January 9, 2006 | 1 comment
Fighting Irish whiskies are back.
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To peat or not to peat? That is the question. Some of the best-known and most sophisticated single malts of Scotland—particularly those produced in the Hebrides, off Scotland’s west coast—burn peat, ancient, partially decayed heather, moss, seaweed, and other vegetation dug from soggy bogs, to toast the malted barley prior to fermentation and distillation. That gives these whiskies—e.g., Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Bowmore, Talisker, Ardbeg—a characteristic smoky flavor. Irish whiskies, by contrast, are un-peated. Smokeless fuels are used in the kilns (Irish for ovens) instead. So there is no smokiness to Irish whiskies. (But Connemara, distilled at Kilbeggan, is a peated Irish whiskey.)
Two things to know about single malts: First, because each single malt is distilled and aged in a single location, it expresses what French winemakers call terroir, a sense of place. “Single malts tell you where they come from,” is the way one master distiller explained it to me. Second, single malts use only malted barley—barley that has germinated, sprouting roots that are rich in sugar and starch. Irish whiskies combine malted and un-malted barley in about a 40 percent to 60 percent ratio. (But Bushmills produces fine single malt Irish whiskies; Tyrconnell, distilled at Kilbeggan, is a single malt, as is the peated Connemara mentioned above.)
There also are blended Irish whiskies—a mix of spirits from barley, malted or not, and from other grains, such as wheat, corn, and rye. Similarly, there are blended scotches, both the basic varieties your father used to order “on the rocks” or with soda (anyone old enough to remember the “As long as you’re up, get me a Grant’s” ads?), and a few blends mixed with such great art and craft that they rival the best single malts. Like those single malts, they should never be put in contact with ice cubes or carbonated water. Instead, they are to be sipped neat or, better yet, with just a few drops of branch water (an expression that originally meant water taken from a fresh stream but which now indicates any very pure H2O) to open up the aromas—the way air opens up a fine wine.
Generally speaking, malt whiskies tend to have more flavor and character; grain whiskies sacrifice some flavor for smoothness. Aging whiskies longer means both more intense flavors and smoothness. The price you pay is the price you pay: The more time whiskies spend in barrels, the more expensive they will be in bottles. And remember that whiskey, unlike wine, does not age once it’s wrapped in glass.
Today, there are four working Irish distilleries—Midleton, Kilbeggan, Cooley, and Bushmills—turning out a growing number of premium whiskies. Among my favorites: the 18-year-old Jameson Limited Reserve, the Connemara peated single malt, Bushmills’ 16- and 21-year-old single malts, Redbreast, and Kilbeggan’s blended Irish whiskey.
In 2011, the most recent year for which data are available, 5 million cases (12 bottles per case) of Irish whiskey were sold, 1.7 million of them in the U.S., a 24 percent increase over the previous year. Are the Scots getting nervous? Probably not: There are more than 100 distilleries in Scotland turning out an enormous range of whiskies far too good to shoot off the heads of pretty girls without remorse. The Scots sell 90 million cases a year and control 60 percent of the global market in whiskies, compared to 3.5 percent for their colleagues across the Irish Sea. Some Scottish distilleries run seven days a week and still can’t keep up with demand. Nevertheless, a little competition from the fighting Irish may do them good.
And every sip takes me back to Belfast, circa 1978, a time of anger, strife, and terrorism. But also of long nights in dimly lit snugs, sipping whiskey, listening and learning about the ideas for which men will kill and die. Given the way the world’s conflicts have evolved since, can I be forgiven for remembering those days with fondness?
Photo: Joris (Creative Commons 2.0).
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