by Ron Bechtol
The Irish haven’t always been well received on these shores. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, “No Irish Need Apply” sentiments were attached to many help wanted ads and displayed in shop windows. The devil du jour, of course, is refugees from Middle Eastern countries.
But these days, the Irish are being welcomed with open arms — in the form of Irish whiskey. It’s one of the fastest-growing segments in the spirits market, despite a tumultuous history (civil wars, English taxes and more) that saw many distilleries close. I had the opportunity to attend a tasting conducted by Francis Bogside’s Christine Hill as a component of a benefit for the ambitious expansion of the San Antonio Botanical Gardens. That, plus some judicious sampling elsewhere and the actual purchase of a bottle, forms the basis for this welcome back, y’all.
Hill pointed out that, although there are exceptions in whisk(e)y production on both sides of the North Channel, the Irish product is most often distilled from a blend of both malted and unmalted barley (with other grains occasionally included), the barley is kiln-dried and thus generally un-peated, and the distillation takes place three times in large, copper pot stills. (Note: there happened to be no whiskey from Northern Ireland in this session, but we staunchly deny any political or religious motives for the slight. Venerable Bushmills is especially worth your attention.)
Middleton Very Rare 2014 is part of a series of small-batch (100 cases for the world) whiskeys blended each year by the producer’s master distiller. If you can find it, snap it up ($155 or more), as the nose of toffee and spice (with a little ripe banana) alone may be worth the price. On the palate, it’s exceptionally silky with amplified spice plus wood and vanilla from finishing in American bourbon barrels joining the parade. Hill claimed rosewater as an aromatic component, and though I never quite got that, I might be able to conjure up potpourri in a pinch.
Jameson 18 Year Limited Reserve ($120): Some corn is used in this mash bill, adding additional sweetness to the nose of honey, wood from aging in bourbon, sherry and virgin American oak barrels, and a little tropical fruit from who knows where. The palate is unctuous in the manner of many Irish whiskeys, with honeysuckle and leather making an unlikely trio with cinnamon breakfast cereal. The finish goes on for longer than a trio of Irish tenors.
New to the American market, the traditionally single-pot-distilled Green Spot Irish Whiskey ($50) provided the tasting’s best bang for the buck. Brighter, yet lighter on the nose than many, this whiskey seduces with subtle honeysuckle, pear and clovey spice, continues the foreplay with more clove and oak from Bourbon and sherry barrels, and finishes cleanly without histrionics. My notes say “soft yet ballsy,” whatever that means in retrospect.
Redbreast 12 year Cask Strength ($75 on average) was the one bottle in the lineup that seemed to want a wee splash of water to tame the alcoholic heat. After that, spiky cinnamon dominated, along with notes of sherry, pear and punchy caramel. Lord Lieutenant Kinnahan Blended Irish Whiskey ($51) is also overproof at 46 percent ABV, but it wears its heat a little more gently, allowing the sweetness to fade into a dry and bitey finish. “Not one to write home about, but perfectly suitable to have as a sidecar to an ale or lager,” according to distiller.com, for whom I also do spirits reviews.
The bottle I continue to research at home is The Irishman Founder’s Reserve ($51). There’s the typical spicy heat (black pepper) on the nose, coupled to white peach. On the palate, it’s got bourbon wood, burnt toffee and cinnamon bark. And, despite the potentially pugnacious implications of the name, the finish is lingering and actually lovely, spinning out toffee and more spice. Try this, and many others, at 1919 and Francis Bogside. If you don’t find ample Irish at your favorite watering hole, tell your ‘tender to get with the program: not all Irish exports are as sarcastic as Wilde or as dense as Joyce.
That extra “e,” by the way, was allegedly added as a way of distinguishing the Irish product from scotch — a kind of flipping of the barley-based bird. Given the considerable differences, it hardly seems necessary. But that’s the Irish for you.