Ireland: A Whiskey Retrospective

I recently returned from a week in Ireland, the land of some of my ancestors, rolling hills and millions of sheep.  The weather was uncharacteristically pleasant, with the sun illuminating the well watered fields every day, drying the streets, and blinding the eyes of the unprepared and nocturnal.  Joyce wrote over 900 pages about one day in the life of Leopold Bloom, and so it is fair to say I do not dare to recount my journey in full.  My goal here is to recount some notes on the whiskey I experienced and, to the best of my ability, to share what I learned from my experience (as pertains to the famous Irish tippling culture.)

My journey, or shall I say our journey, began as many in Ireland do, in Dublin.  Specifically 7am in the Dublin airport on 17 March, 2015.  My father and I collected our right hand drive rental, promptly got lost, and briefly panicked, then found our air bnb location that would serve as home-base for our first few days.  For lunch we enjoyed a hurling match and some sandwiches in a deserted bar, wherein my father laid upon me my first challenge, one that would set a trend.  He’ll buy me that Teeling Single Grain, if I’ll write it up.  I was hesitant. Basically this was tantamount to one of my single shot reviews, but on the fly and in public.  Eventually I took up the offer.  From here on out, when I had the mind to, I took to the trusty iPhone note app, and recorded my voyage—one whiskey at a time.

Teeling Single Grain Whiskey

The nose, my airport blown senses informed me consisted mostly of lemon, cocoa, vanilla.  The first sip hit with a sharp somewhat acid tang, with honey and a grassy herbal tendency to follow—overall quite light on the palate.  The finish tended more towards that acid / citrus note, with a touch of clove like spice that hung around long after the glass was empty.

On the evening of St. Patrick’s day—that most blessed of boozer’s days, my father and I bypassed the traditional tourist chaos of the Temple Bar District for a more reserved night in Jack Ryan’s Beggars Bush for some football and food.  Jack Ryan’s would become the first whiskey I would have, of what seems to be a thoroughly Irish phenomenon—true house whiskey.  In America we have house whiskey, in that a bar decides which whiskey is going to be the cheapest in the well.  In Ireland bars buy whiskey from the major distilleries, age and bottle their own product.  It’s a beautiful thing, and for me, these became the must note whiskies.  It seemed necessary, imperative, that if this whiskey were made for this bar, by this bar, I must have it, and I must record these memories for posterity.  As for Jack Ryan?

Jack Ryan 12 Year Old Single Malt

           

My boy Jack was very light and fragrant, with a buttery nose revealing a touch of vanilla bean and some nice peach notes, with perhaps just a hint of orange oil.   The entry was luscious honey and rich oily vanilla.  Again that orange peeked its head, and again a rich buttery, almost chardonnay breath on inhaling.  Somewhere in there I found an unusual herbaceous note, to quote myself: “…is that what moss tastes like?  If so I think I like moss.”  The finish was quite nice as well, with the viscous nature of the whiskey keeping it clinging hot to the palate like some kind of melted vanilla butter.

While staying on the subject I shall say that I had intended to take note on a couple more house Whiskies I had the luxury of tasting.  One was at the world famous Temple Bar, namesake of the district and home of some friendly barkeeps and an always lively seen.  Apparently I did not take any notes on that whiskey, which is a shame because I must have had 6 or 7 of them.  Similarly in Waterbury, I had the house whiskey of a very famous and quintessential pub, Henry Downes.  I believe I had 4 of those, however my father and I were engaged in conversation—as one so often is in Ireland—with some very welcoming locals, and therefore notes were cast aside.  I did manage to have another house Whiskey, this again in Dublin, at a truly brilliant pub and old institution, the Palace Bar.  Though during our time in the Palace Bar we did not find much luck in conversation, we did breathe in a rather literary atmosphere and, in my case, a very fine house whiskey.

Palace Bar 9 Single Cask

 

The nose on this whiskey can best be described as fat, with the omnipresent honey backed by rich port wine and plum notes, a crisp touch of evergreen and a bit of spice reminiscent of warm rye bread.  Truly unusual, and truly delectable.  This complex nose does not lie, as the first taste reveals a rich almost brandy like flavor with caramel that opens into dark fruit, leather, and a hint of what seems like orange bitters.  The finish hangs on with more dark leather, a hint of coffee and dark chocolate, and a thoroughly satisfying warmth.

