The Great American Saloon Series

The Spirits of Erin

Fighting Irish whiskies are back.

By From the February 2013 issue

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I first developed a taste for Irish whiskey back in 1978. I was a young foreign correspondent sent to Northern Ireland to cover the Troubles, the civil conflict that broke out in the 1960s and ended, for the most part, in 1998. Covering wars was different back then. Reporters were neutrals. Catholics and Protestants, Republicans and Loyalists—they all would sit down with me in Belfast pubs. Even the hard men, even the terrorists—they all wanted to tell me their stories (and no one tells stories like the Irish), persuade me of the justice of their cause, let me buy them a drink, or two, or three. No one seemed to have any desire to cut my head off. How times change.

I changed, too, of course. For one, I switched from Irish whiskey to scotch and, truth be told, I became a bit of a scotch geek. Here’s an indication: I recently went to see Skyfall, the latest James Bond film, and what I found most exciting—right up there with the girls, the stunts, the special effects, and the gratuitous violence—was the cameo role played by The Macallan. 

The first bottle that is seen fleetingly onscreen appears to be the 18-year-old—exceptionally smooth, not too much heat, a hint of honey, and a long finish. Later, the villain pours a wee dram of what is identified as a 50-year-old Macallan. (Fans will get the joke: Dr. No, the first Bond film, was released in 1962.) He balances the drink atop the head of his sultry mistress and attempts to shoot the glass off, William Tell–style. When he doesn’t manage the trick, Bond expresses distress at the waste of a good whisky—saying not a word about the waste of a good woman. Who knew Bond was such a serious single malt aficionado?

But I digress. The point is that I have long wondered why it is that Americans drink scotch whisky rather than Irish whiskey (that’s not a typo—the Scots and the Irish spell their spirits differently). This is especially puzzling considering that the number of Americans of Irish descent is much greater than the number claiming Scottish ancestry.

On a recent visit to Ireland, both the south, the Republic of Ireland, and the north, still part of the United Kingdom, I had the opportunity to talk—and drink—with people in the whiskey business. They helped me begin to unravel this historical mystery.

Once upon a time—from 1850 to 1910, to be precise—there was what is known as the golden age of Irish whiskey. In America and other corners of the civilized world, Irish whiskey was more prestigious and more popular than any other spirit. But when World War I commenced in 1914, German U-boats constrained the trans-Atlantic trade in whiskey and less essential products. Then, in the early 1920s, the Irish Free State was formed, not without acrimony, and British companies, in retaliation, stopped importing the spirits of Erin or distributing them abroad. 

There was more. In 1920, the temperance movement achieved its goal: The U.S. Congress enacted national prohibition. Plenty of liquor continued to be sold illegally, much of it phony Irish whiskey produced in the Caribbean, Canada, and Mexico. These spirits left a bad taste, literally and figuratively, even after Prohibition’s repeal in 1933.

Perhaps that explains why, as bars started reopening around America, Joseph P. Kennedy, father of a teenager who would go on to become the first Irish Catholic president of the United States, traveled not to Ireland but to Scotland to buy distribution rights for the whisky being made there.

A few years later, World War II began. American GIs were deployed to Britain—not to Ireland—where more than a few picked up the scotch habit.

Over the years since, scotch’s popularity has steadily climbed, and a growing list of distinctive single malts—whiskies made only from malted barley at individual distilleries and not blended with any other spirits—have become the connoisseur’s beverage of choice.

Indeed, whiskies from Scotland have become so popular that we routinely refer simply to “scotch”—by contrast, no one speaks of “irish.” Distilleries in Scotland proliferated, and whisky lovers even learned to differentiate among the main scotch regions: Highland, Lowland, Speyside, Campbeltown, Islay, and the islands. In Ireland, for more than half a century only two distilleries remained: Midleton in the south and Bushmills in the north. And they were able to turn out only a limited selection of Irish whiskies, not all of them worth writing home about.

BUT HERE'S THE BIG NEWS I bring you from the Emerald Isle: A new golden age of Irish whiskey is beginning. In County Cork, the Midleton distillery, which also produces Jameson whiskies, has a $100 million expansion under way. Distillers plan to double production, confident demand will exceed supply.

Beam, the American whiskey maker, is placing a big bet on an Irish whiskey boom. A year ago, for $100 million, the company bought the Cooley distillery in County Louth and the Kilbeggan distillery on the River Brosna in County Westmeath. The former had been converted from a potato alcohol plant in 1987. The latter, established in 1757, was shut down in the 1950s, and then reopened in 2007 at a cost of $95 million. Master distiller Noel Sweeny says with pride that it is now being restored “to its former glory.” One of its pot stills is 185 years old—the oldest working pot still in the world. 

In Northern Ireland, the Bushmills Distillery received a million visitors in 2012, up 50 percent from the previous year. Half the bottles produced at Bushmills go to the U.S., the largest and fastest growing market for Irish whiskey. But Russia, South Africa, Germany, and France are growth markets as well. “It’s a phenomenal time for Irish whiskey,” Jameson and Midleton master distiller Barry Crockett tells me. “Irish whiskey is returning to its preeminent position.”

How does Irish whiskey differ from Scotch whisky? The differences are clear—except when they are not. The rules governing Irish whiskey and scotch are strict and must never be broken—except when they are. For example, Irish whiskey is distilled three times, scotch only twice. The extra distillation produces a smoother, lighter spirit with less heat as it descends the throat. (But Kilbeggan is double-distilled. And on the Scottish island of Islay, Ardbeg distills its scotch two and a half times.) 

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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About the Author

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington policy institute focusing on terrorism and democratization.