March 2012

Luck of the Irish

By: Fred Minnick

Once there were many. Irish whiskey distilleries numbered well over 30 back in the early 1900s, and many illicit stills were making poteen, Irish for moonshine, at home. Now, there are few and all distilleries are owned by foreign companies. Yet Irish whiskey is as strong as ever.

Fred Minnick’s Hot Picks

Knappogue Castle Twin Wood 17 Years Single Malt ($100) This is a limited-edition 80-proof whiskey that is aged in two types of wood: bourbon barrels and sherry casks. Medium gold in color with a nose of honey, sherry, apricots, peach, wintergreen and hints of almond and dark cherry. An elegant palate styling notes of vanilla, toasted almonds, dried apricots and hints of tobacco and oak. Beautiful, somewhat short, finish of dried fruits.

Barton Irish Whiskey ($19.99) A rather new-to-market product, Barton Irish Whiskey, like many other labels, is made at the Cooley Distillery in Ireland. A light amber with hues of yellow color is followed by a sweet nose powerful notes of vanilla and hazelnut. Its smooth flavor brings notes of caramel, more vanilla, almond and bittersweet chocolate.
80 proof.
Redbreast 12 Year Old Irish Whiskey ($50) This whiskey is a single, unblended, pure pot still production, triple-distilled and aged in oak sherry and bourbon casks for not less than 12 years. Its beautiful gold color meets a gorgeous nose of chocolate, marshmallow, vanilla, hints of smoke and citrus. The complex palate finds many of the same notes, with pronounced lemon curd, sweet malt and a soft finish. 80 proof.
The Irish Difference

Irish whiskey comes from malted and unmalted barley with small amounts wheat, oats and rye in the mash. The barley is dried in sealed ovens to maintain the pure malt flavor and to avoid the smoky notes found in many Scotch whiskies. Irish whiskey is mostly triple-distilled, although some are double-distilled and lightly peated. To earn the name, Irish whiskey must have been matured in wooden casks in an Irish warehouse for a minimum of three years.

Whiskey, of course, is a part of Irish heritage. It’s nearly a right of passage for everybody in the world to drink Irish whiskey on St. Patrick’s Day, but the category is no longer dependent on the day when everybody is Irish.

According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, Irish whiskey is the fastest-growing category, with volume up 24 percent, to 1.7 million cases sold in 2011, and is now larger than single malt by volume. Although just three distilleries are responsible for most sales, last year Irish whiskey was responsible for $326 million in supplier gross revenues in the U.S. alone.

“It’s been the fastest-growing spirits category for the past five years,” says Yvonne Briese, Vice President of Brand Marketing for Whisk(e)y at Diageo North America, owner of Bushmills. “This trend is really around male-bonding occasions. So where previously guys would have just gone out for a few beers, they’re now going out and having a few beers and also choosing Irish whiskey.”
Research firm Datamonitor says that Irish whiskey appeals to “pre-committal” young men who are adventurous and looking for spirits with smooth taste and affordability.

A Cocktail-Driven Trend

Also driving the Irish whiskey trend is the overall interest in brown spirits in the cocktail shaker.

“Irish whiskey is definitely a bartender favorite,” Briese says. “We see a lot of bartenders playing with Bushmills for all sorts of cocktails.” Especially on St. Patty’s Day, Irish whiskey cocktails are extremely popular. Bartenders mix with green Chartreuse or food coloring to give a nice light green tint.

Irish whiskey cocktails are catching steam year-round, too. Many bars are sticking to Irish whiskey in Manhattans, Irish coffees and Hot Toddies, but they are also branding their own cocktails. For example, Dallas-area restaurant group The Londoner Pub boasts The London Kiss: Bushmills, DeKuyper Peachtree, ginger ale and orange juice. Costa Mesa, California’s Skosh Monahan’s Irish Pub, which boasts the largest Irish whiskey selection in Southern California, calls the combination of Jameson, butterscotch schnapps and orange juice an Irish Pancake.

Also trending: bars stockpiling fine Irish whiskies for sipping neat or on the rocks. Few may carry Knappogue Castle 1951 pure pot still, which sells at retail for $1,000, but many bars in New York, Las Vegas and San Francisco are replacing higher end cognacs and scotches with more affordable Irish whiskeys.

The momentum in Irish whiskey is opening up new avenues for whiskey enthusiasts who might have traditionally stayed with one genre of spirit, Briese says. “This just opens up opportunities for people where they wouldn’t have necessarily ventured into the Irish whiskey space,” she says. In other words, the luck of the Irish will be smiling on lot of lads and lassies.

Brand Profile: Bushmills

In 1608, King James I granted Sir Thomas Phillips a royal license to distill uisce beatha, Gaelic for “water of life.” According to Bushmills, this is the first officially recorded evidence of whiskey-making in the area. This facility would become known as Bushmills and has been called everything from “Protestant whiskey” (because of its Northern Ireland location), to the world’s oldest distillery.
Today, Bushmills is churning out great whiskey, including the Bushmills Original ($22.99) and Black Bush ($28.99) blends, and the 10 Year Old ($39.99), 16 Year Old ($74.99) and 21 Year Old ($124.99)single malts. All five give delectable notes of vanilla, rich fruits and almonds, getting more pronounced and elegant with age.

 These five very strong whiskeys give bars an opportunity to offer Bushmills flights. The Original also lends itself equally well to standards such as Manhattans as well as creative mixology, while the 21 Year Old is on nearly every shortlist for the top Irish whiskey.


Brand Profile: Michael Collins

Traditionally, Irish whiskey is a triple-distilled product, but Michael Collins switched things up by double-distilling and using peated malted barley in its single malt. Made at the Cooley Distillery, which was recently acquired by Jim Beam for $95 million, both the blended Michael Collins Irish Whiskey ($22) and Michael Collins 10 Year Old Single Malt ($40) are double-distilled in small, long-necked copper pot stills. Both are aged in bourbon casks.

The Single Malt earned Best Irish Whiskey and Double Gold at the 2011 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, earning critics’ admiration for its sweet nose of caramel, rich ripe fruit, peat and white flowers, followed by a clean palate with a smoky finish.

The blended Michael Collins might be the best value in all of whiskey. It earned the 2011 Chairman’s Trophy at the Ultimate Spirits Challenge. Both Michael Collins whiskies are a great tribute to the man on the bicycle who negotiated Ireland’s 1921 Treaty of Independence.


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