the Distilled Spirits Council (which we’ll assume is the boring, bureaucratic equivalent of, say, a frat house) declared Irish whiskey to be, as far as alcohol is concerned, the fastest growing sales category in the United States. But that wasn’t always so. In fact, far from it.
A little history: When Ireland declared/demanded its independence from the Crown in 1919, England, as a sulky punitive measure, embargoed all exports from the fair Land of Eire, including whiskey, leaving the Irish without one of the most lucrative sales markets for their mash. At about the same time, America (where, for the record, Jameson, the flagship of Irish whiskey, was selling like nondescript hotcakes) was busy enacting one of the most retrospectively stupid pieces of legislation it’s ever bothered to pass, the Volstead Act, otherwise known as Prohibition.
This, of course, left the Irish in a bit of a bind; with nowhere to distribute their fine fermented product, save a few bootleggers like the infamous Nucky Thomspon, the industry basically folded up. By the time the British stopped sulking and the United States sobered up and started drinking again, the damage was done. Today only four distilleries remain, but if we’re to believe what the surly suits at the Distilled Spirits Council say, they’re rolling in it now, raking in the lion’s share…
A few points on what distinguishes Irish whiskey from the rest: like scotch, Irish whiskey needs to be matured in wooden casks for a timeframe of no less than three years. That maturation has to take place in Ireland, and the ABV (alcohol by volume) has to be below 94.8 percent. Unlike scotch, Irish whiskey can contain additional enzymes that help break down the starches into sugars, and according to the regulatory board, “the distillate has [to have] an aroma and flavor derived from the materials used.”
And with that we give you, just in time for St. Paddy’s Day: Irish whiskey.
Image: © 2008 Sean Hayes, WikipediaThe Cooley Distillery
One of the (many) points of contention between the Scots and the Irish is the process by which whisk(e)y should be distilled (also, who found the barrel mash first): the Scots contend that twice is enough while the Irish tend to run their firewater through the wringer a third time. That is, most Irish think that. The Cooley Distillery sides with the Scots on this one: the good folks at Cooley believe the triple distillation process dampens the flavor. And maybe they should know: they’ve won European Distiller of the Year twice, and their wares have countless IWSC Gold Medals to their name.
Greenore – An outsider among Irish whiskeys, the Greenore Eight Year is aged in barrels sent over from bourbon country, Kentucky, but goes down significantly smoother than its hillbilly cousin. $46
Connemara – Perhaps the only Irish whiskey comparable to scotch, the Connemara Peated Single Malt packs a punch and is not for the faint of heart looking to embrace the relative smoothness of the fire of Eire. $44
Tyrconnell – The Tyrconnell 10-Year is no dine-and-dash whiskey; unlike most of its brethren and similar to scotch, it lingers long on the palate, its sherry cask aroma and vanilla tones taking their time on your tongue. $80
The Old Bushmills Distillery
Not too many distilleries find themselves on the backside of banknotes; Bushmills does. Laying claim to the title of oldest distillery in Eire (their license dates back to 1608), they’ve been turning out firewater for some time. To go along with the Distilled Spirits Council, another ludicrously named organization, the Beverage Testing Institute, gave Bushmills a well-above-average score of 93 in 2008 and 2011.
Bushmills 10 Year – Aged in American bourbon barrels, it’s a cut above the Original and on par with its elders listed below. Remember; the age of any given whiskey isn’t always telling of superior taste. It’s not better; it’s different. $37
Bushmills 16 Year – Like its 21 Year kin, the 16 Year is aged in in both American bourbon barrels and Spanish sherry casks. Unlike its 21 Year kin, the 16 Year also sits in a Port pipe and the difference is noticeable. $79
Bushmills 21 Year – Aged about 15 years longer than most marriages last, the 21 Year makes its way across three different casks during the maturation process: first an American bourbon barrel, then a Spanish Oloroso sherry cask and finally for about two years in a Madiera drum before bottling. $188
Image: © 2006 Michal
The Kilbeggan Distillery
Shuttered for nearly half a century, the Kilbeggan distillery reopened its doors in 2007, which coincidentally coincided with its 250th anniversary. Though no products will be available for mass distribution until 2014 (Kilbeggan is currently distilled and distributed through Cooley), the distillery has turned out what it calls a “new make spirit” at one-month, one-year and two-year ages available as three-pack samples. A point worth noting: its previous owner for whom one of the below selections are named? A Mr. John Locke, father of classical liberalism and utterer of the words upon which the U.S. Declaration of Independence was based.
Kilbeggan – Dubbed by some to be the perfect entry whiskey for those perhaps “eireing” on the side of caution (see what we did there). Kilbeggan is coming home after 50 years. $30
Locke’s Blend – Smooth doesn’t really do it justice; we’d call it creamy, but writing that in regards to whiskey sort of turns us off it, like it’s spoiled perhaps. Still, this one is smooth. $37
Image: © 2009 Michal Osmenda, WikipediaThe New Midleton Distillery
If there is a New Midleton Distillery, naturally there must have been an old one. Back in 1966, John Powers & Son, John Jameson & Son and the Cork Distillery Company founded what they called the Irish Distillers Group and decided to close all their existing distilleries and consolidate their production under one roof. The result gave way to one of the most modern distilleries in the world, capable of producing 19 million liters of whiskey a year.
Jameson – While some may say “standard fare,” we say “and for good reason.” Jameson is the backbone of the Irish whiskey industry, each of its many variations worth the unsettling hangover the morning after. $37
Redbreast – As we reviewed in our look at bourbon, anything bottled at cask strength is serious. Like super serious. Redbreast’s 12 Year clocks in at 115.4 proof but, surprisingly enough, goes down smooth. $82
Midleton Very Rare – Anything named Very Rare is naturally going to be Very Expensive. And while we wouldn’t recommend knocking back a bottle of this on Ireland’s most sacred exported holiday, it’s well worth a dram every now and then. $140