Liquor of the Week

Premium Irish Whiskies for St. Patrick’s Day

This St. Patrick’s Day, please give your business to someone with an Irish heart. It doesn't have to be someone actually born in Ireland, but at least someone who has a taste for the music, food, and drink of the Emerald Isle.

Give your business to someone local, someone who lives where you do. Forget the big chains and their green beer Disneyland version of Ireland.

How do you find an honorable place to celebrate Brother Maewyn? First, check our coverage in this week's print edition of the Austin Chronicle. There you’ll find a listing of dependable pubs with their hearts in the right place. Any place with green beer is automatically excluded. If you see a place we didn’t mention in our recommendations, check the menu. They should have real Guinness on tap, at the right temperature and pulled in the correct manner. My favorite Irish brew is Smithwicks and any place that carries that is all right by me. Look for traditional Irish dishes like soda bread, Shepherd’s Pie, coddle, or boxty. The single best way to judge a place is by their commitment to Irish whiskey.

Nearly every place in town carries Jameson’s ($20) and there’s nothing wrong with making that your favorite drink, unless you just happen to love high end whiskies. It can’t be lost on the Irish whiskey companies that their brethren Celts across the Irish Sea are selling their premium whiskies for three, four, sometimes even five figures. And while the high-end Irish market has always been ably served by Midleton’s Very Rare Whiskey ($150), it has obviously been time to show the market here in the States that the Irish are just as capable of making great liquor.

One important thing to remember about Irish whiskey. 99% of it is made by three distilleries, all of which are owned by international spirits companies. Two are in the Republic, Cooley (owned by Beam) and Midleton (owned by Pernod-Ricard), while Bushmills (owned by Diageo) is in Northern Ireland. Kilbeggan Distilling Company (makers of Kilbeggan, Greenore, Connemara, and Tyrconnell) is housed at the Cooley distillery as is Knappogue Castle and a few other single malts. Midleton is the home of Irish Distillers (makers of Midleton, Jameson, Redbreast, Green Spot, and Powers) as well as Tullamore Dew. Just in case that isn’t complicated enough, the same company owns the Bushmills and Midleton distilleries. So if you ever hear someone say they support the Republic, so they won’t drink Bushmills, or they’re Protestant, so they won’t drink Tullamore Dew, check to make sure they aren’t in a fighting mood, and then tell them they’re both made by the same company.

One other thing to confuse the whiskey lover. You’ll see the term “single pot still” on some labels. That’s the Irish equivalent of “single malt.” Only a couple of Irish whiskies are made from a single malted barley (i.e. single malt). Most (99%+) use a combination of malted and unmalted barley. But in Scotland, the term single malt is also to distinguish it from blended whiskies, which is what you get when you state “single pot still.”

So, we made the effort, sacrificing space in our hard-working livers, tasting through a lineup of some of the better options. These are our favorites. They had to be at least as good as Jameson’s, itself a tall order, and we might as well start with Middleton’s.

Photo courtesy of the Distillery
Only fifty casks are made per year and the whiskey is at least 12 years old, with some as old as 25 years. For any Irish whiskey fan, this has to be part of the computation of the very best made. Its aroma is like vanilla and oatmeal covered with flowers and fermented berries. It has a soft and silky feel on the palate, as smooth as any whiskey anywhere. Anyone who loves Irish whiskey should find some way to taste this. A few of our better bars keep it behind the counter, where it is still expensive, but at least you don’t have to buy the whole bottle.

Photo courtesy of the Distillery
Redbreast Cask Strength Edition ($85) is the favorite Irish Whiskey of many professionals. It has a powerful aroma and lots of alcohol. Connoisseurs like the added complexity and weight from the alcohol. Cigar smokers appreciate the fact that the flavor is so stout that it cuts across the tobacco. Redbreast is Led Zeppelin to Midleton’s Bob Dylan.

Photo courtesy of the Distillery
Jameson Select Reserve Black Barrel Whiskey ($35) is what I’m drinking right now and it is a magnificent drink. Sweet, full flavored, highly aromatic and effortlessly drinkable. It earns a permanent place in the limited space of the Marshall bar.

Photo courtesy of the Distillery
Knappogue Castle ($35) is a single malt whiskey that is 12 years old. This is the drink for your friend who is into the elegant and understated.

Photo courtesy of the Distillery
Bushmill’s Black Bush ($35) is aged in a combination of Spanish Oloroso sherry casks and bourbon barrels. It uses a bit more malted barley than usual, so it’s a great drink for the Scotch lover.

Photo courtesy of the Distillery
John Power and Son Gold Label Irish Whiskey ($50) It’s instructive to taste this whiskey neat next to a Jameson Select Reserve Black Barrel Whiskey. They are both made at the Midelton distillery and both are part of the Irish Distillers umbrella. Both are superb sippers, but to carry the music analogy one more step, Redbreast is Led Zeppelin to Midleton’s Bob Dylan to Power’s Nick Drake. Spare, elegant, and with enough depth of character to keep you busy searching for adjectives.

Photo courtesy of the Distillery
Kilbeggan ($35) This is a peaty style, not enough to please an Islay drinker, but certainly more than usual in an Irish whiskey. Another instructive taste-off would be Kilbeggan vs. Jameson vs. Tullamore Dew to see the role of sweetness in an Irish whiskey. I probably don’t have to say this, but sweetness does not apply to sugar. Irish whiskey doesn’t carry residual sugar. The sweetness comes from alcohol, oak, and the distiller’s art.
Photo courtesy of the Distillery
Tullamore Dew ($30) This is another brand you are likely to find at most bars. I generally prefer Jameson’s flavor palate for an after dinner drink. Tullamore Dew has more sweet fruity flavors which makes it ideal as an aperitif.

So there’s your roundup. The good news is that almost all Irish whiskey is at least good, and many are awe-inspiring, transcendent, heavenly drinks. Also, because Irish whiskies are still relatively undiscovered, their price is incredibly fair. If a Scotsman made something of the quality and rarity of Midleton it would cost over $500 a bottle. In any case, have a happy St. Patrick’s Day. Avoid the green beer. Cuimhnigh, a dhéanann beoir glas puke tú. Beannachtam na Feile Padraig!

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