The Road Often Traveled is the Road Less Known
So as we get closer to the wearing of the green and shots of Jameson are passed around making perfect strangers the best of friends… until Irish Car Bombs are ordered I think it best we talk a bit about the Irish whiskey you all know and love, or at least think you know but really love saying “can we get a round of Jameson shots?” The history of Irish whiskey is a road that has many paths. It is thought by some that Spanish monks brought distillation to Ireland some 1600 years ago with their Aqua Vita (water of life). The first spirit of Old Ireland was not whiskey at all but most likely a derivative called Poitin which was a reference to the copper pot stills used in the distillation process. This was a blend of malted barley, and sugar beets. Ireland at the time was a wild place where heathen tribes roomed the lands and the monastic culture was just getting its footing.
The early settlements like of Glendalough just south of Dublin may have been the birthplace for what we now call whiskey but like all history this to is a bit cloudy. One thing for certain is the monastic alchemist where the first to began the art of distillation in Ireland, much earlier by the way then the Scots. This was not a drink for the every-man however; it was made for the wealthy. Kings throughout Europe began to hear about this magic elixir Poitin. Over time through trade and wars they began to seek out the spirit and it was widely distilled until 1661 when King Charles II outlawed its production. Here it became a refugee for the Irish traditionalist who would hide it in his cupboard. By this time usice beathe (Gaelic for aqua vita which later became whiskey) was the spirit of choice in the emerald isles.
A Bedtime Story For Building Better Behavior
The beloved St. Patrick and the shots of Jameson has its roots in an old Irish folktale. Once upon a time in Ireland a Priest named Pat sat belly up in an inn and was served what was most likely a shot of Poitin. He felt short changed by the inn keepers stingy pour and immediately told him that a devil had taken refuge in his cellar and was feeding from his dishonesty. Pat then told the inn keep the only way to salvation and retribution was to seek the light unto a realm of generosity. On his next visit Pat saw that a frightened inn keeper was filling patrons’ glasses to the brim. He and the inn keep went down to the cellar and soon found the devil banished into the nether regions of folklore and obscurity. He then proudly proclaimed that drops of usice beatha shall be consumed in honor of his feast day. What a modesty guy right? I wonder what the ABC (Alcohol Beverage Control Commission) would think of the bar keeps pressured generosity but I suppose over severing was not a fear of the time.
Birds of a Feather?
Although Jameson is one of the world’s bestselling and most well known whiskeys, the story of the Irish distillers is a sad one. Let’s now jump to around the 1830’s. A young man named Aeneas Coffey who was French by birth but brought up in Ireland had created a unique and revolutionary still. At the time Irish whiskey was very similar to Scotch whisky. They used 100% malted barley, many distillers used peat moss to fire their kilns to dry the barley (this is the smoke in Scotch whisky) and everything was pot stilled making a sturdy, complex and robust spirit. Aeneas had made a modification of what we call the column still. Inside the still were several plates and compartments. As the alcohol vapor reached the next compartment the spirit grew in strength. In the end distillation was faster and the spirit that came out was delicate, light and subtle. When he showed Irish distillers they literally, like St Pat with the heathen snakes, chased him out of Ireland. To the Irish distillers it was not proper whiskey but to the Scots it would become their salvation. Aeneas went across the waters to the Lowlands of Scotland where they began to listen to and experimented with his still. They started to make a grain spirit using wheat and corn as a base. Then they would blend in their single malt whisky with the grain spirit. The resulting dram was light, nuanced and subtly complex. It was almost like a Scotch cocktail. The base of the bottle would be the lighter grain whisky and then you might add a touch of a Speyside Scotch for elegance, a bit of Highland for texture, some Islay for smoke and a finish of Lowland for balance. No one paid much mind to the crazy Scotsmen’s early attempts at blending whisky but in the 1850’s a fungus began to attack grapevines throughout France affecting the regions of Cognac and Armagnac. This limited the export of brandy to England. Then 20 years later a louse called phylloxera began to kill the root stocks of virtually every vine in Europe. This halted all together the export of brandy to England. It was impossible, after all to be an imperial power without spoils so the British began looking north. They came across blended Scotch and Scotland never looked back. It was lighter then single malt whisky, it was cheaper, very easy to drink and the British loved it.
Unfortunately for the Irish this meant doom for many small, independent distilleries, in fact it was doom for all of them. As they were either forced to shut down due to lack of interest and sales or were gobbled up by cooperate mongrels names like Jameson, Tullemore Dew and Powers were sold off to mega giants to be distilled in one distillery. As of now there are only 3 working distilleries in Ireland; Middleton, which makes about 40 labels like those mentioned above, Bushmills and now Cooley which is the only independent distillery in Ireland.
