I saw this in the NY Times, & thought it would be interest to many of us, so here it is...
March 8, 2006
Whiskeys of The Times
Time for Some Irish, but Why the Wait?
By ERIC ASIMOV
FIRST of all, let me extend a pre-emptive apology. It's not right that the issue of Irish whiskey comes up only in the days leading up to St. Patrick's Day. For a whiskey with such a pedigree to be consigned to the category of ethnic celebration — not that there's anything wrong with that, as Jerry Seinfeld used to say — pays dutiful lip service to a spirit that deserves much better.
Though no one can prove the legend that whiskey was invented in Ireland 1,000 years ago or so, it's a fair bet that you could stir things up in a Dublin bar by arguing the point. Scotland may have an equal claim as the originator of whiskey, and may have the upper hand commercially today, but 200 years ago it was Irish whiskey that held sway among connoisseurs — outside Scotland, of course.
What happened? In the 19th century the Irish whiskey industry was shaken by famine, abstinence movements and new technology that undercut Irish distilling methods. It survived, but nearly died in the 20th century, when Prohibition, conflict with Britain and war eliminated its most important export markets.
Yet from its nearly moribund state, the Irish whiskey industry has rebounded in the last decade. Today, as the Dining section's tasting panel affirmed, the selection, range and quality of Irish whiskeys are probably better than they have been in most people's memory.
Florence Fabricant and I were joined by two guests, Ethan R. Kelley, the spirit sommelier at the Brandy Library in TriBeCa, and Eben Klemm, director of cocktail development for B. R. Guest, a restaurant group that includes Dos Caminos, Fiamma and Vento. We sampled 16 Irish whiskeys and found an unexpected variety in this undervalued, under-explored category. It wasn't a large selection — a mere dram compared with the river of whiskey produced by the 100 or so distilleries in Scotland. Irish whiskey has only three distillers — Midleton and Bushmills, both owned by Irish Distillers, a division of Pernod Ricard, and the independent Cooley, an upstart that was founded in 1987.
Yet these were distinctive whiskeys for the most part. Even sibling brands that share a distillery, like Cooley's Connemara, Clontarf and Kilbeggan, and Midleton's Redbreast and Tullamore Dew, have their own characters. And our tasting provided a ready answer to that frequently asked question: What's the difference between Irish and Scotch whiskeys?
In its purest form, Irish whiskey has a fresh, lightly fruity, almost meadowlike aroma and flavor that is entirely its own. In general, it is lighter in texture than most Scotches. We sensed these qualities in most of the whiskeys that we liked best, yet today it is difficult to find whiskeys that might have been recognized as Irish 150 years ago.
Back then, all Irish whiskeys were made in pot stills, the traditional curving copper alembics that are each as beautiful and distinctive in their own way as the whiskeys they produce. The whiskey was distilled from barley, a portion of which was malted, or allowed to germinate, which increases the level of sugar in the grain. Single malt Scotch is made entirely from malted barley, but a blend of malted and unmalted barleys, distilled in a pot still, is the classic Irish whiskey recipe.
Pot stills are expensive to operate, inefficient and labor intensive, yet they produce spirits of great distinction. For today's Irish whiskey they are often used in conjunction with column stills, a more efficient technology that was developed in the early 19th century for distilling grains like corn and wheat. Few Irish whiskeys today are produced purely in a pot still, and equally few use the traditional mixture of malted and unmalted barley. The only one we found that followed this classic formula was Redbreast, a rich, mellow whiskey with plenty of honey and caramel flavor.
Instead, many famous Irish names like Jameson and Powers are blends of pot-still barley whiskey and column-still grain whiskey. Both are good whiskeys, but they didn't make our cut. What's more, an increasing proportion of Irish whiskeys, including many of our favorites, are single malts, a term of great marketing value these days because of the prestige and popularity of single malt Scotches.
Single malts, made only from malted barley, are not an Irish tradition. Nonetheless, the Irish ones retain their character, even the Connemara, which has the added and singular Irish distinction of being produced from peat-smoked malt, like most single-malt Scotches. The Connemara, our No. 4 whiskey, is a cask-strength bottle, meaning it was not diluted with water at the distillery to reach a strength of 80 proof. Instead it is bottled out of the cask, at 117 proof. If you add a little water, you'll find a whiskey of remarkable subtlety, with Irish grass, floral and heather flavors to go along with the Scotch-like smoke.
Our top whiskey was the 10-year-old single malt from Bushmills. Many whiskey experts prefer the 16-year-old Bushmills to the 10-year, but we felt the 10-year was a purer expression, while the 16-year, though delicious, tasted more of barrels than of whiskey. We also loved the Knappogue Castle 1994 single malt, an exceptionally delicate and complex whiskey, while the Clontarf, an enjoyable whiskey itself, seemed a shade less complex.
The Midleton Very Rare was our top blend. The recipe varies from year to year, so each bottle is dated. The 2004 had a beautiful aroma of meadows and spices. It was also $125, more than four times as expensive as the $28 Black Bush, a fine blend from Bushmills that has been a favorite of mine.
As whiskey drinkers discover what the Irish variety has to offer, I expect that the number of choices will continue to increase. Then, perhaps, every day will be St. Patrick's Day.
Tasting Report: Not Just to Crack Open Come March
Bushmills Single Malt 10 Years Old
Complex aromas of butter, straw, oatmeal and sherry; mellow, lingering flavors. (Importer: Pernod Ricard USA, White Plains)
Midleton Very Rare Blended 2004
Fresh, light and balanced, with intriguing spicy aromas and smooth, long-lasting flavors. (Pernod Ricard USA, White Plains)
Knappogue Castle Single Malt 1994 Very Special Reserve
Rich yet subtle, with delicate, fruit, grass and floral flavors. (Castle Brands, Manhasset, N.Y.)
Connemara Peated Single Malt Cask Strength
Smoky like an Islay malt, yet with aromas of grass, flowers and chocolate; add water to tone down strength. (Preiss Imports, Ramona, Calif.)
Clontarf Single Malt
Airy and delicate yet deep, with sweet honey and earth aromas. (Castle Brands, Manhasset, N.Y.)
Bushmills Black Bush Blended
Oily texture with aromas of smoke and butter; soft in the mouth. (Pernod Ricard USA, White Plains)
Light and flowery, with a smooth, mellow sweetness. (Premium Imports, Bardstown, Ky.)
Bushmills Single Malt 16 Years Old
Rich and assertive, with strong aromas of oak barrels. (Pernod Ricard USA, White Plains)
Redbreast Blended 12 Years Old
Round and rich, with assertive honey and caramel flavors that linger. (Pernod Ricard USA, White Plains)
Tullamore Dew Blended (750 ml.)
Soft, buttery and mellow, pronounced oak flavors. (Allied Domecq Spirits USA, Westport, Conn.)
* Copyright 2006The New York Times Company