In June, 2019, we made our second trip (and certainly not our last) to Ireland. “The Emerald Isle,” as it is oft called, certainly lives up to its reputation. Everywhere outside the city, you are treated to beautiful, bucolic views of land, rock, water, and old buildings. And green. Lots of green.
Before our visit in 2014, I though eating and drinking in Ireland would perhaps be the low point of our trip. I had heard and read things that led me to believe that cuisine was not something you visited Ireland for. I expected beer, potatoes, and maybe stew, would be plentiful. Times have changed. The food is really good and there is plenty of variety.
It is hard not to identify Ireland with beer – expecially Guinness. I have not been a Guinness (indeed any porter, stout, or even IPA) fan. But I have to say that – out of the tap – in an Irish pub, the Guinness drinks very smoothly. I also have developed a limited taste for Murphy’s (Northern Ireland) and Smythwick’s. But only in Ireland.
It is hard not to identify Ireland with beer – especially Guinness
What I hadn’t considered, was the prevalence of Irish Whiskey. Sure, I had heard of Jameson’s and Bushmill’s. But I have always been a bourbon fan, and other whiskeys (including Irish and Canadian) seemed thin, and relatively tasteless to me. And Scotch was just too peaty. All of the above, of course, stems largely from the voice of ignorance. In 2014, we toured the Kilbeggan Distillery in Westmeath, Ireland. We did do some tasting, and while the tour was fascinating, I thought the Irish whiskey was again, “just o.k.” But “when in Rome ….,” right? So in various pubs, I sampled Paddy’s, Powers, Greenspot, and Redbreast. They are fun to “taste,” but I am still not “there” with a regular diet. Give me my bourbon.
In 2019, we arrived in a very different Ireland as far as spirits are concerned. Whiskey, of course, in the past 10 years, has enjoyed a huge re-birth of popularity, particularly among the younger folks. Tasting, and craft whiskeys have become all the rage, not just in the U.S., but throughout the world, as has “mixology,” and specialty cocktails. Ireland was no exception and we found more variety and abundance of – of all things – gin (my personal favorite and “go-to”), than anywhere else during our visit to Europe (which this time, included, England, France, Belgium and the Netherlands). To my disappointment, many really “yummy” (a technical term, of course) gins we tried are simply not available in the U.S.
The word whiskey comes from the Gaelic uisge (or uisge beatha meaning “water of life”)
I had always thought “whiskey” (or “whisky” as it is known in Scotland) had its “real” roots in Scotland. The Irish would disagree. Indeed, there was a form of alcohol distilling being done in ancient civilization, but it probably really did develop in Ireland and Scotland, right around the same time period. And it may have developed as much from necessity as any other reason. Like wine, it was in some cases, the only safe way to consume water (of course, we probably use that as an excuse, since if it can be distilled – a heating process – it probably could be boiled, also). Apparently, wine was not to be found in abundance in the early years in Ireland and Scotland, and whiskey took its place. Distilling techniques were brought to Ireland and Scotland sometime between 1100 and 1300 by monks, and was generally limited to apothecaries and monasteries until the late 15th century. Prior to that time, the process of distilling was used in ancient civilization not for consumption, but for perfumes and aromatics.
The word “whiskey” comes from the Gaelic uisge (or uisge beatha meaning “water of life”). also known as aqua vitae in Latin. Whiskey was originally used as a medicine for both internal anesthetic use and as an external antibiotic. The early distillation process yielded whisky wholly unlike what we have today. It was not allowed to age (essentially, by definition, “vodka”). We all have heard of “moonshine.” Contrary to some folks’ “everything important happened first in America” mentality, the term probably did not originate in our own deep south. In 1725, The English imposed the “Malt Tax of 1725,” the economic result of which was to shut down most of Scotland’s distillation. Scottish distillers, distilling whisky at night when the darkness hid the smoke from the stills, in their home made stills, were responsible for “moonshine.”