Not unlike our house whiskies of Irish legend, there is the occasional purveyor of fine spirits who will age and bottle their own project.  One is Dublin’s Mitchell & Son, a store famous for creating two legends of Irish Whiskey, Green Spot and Yellow Spot.  Green Spot and her 12 year old sister whiskey, Yellow Spot have developed a bit of a reputation as the so called “Irish Pappy Van Winkle,” a whiskey rare balanced and sublime.  Well, rare they are not—in fact Green Spot has been available in the States for over a year and while I was abroad I hear Yellow Spot made its first landings.  Balanced and sublime?  Well that is a question I had to test myself…  Naturally, given the nature of my trip, I did not take notes on Green Spot—though I remember having quite a few in the wee hours at Tig Cóilí.  I did, in the pleasant bar of the Ballsbridge’s Schoolhouse Hotel, have the wit to jot some notes on Yellow Spot.  For the sake of rendering the experience as honestly as possible, I shall share these notes unabridged.

Yellow Spot

The Nose is incredibly light, effervescent, honey, small amounts of vanilla and a touch of fresh sawn oak, perhaps?

The mouthfeel opens, almost melts over your tongue like a thick honey (maple syrup consistency, infused with lemon grass, and rare Irish sunshine) and leaving a rich lingering roll of…

Well, that’s where I lost it.  I suppose I was speechless perhaps, at the subtle and gentle notes of this whiskey that were so delicately balanced and almost challenging.  Expect this to do quite well on our shores.

At this point we come to one of the finer points of Irish culture, one which the average American drunk may find baffling.  Pricing.  Perhaps this point struck me harder than it has many Americans abroad, given that the Euro was basically at an all-time low against the dollar while I was in Ireland, but to me, drinks were cheap.  In Dublin a pint of Guinness runs around 5 Euro.  In the US it can be up to $8, and your average draft beer is going to be $4-6 a pint.  Plus the expected $1 per drink tip.  (Tips are not even remotely expected in Ireland.) The rest of Ireland whines that Dublin is expensive, much the way we make fun of $8 draft specials in New York City. For another example, the aforementioned Yellow Spot, a 12 year old single malt Irish that fetches $100 a bottle in the U.S.? That was 8 Euro for a pour.  For the sake of comparison, when you buy a bottle of Powers at the off-license (liquor store) it’s close to 30 Euro.  A pour of Powers at a bar?  4 Euro flat.  That’s about a 3 to 1 pricing ratio.  In the U.S. the bar pricing ratio is usually about 6 to 1, maybe even worse.  Need more examples?  You probably don’t, but I’ve got one.  When I was probably 22, I went to a very well loved Irish Pub style drinking establishment near my alma mater.  As a lover of whiskies, I ordered one of Midleton’s finer products, Red Breast 12 year.  I then got my $13 tab and choked a little.  I was kinda broke back then…Anyways, I ordered that same whiskey, I think it was in Ennis maybe?  I’m pretty sure I  paid 6.30 Euro.  The point being, drinking in a pub in Ireland is a crap ton cheaper than a bar in the states, even while drinking at home is more expensive.   The profit margin is several times less, but the social value is so much more.  It’s like the damn Irish government want you to do your drinking in the pub, ain’t that great of them? Oh, and about that Redbreast 12 year…

Redbreast 12 year old

 

The nose leads with a touch of crisp pear or apple notes, a little honey center and a bit of orange zest and nutmeg.  That honey note, as perhaps should be seen as the defining touch of Irish whiskey by now, comes to dominate the first rolling drops of a sip, warming into a lovely spiced pear, maybe some caramel apple and an unusual citra hop note? The finish of this fine dram lingers with a bit of juicy pear, honey, and just a hint of tart lime.

Given the nature of this pub centric culture, perhaps you may expect that drinkers of every stripe and type would be enjoying all nature of drinks in all of these lovely drinking establishments.  You would be wrong.  At present it seems the Irish microbrew movement is just starting to get some legs.  I enjoyed quite a few when the opportunity presented itself.  As you’ve probably noticed, there is a plethora of fine whiskies—Irish and otherwise—available across the board.  I clearly had a few of these too.  As with any bar, it seemed that every bar had a full stock of assorted liquors and cocktail ingredients available as well.  Given all this variety, and the wide variety of people, tourist and local, you would expect people to be taking full advantage, and yet it seemed that everyone was drinking a Guinness, a Heineken, or a Beamish (another Irish dry stout, a tad roastier.)  I think I saw one or two gin and tonics consumed, as well as a fair few ciders.  I think I saw one other person drink a whiskey, and that’s because I helped make the selection.  Maybe this was an aberration. Maybe I was just blind drunk all the time.  It seemed to me, however, that the reason the Irish are seen as drinking heavy weights is because everyone is slowly nursing 4% beers.  Sure, that old man started at 1pm, but he’s only had 4 Beamish during that last 2 rugby games, of course he isn’t trashed like a sorority girl.

