Get Your Irish Up
I work in an office tower in downtown Toronto with a liquor store at the foot of the elevator. This small but busy LCBO services the recreational needs of all the wildlife in the deepest remove of the concrete jungle: Grand Cru for the bankers, Yellow Tail for their assistants, and beer singles for the bike couriers. There is only one product that is impossible to find in this store: one-shot bottles of spirits, the sort that once beckoned from the bar fridge in your hotel room. “We’re the only liquor store in Ontario that doesn’t have them,” I was once told by one of the staff. “I bet you don’t know why.”
According to my informant, several years ago the office building’s property manager nagged the LCBO until they agreed to stop selling these one-shots here. Empty little bottles were appearing with startling predictability in the building’s sewage system, jamming the pipes and causing thousands of dollars in plumbing costs every year. It’s easy to surmise what was happening. Office workers were buying these bottles to fortify their coffee, but were unwilling to throw the empties in the trash, lest the boss spy them out. The incriminating evidence was being smuggled into the stalls and flushed down the toilet.There are many words for this clandestine activity: spiking your coffee, doctoring it, or even (to borrow the Italian phrase) correcting it. But my favourite term is “Irishing up” the coffee. The phrase “Irishing up” sounds like it might be a racial slur, a point of national pride, or both. In fact, it seems to derive from Irish Coffee — a blend of coffee, heavy cream and Irish whiskey that was made famous in the USA by a San Francisco journalist who convinced a local pub, the Buena Vista, to add it to their menu. There’s a plaque outside the Buena Vista to this day, commemorating the first Irish Coffee on American soil — served on November 10, 1952. In the last 60 years, this drink has so permeated North American culture that it’s changed our language, enriched our dessert courses, and endangered our plumbing.
Ireland is the spiritual home of whiskey — in fact, the word whiskey comes from the Gaelic word for “water of life.” For those who are new to Irish whiskey, it’s best to think of it as close cousin of Scotch whisky (the Scots removed the “e,” presumably as a cost-cutting measure). Both Scotch and Irish whiskey are rich and textured, with a tendency to be less sugary than Bourbon and more complex than Canadian rye. Both come in blended varieties (made from malt whiskies, grain whiskies and other additives that have been blended together to form a consistent taste year after year) or single malts (which are made from pure malted barley made at a single distillery).
Despite these similarities, Scotch and Irish whiskey part ways in a number of important ways. Scotch is generally distilled two times, while even the humblest Irish whiskey is usually triple distilled. This gives the Irish an extra layer of refinement, resulting in a smoother, less biting character. The classic example of this style is Bushmills Black Bush ($36.95), which offers a full but surprisingly soft palate of fudge, fig and sherry-like notes. If you like your whiskey’s roar balanced with a touch of sweetness, it is difficult to find a better value in a blended whiskey.
Of course, the very best Scotch and Irish whiskeys are made with 100 per cent pure barley, as opposed to a blend involving lighter grains. Typically, this barley is malted — that is, exposed to moisture and allowed to germinate. Malting encourages the development of enzymes, which convert the starches in the barley into sugar, priming it for fermentation. The germination is halted by heating the cereal. In Scotland, the barley is often dried using peat fires, infusing the whisky with the mossy and smoky character that reaches its apogee in Islay Scotch. However, peat is very rarely used in Ireland’s kilns, resulting in a gentler and more mellow profile for its whiskeys.
There are exceptions to this rule. Indeed, in the 19th century, peat was a common fuel for the kilns on both sides of the North Channel, so there’s nothing inauthentic about a peated Irish whiskey. The Inishown Peated Blend ($34.95) is a fine example of this retro style. The peat is applied judiciously to produce an unctuous, dense and complex treat. The apricot fruitiness still shines through, making this a well-rounded whiskey at a hospitable price.
Ireland also has a distinctive style of whiskey unlike anything found in Scotland or anywhere else. “Pure pot still whiskey” is made in a traditional pot still, rather than the more modern continuous still that most whiskey-makers use to produce blended whiskey. Like a single malt Scotch, pure pot still whiskey is made from 100 per cent barley, but unlike Scotch, some of the barley is usually left unmalted. Using this “green” barley is unique to Ireland, and it gives the whiskey a distinctively spicy character that aficionados call the true taste of the island.