During our trip in 2019, we visited, and tasted, in two Irish distilleries: Bushmills in Northern Ireland, and Pearse Lyons, in Dublin. In addition to tasting some very interesting – and fine whiskeys, we learned a bit about the process of whiskey-making. All distilled spirits start with a “beer,” made from some type of plant-based material. Whiskey is generally based on corn, wheat, barley or rye, or some blend. These grains may be “malted,” or not (malting is a kind of “pre-soak” process that allows the grain to sprout, releasing enzymes which aid in the sugar-production phase of the product).
The second (and important, because it distinguishes the beverage from wine and beer) is the distilling process. This is done with a still. The stills for making whiskey are usually made of copper, which removes sulfur-based compounds from the alcohol that would make it unpleasant to drink. This process can be complex. For example, most Irish whiskey is distilled 3 before the aging process (in contrast, most Scotch whisky is distilled 2 times). Pearse Lyons is a very small operation. The distillery is housed in an old church. The interior was pristine – and beautiful (as can be seen by the stained-glass window behind the still).
Aging, though, is what makes whiskey “whiskey.” Vodka is distilled until clear and reaches an alcoholic content of 95% by volume (generally diluted before bottling). It may also be charcoal filtered to remove color. Gin is basically vodka, which undergoes the addition step of infusion of “botanicals” (primarily juniper berries and often citrus or flowers of various plants) to impose its unique flavor. But whiskey is “whiskey,” primarily because it is aged.
Aging, is what makes whiskey “whiskey“
In Ireland, whiskey must be aged not less than 3 years (usually it is more like 5 – 7 years). Most often it is aged in charred oak casks. However, in recent times, distillers have begun to experiment with casks previously used to age bourbon, or wines (often imported from the U.S.). This – in my mind – is where the proverbial “rubber meets the road.” I thought again, for the most part, that the “straight” Irish whiskeys were about the same as my observations back in 2014. But some of them aged in previously used casks picked up the syrupy, sweetness I appreciate so much in a good bourbon. I could drink some of them on a regular basis.
We visited the Bushmills Distillery in Northern Ireland. Bushmills has the distinction of being the oldest licensed (1608) whiskey distillery in the world. Bushmills, is named for a town located on the Bush River, in Northern Ireland. A couple weeks back, there was a photo with me on Facebook standing next to a $100 bottle of Bushmills Irish Whiskey at the distillery. It was very popular among my Facebook friends.
Unlike wines, whiskey does not mature in the bottle
Interestingly, though, the age of the bottle has nothing to do with the taste/quality of the whisky. Unlike wine, whiskey does not mature in the bottle. The “age” of a whiskey is determined only while it resided in the cask (though it still might have a value due to its rarity – I know they wouldn’t let me touch it J ).
We also learned that single malt whisky is whisky from a single distillery made from a mash that uses only one particular malted grain. It may contain blends of whisky from many casks, and even from different different years. Blended malt whisky is a mixture of single malt whiskies from different distilleries.
Cask strength (also known as barrel proof) whiskies are rare, and usually only the very best whiskies are bottled in this way. They are bottled from the cask undiluted or only lightly diluted. Single cask (also known as single barrel) whiskies are bottled from an individual cask, and often the bottles are labelled with specific barrel and bottle numbers. The taste of these whiskies may vary substantially from cask to cask within a brand. Finally, that distinctive, smoky taste of Scotch whiskey comes from the way they roast the barley, using peat.
Whiskey and demand, has begotten another “rage” in Europe now: Gin. Not only did we find whiskey distilleries throughout Ireland, but we found that many of them have begun distilling gin. And in other parts of Europe we were in, Gin was a huge part of the scene.
Traipsing around Dublin, one of the gins I really liked was called Ha’Penny Gin (taken from the pictured historic Ha’Penny pedestrian Bridge over the River Liffey). To my delight, we learned during our visit to the Pearse Lyons distillery, that this was their product. I tasted their Rhubarb infused pink gin and fell in love. Alas, it does not appear to be available in the U.S. If anyone finds it, I would love to have some in my bar.