Reading this over, I probably haven’t given you any insight whatsoever into the Irish drinking culture, or really too much factual information at all.  One of those reviews wasn’t even finished; I’m such a lazy bastard.  Oh well, at least I wrote something—better than you, sitting on your ass reading about whiskey online.  Slothful alckie.  I think the takeaway point here is that you need to get moving, get a plane ticket, and see Ireland yourself.  Even if you’re observing it from a barstool it’s a lovely country, with warm and welcoming people and a fuck ton of whiskey.  On that note, here’s one more review for you—a Jameson I didn’t even know existed.

Jameson Caskmates

 

These caskmates (whatever the hell that means) start with a nice floral bouquet, a touch of lavender and vanilla, which is underscored by an acidic lime rind type note.  Kind of a gin and tonic feel…The body of this whiskey is rather rich, though not in the traditionally prized oily way, something closer to a velvet consistency, like a pint of its Irish cousin.  Flavorwise, honey is predominant, with a bit of that floral note coming up, some grainy malt sweetness, and a light caramel finish that evaporates to leave a soft honey and what I can only describe as “green” finish.  Perhaps that’s just the turf.

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Single Shot, Bam!—Jameson Black Barrel

The newest member (I’m pretty sure) to Jameson’s diverse line of Irish whiskies.  I have previously noted the role of the Irish in introducing me to the wonderful world of whiskey, and I’ll admit to quaffing my fair share of their main spirit, which is perhaps America’s best known Irish.  But I’m not reviewing that.  I’m reviewing the Black Barrel, Jameson’s more rebellious and slightly more expensive next step up the ladder.  I say next step up because there are so many products in their line that I have really lost track. Anyways, what distinguishes the black barrel is its considerable age jump over your standard Jame-O to 12 years, and the time that it spends its hibernation time splitting time between a bourbon barrel and a sherry barrel…like a somewhat damaged child of divorce.  That got dark (pun intended.)  So yeah, full disclosure, this is a single shot review, because dear ol’ dad and I drank the rest.  In the spirit of the single shot review, and in the furtherance of ending my sober rambling, down the hatch!

Jameo

Nose: Sweet, with vanilla, cherries, a bit of must, partly from the barley I suspect.  Maybe some spice too.

Taste:  The entry is very soft with some light vanilla and some nice round fruity notes, maybe that cherry I smelt, I suspect, and maybe something a bit lighter…apple? Pear? The flavor fades out clean with a bit of grainy grassiness before leaving just the slightest tad of oak on the tongue.

Final thoughts? A worthwhile jump from the $23 standard to the $35 Black barrel.  It’s delicate, infinitely quaffable, and while it has a level of complexity it’s very approachable, both in flavor and price; which I think is the point.  If you’re used to thinking of Irish Whiskey as a shot, perhaps this could be a nice next step on the ladder to appreciation for you.

Author’s note: I don’t actually down drinks for the single shot series—I’m a liar and a phony, and kind of need to take a few sips to get my thoughts straight. 

Review: Knappogue Castle 12 year Single Malt Irish Whiskey or Sherlock Holmes and the Mystery of the Floating Cork

Knappogue Castle lies abounding the verdant hillsides of County Clare Ireland.  The great stone walls darken by the year with the thickening centuries of lichen.  Built in 1467 the castle has survived centuries of war, rebellion and rolling fog.  Behind the exterior of this imposing structure is a thin layer of paper, beneath that, robust glass. At the center, the keep.  Whiskey.  Bobbing in this goldenrod liquid? A chunk of cork, and debris from the great disaster that lay it there—but alas! How?  What evil has fallen upon this noble kingdom?!  Okay, the title is misleading—there is no mystery.  My dad came into the living room laughing the other night, stating that he went to pour himself a glass and nothing happened.  The cork broke off into the neck of the bottle and, desperate, he resorted to stranding our little friend for eternity into the bottle.  Sorry for the dramatic vignette, but I needed something to fatten this review up. Back to the point…

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See the broken cork?

The whiskey.  Knappogue Castle 12 year single malt, Irish.  The title wasn’t completely misleading.  Price? $25, on sale.  Knappogue Castle isn’t one of your bigger selling Irish whiskies like the Jameson you probably shot down at some pub (whose price has been skyrocketing in recent years).  Knappogue, however, should not be overlooked.  Colored, and flavored, by 12 years in Bourbon barrels Knappogue develops a pale golden hue and highlighted by light vanilla flavors, strong lemon notes and a certain pleasant grassiness.  I guess that makes it lemongrass?  On the finish the tame 80 proof limits Knappogue’s burn to a slight warmth that adheres to the tongue and leaves you with just a hint of the robust charred interior of the barrel, which a sparking flicker of burn intrigues the upper throat. This is certainly pleasant, smooth and interesting Irish Whiskey.  In fact, buck for bloody buck, I’d say this is the best buy Irish Whiskey.  It’s 12 years aged, single malt, deliciousness is just a buck or two more than the simple and sweet Jameson, and makes each sip so much more interesting.  So what am I saying?  I’m saying St. Shitfaced…I mean St. Patrick’s day, is coming up  and you damn well better be drinking Irish.  So why not drink better Irish?