Redbreast 12 Year Old ($44.95) is the Irish whiskey that almost single-handedly revived the tradition of pure pot still whiskey. This wildly popular brand has been winning awards and critical accolades since the Irish Distillers conglomerate launched it in the 1990s. Redbreast is matured for a minimum of 12 years in sherry and Bourbon barrels, giving it a satiny undertone of vanilla. Notwithstanding the oak aging, the palate is clean and light. Vibrant notes of green apple and tangerine sparkle within the resinous bouquet. This delicate composition is for those who prize elegance above adrenaline.
Like so much about Ireland, Irish whiskey is imbued with the flavour of heartbreak. “I am fascinated but frustrated by the history of Irish whiskey,” Colum Egan, the Master Distiller at Bushmills told me.” In the mid- to late-1800s Irish whiskey was the drink of choice in many countries across the globe. There were hundreds of distilleries operational in Ireland, many of which were family-owned. However, many catastrophic events culminated in the closure of most of these distilleries. Prohibition, he said, “proved to be the final straw. Because many of the distilleries were small, family-run … they were in no position to survive. Today there are only two distilleries to survive from this period: Bushmills and Midleton Distillery.”
While Irish whiskey foundered, the Scots elegantly adapted to the changes in the liquor industry by smart mergers, a reliance on cheap blends, and then the marketing coup of the century: single malt Scotch. However, things finally seem to be lightening up for Ireland. In the last few years, sales of Irish whiskey have rocketed, and big brands like Jamesons and Bushmills are doubling or tripling their production.
This is partially a result of the uniformly fine quality of Irish whiskey. Although there are only a handful of distillers on the Island, those that remain have a palpable dedication to their craft. However, Irish whiskey also seems to be in the right place at the right time. The traditionally smooth character of Irish whiskey places it in a great position to capture a younger demographic. As well, its Goldilocks-like moderation — sweeter and less medicinal than Scotch, but drier than Bourbon — means that it is ideally suited to cocktails, which are the Next Big Thing in the world of wine and spirits.
At Toronto’s leading cocktail lounge, Barchef, one of the most popular drinks is the Dublin. As with all their cocktails, this is a house recipe: 1.5 ounces of Jamesons Irish Whiskey, 0.5 ounces of Cynar (an Italian artichoke-based bitter), 0.5 ounces of sweet Vermouth and 0.5 ounces of vanilla simple syrup. Stir with ice and orange rind, then strain and serve with a sprinkle of cinnamon. Frankie Solarik, Barchef’s executive mixologist, told me to use Jamesons because it’s sweeter on the palate and works better with the orange flavours. He thoughtfully added, “And Jamesons has a nostalgic essence to it.”
Although I love all Irish whiskeys for their nostalgic essence, it is always Bushmills Black Bush to which I return. Once, I was castigated for this by a friend of mine who also happens to have Irish roots: “You should be drinking Jamesons,” he said with a raised eyebrow. “Bushmills is the drink of the Protestant North.” I decided to ask Colum Egan what he thought. “Unusual, but I only seem to encounter this misconception in North America,” he said, “For me, whiskey does not have a religion, and, if anything, it actually brings people from all types of backgrounds closer together.” I’ll attest to that: it’s hard to be anti-social when drinking Irish. That’s why it goes in my morning coffee.
Connemara Peated Single Malt ($54.95)
The nose on this spectacular whiskey will fool you — it comes on aggressively with heavy notes of pine gun, smoke and lavender. However, the palate is mellow and earthy. Flavours of toasted cereal, dried apple and ginger deliciously linger into a long finish.
Locke’s 8 Year Old Single Malt ($54.95)
This pure pot still whiskey is made in a traditional Irish mould: spicy, rich and thickened with a hint of sweetness. Despite its youth, its flavours are well developed and complex: the fruity core is embellished by pepper and vanilla. The finish reveals a hint of peat mixed with walnuts and cedar.
Tullamore Dew 12 Year Old Special Reserve ($44.95)
Tullamore Dew’s Special Reserve is a feathery and fragrant whiskey with notes of heather and candied ginger. Although it’s aged in Bourbon and oloroso sherry casks, the predominance of grain whiskey makes it light to the point of insubstantiality. Best as an aperitif.
Jameson 12 Year Old Special Reserve ($44.95)
For a little extra money, this bottle gives you a huge improvement on Jameson’s entry-level Irish whiskey. A complex and almost animalistic nose ushers in a palate with authentic notes of sherry: sandalwood, leather and orange rind. This is a sweaty, leathery delight.