Scottish vision meant that smaller, independently owned Scotch distillers could sell off most of their production to a blender responsible for names like Dewars, Cuttysark and Johnny Walker while maintaining their finances to fund their personal single malt bottlings. In fact blended Scotch whisky comprises roughly 95% of the scotch market in the world so to see maybe one or two blended scotches in a restaurant but have to option to order 10 different single malts is an absolute privilege that we have in this country. Unfortunately for many distillers in Ireland the idea of blending didn’t fully take hold until 1947 with Tullemore Dew but by then it was far too late. I think what is interesting is that whiskeys like Jameson and Bushmills, which are both fine spirits have only become popular in today’s market because they now do what 4 generation before thought to be un-Irish and frankly not whiskey.
Having no blending company to sell whiskey to and help fund them means that now we are left with just brand names. This is not to say that Irish whiskey is poorly made or that it is not relevant in the world of Whiskey, quite the contrary. There are amazing whiskey’s coming from Ireland. Many of my favorite comes from one place, Cooley.
Today the differences between Irish whiskey and Scotch whisky are broad and yet slight. There is a rule of thumb when it comes to the differences but a rule of thumb is only a generalization. The first main difference is the smoky attributes that Scotch has. Often times someone will ask “what is your smokiest Bourbon?” Well, I have a hard time answering this because Bourbon and whiskey in general are not smoky. Perhaps they are referring to the char of the barrel because the smoke we smell in Scotch whisky (which by the way is not intrinsic to all of them) comes from a type of moss called peat. This grows throughout Ireland and Scotland. Peat burns hotter than wood or coal so it is fuel effective to use the heat that peat gives off to dry your malted barley. This was the standard throughout Ireland until about 200 plus years ago. Now wood or coal is used to produce a soft and subtle aroma. The next major difference is in the barley used. The Scotch use either 100% malted barley or a mixture of malted barley and the grain spirit to produce the lighter blended Scotch. Because Ireland imposed a hefty tax on malted barley in the 1800’s distillers (at this point there were plenty of them) began to use a mixture of malted barley and raw barley. This created the delicate elegance to Irish whiskies still present today. The malted barley gives a rich, robust and viscous note where as the raw barley is citric, spicy and leathery. The last major difference, other then the natural terroir both countries have is the length of distillation. The norm (which is not always the case) in Scotland is that the whisky is distilled twice. With each pass through the still the spirit rises in alcohol but becomes cleaner and a bit more pure. There are a few examples of Scotch distillers who will distill three times like Glengoyne and Auchentoshan but for the most part a double distillation is the practice. This makes a heady and robust spirit. With a triple distillation, like in the case of Irish whiskey the spirit becomes much lighter. Initially the alcohol off of the third run of the still will be higher than the second but more water is added to the spirit to bring the strength down to a modest 40% alcohol by volume which will lighten the overall flavor and aromas. Like Scotch whisky, this is only the rule of thumb as there are examples from Cooley that are double distilled and peated like their punchy and yet beautiful single malt Connemara.
As far as barley is concerned distillers like Bushmills distill only malted barley rather than the blend of malted and unmalted that is the standard in Ireland. The white label and their Black Bush is 100% malted barley blended with a grain spirit that is produced at the Middleton distillery way south and then transported to the Protestant northern town of Bushmills. Overall there is a subtle sweetness and generosity to Irish whiskey. They can be as light and humbly soft spoken or as Proud, bold and brash when the time is right, as any Irish transplant you may meet on St Paddy’s day.
This was a cocktail I originally made last year when our own Cardinal Sean O’Malley had his name thrown in the papal hat. It is simply called The Cardinal. The idea came one night as I was closing the restaurant. I wanted to make a drink in honor of our local kid done right by using Irish whiskey, wine from the Cote du Rhone, home to the lyrically and lovely name of Chateauneuf-de-Pape, i.e. New Chateau of the Pope (There is a cool and long papal history to that name and town that I won’t bore you with today). Then I added Cardamaro (this has nothing to do with Cardinal but cardoons rather although I feel the name fits). Then I finish with lemon and simple syrup. In the end it was a fun and easy drink, but about a week ago I came across a sampling of the Poitin I mentioned earlier and I really wanted to incorporate it into the drink after all it was the “first” spirit distilled in Ireland so I tweaked the recipe to compensate so a grassier, younger elixir
¾ Irish Whiskey (I like Killbeggan from the Cooley distillery. This has a high malt content which makes for a richer whiskey profile)
¾ Glendalough Poitin Sherry cask finish
¾ Cote du Rhone wine (any easy wine will do here, you just want a wine with soft fruit and spice)
¼ simple syrup
Shake well in a shaker and the double strain into a Marie Antoinette glass
Garnish with a crucified Maraschino cherry (I wasn’t sure about the garnish at first but Catholicism is all about the macabre right?)
In the end what I have learned over the last few weeks of Irish whiskeys and over the last several years of the Irish in general is that they do not live in concept of contrast. Quite the opposite, even within the most unique of Irish whiskeys or the complexity of the Irish spirit there is always a sense of unity, contemplation and understanding of who they are, why they are and where they came from and they don’t give a f@#k who knows it!!