Review: Bushmills Irish Whiskey

The poor people of Ireland have seen more than their fair share of conflict over the course of history.  Under the English Crown the Irish suffered hundreds of years of brutality as the Brits sought not only to rule the Irish but to exploit them and ultimately to crush their cultural identity.  The Irish rebelled against their condition quite often—even following the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 granted the Irish a semblance of political independence.  I don’t have the time or knowledge to fully expound on the centuries of conflict in Ireland, because I write a post about drinking.  So how does Irish history relate to drinking? First off, you should know not to order an Irish Car Bomb in Ireland.  That would be like ordering an Afghani IED in an Army canteen.  It’s recent history, and the tensions still exist.  Second off, don’t order a black and tan.  The black and tans were the British military force place in Ireland in the early 20th century to establish order.  They did this in much the way the brown-shirts did in 1930’s Germany.  The third thing is what we’re here for today: know your Irish whiskey (it’s spelled with an “e” there too!).

The word whiskey comes from the Gaelic word uisce beatha, meaning “water of life.”  You’ve probably already heard that.  Irish Gaelic was the language of the historic language of Ireland and is still spoken by some on the island today (though rarely a first language today as a result of the centuries of English), so whiskey is their word.  To be fair the Scottish also spoke Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic, so it’s their word too.  I’m rambling.  So how does Irish whiskey relate to Irish politics? Well the basic thing is there are 3 big names in Irish whiskey: Jameson’s, Bushmills, and Tullamore Dew.  Jameson’s is made in Dublin, and Tullamore Dew in Tullamore.  These are in the Republic of Ireland.  Bushmills is made in Bushmills, County Antrim, Northern Ireland.  That’s the UK–protestant country.  In Ireland, that still matters.  Violence still erupts in Northern Ireland, and though the IRA is officially dissolved, the factionalism has not.  Whiskey has often been used as a metaphor to examine this factionalism, representing Bushmills as the “orange” protestant whiskey and Jameson as a good Dublin true Irish whiskey.  John Jameson was a Scottish immigrant, and a lot of people have pointed that out, which makes Jameson’s not much of a true Irish Catholic whiskey.  So we’ll call that the “white,” neutral, whiskey.  If you hadn’t gathered I’m using the colors of the Irish flag here, which leaves me with our green, the Tullamore Dew.  It’s a neat little metaphor, but I say fuck it.  Instead of using whiskey to represent the divisions of Ireland I think we should use it to unite people, because that just makes more sense.

Ireland has a very broad definition of what legally makes an Irish whiskey, and while there are only 8 distilleries in Ireland, and several aren’t even selling their product yet, that broad definition allows for a wide variety of flavors for people to enjoy.  Let’s not divide our whiskies by religion and region, but by the joy they bring and their flavors.  Unfortunately I only have Bushmills on hand, and only a tiny bit left after wasting the rest as fuel for all the babble I’ve already written, so you won’t get the comparisons I wish I could do.  I’ll get to writing about more of them at some point.  For now, I’m gunna tell you why a good Irish Catholic might want to drink Bushmills.

Irish whiskey is lighter by nature, in flavour and in colour.  Therefore Irish whiskey really needs to be enjoyed for its character and its subtleties. A lot of people like Jameson’s because it’s smooth as hell and so sweet and gentle.  A lot of people like that.  In fact Jameson’s has become a massive brand because its gentle way of getting you hammered is loved by lushes the world over.  But if perhaps you’re looking for something a little more complex, with more grain character, Bushmills is a perhaps the budget Irish for you.  This whiskey starts with a light nose full of lemon zest aromas, which aren’t as forward when you take that first sip.  The predominating flavors are those of the gently sweet malts, and the light vanilla and fresh sawdust flavors from the barrel that fade of the back of the tongue.  I’ve heard this described as rough.  That’s insanity.  The word I think of is robust.  While it is dry and oily, with a bit of a late heat that Jameson doesn’t give you, that’s what sets Bushmills apart.  Does that sound like something you’d enjoy? Then who gives a shit if you’re Irish Catholic, or really a 4th generation Irish-American who dropped out of CDD and want to act like you’re really Irish—drink what tastes good to you, even if it is “protestant whiskey.”  So maybe whiskey, and the love thereof, can bridge the gap between Northern Irish and Irish Republican, Bushmills drinker and all other whiskey drinkers. You may say I’m a dreamer, but after a few whiskies everyone seems more tolerable to me, and perhaps that’s a peace plan.

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PS: I’m going to Arizona for a week starting tomorrow, so I won’t be posting, but perhaps I’ll drink something to post about later!