A Drop of the Hard Stuff is not hard to take
No one has yet come up with a satisfactory explanation as to why Scots and Canadians call the beverage distilled from malted barley “whisky,” while Irish people and Americans spell the same thing “whiskey.” An easy way to remember the correct form according to its derivation is that Scotland and Canada have no e in their name— whereas the United States and Ireland do.
The added e could be just plain cussedness or it might have a political connotation, acting as a way of distancing oneself from one’s neighbour. Or the e could stand for “elegance,” because Irish whiskey, I find (and I’ll probably get myself into hot water for saying this), is a more feminine drink than Scotch. Feminine in the sense that it is mellower and less aggressive on the palate. This mellowness is a direct result of its production method.
Unlike single-malt or blended Scotches, Irish whiskey is triple-distilled — each distillation making the drink purer and less coarse. The malt for Scotch is dried directly over peat fires, allowing the smoke to percolate through the grains and giving the final distillate that characteristic smoky, peaty flavour. The barley for Irish whiskey is dried in closed ovens. This heating process (which is done directly over smoke or indirectly) — known as malting — develops flavour and the enzymes that convert the starch in the barley to sugar.
The mashing process comes next: the malted grain is ground and then mixed with water. Yeast is added to the resulting liquid, known as the wash; this eats the sugars, converting them to alcohol and creating a drink that resembles a very strong beer at about 10 percent alcohol.
This is followed by the distillation: the wash is boiled in copper stills. Since alcohol has a much lower boiling point than water, it quickly evaporates, then is directed off and condensed back to a clear, colourless liquid. The over-proof whiskey is subsequently aged for four to seven years in used sherry, port, Madeira or rum casks.
In 1966, Ireland’s independent whiskey distillers, Jameson, Power’s and Bushmills, amalgamated under the umbrella name of Irish Distillers in order to compete more effectively on the world market. Now there are only two major distilleries in Ireland — the Old Midleton distillery near Cork and Bushmills in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, reputed to be the oldest distillery in the world, with a license granted in 1608 by King James I. The old Jameson distillery in Dublin, now the museum for the Irish Distillers, is within walking distance of the River Liffey and well worth a visit. It was here I went to taste the company whiskeys with freshly retired master blender Barry Walsh, who had worked at Irish Distillers for almost thirty years. At the end of a tour of the magnificent old building, we sat in the pub and tasted a range of products made by the group.
I must say, Irish Distillers have an unorthodox way of presenting Irish whiskey: Four plastic thimbles containing samples of Jameson, Bushmills, Paddy and Power’s 12-Year-Old are laid out on a tasting sheet. In the top corners, the taster will find samples of Scotch and bourbon — Johnny Walker Red Label, the world’s best-selling blended Scotch, and Jim Beam, the world’s best-selling bourbon. The idea, no doubt, is to demonstrate that Irish whiskey, because it is triple-distilled and the malted barley is not dried over peat smoke, is mellower and less aggressive-tasting than Scotch or bourbon. Scotch, incidentally, has 35 per cent of the world whisky market; Irish whiskey only has 2 per cent.
Yellow-amber colour; spicy-sweet nose of vanilla and new leather; mellow and light on the palate.
The same yellow-amber colour as Jameson; drier nose, toasty, woody, malty — more like a malt whisky.
Paddy Old Irish Whiskey
Sweet-coconut, lemon-peel nose; flavourful with a long dry finish. (Paddy was named after a Cork whiskey salesman, Paddy Flaherty, who used to buy drinks for all in the pub. His guests would come back and ask for Paddy’s whiskey.)
Powers Gold Label
Deeper in colour than the other whiskies; dry, nutty, orange-peel nose; mouth-filling and rich, full-flavoured with a smooth aftertaste. My favourite of the four.
When we compared these four to the Johnny Walker, the contrast was immediate — the smoke and peat flavours of the Scotch stood out, giving the drink an iodine note; the bourbon, by comparison, smelled of caraway seed and tasted raw.
To the standard tasting, Walsh added two more Irish whiskies. Jameson 12-Year-Old was a deeply coloured amber-bronze; had a fruity, malty nose with a touch of leather and a sweet oaky, spicy flavour with a vanilla note. The Jameson Redbreast 12-Year-Old — a whiskey I had never tried before — was fabulous: again, deeply coloured, with a vanilla, fruity-toasty nose; complemented by coffee-bean and orange-peel notes; creamy on the palate.
Barry Walsh stressed that this whiskey was hard to get, so I made it my mission, before leaving Ireland, to find a bottle. And I did, on my last night: I spotted a bottle in the off-license area of a pub in Galway. I happily forked out the euro equivalent of $50 for a bottle.
When I got back to Toronto, I checked the LCBO catalogue to see what Irish whiskeys are carried here. On offer are the standard Jameson ($27.95) and the Powers Gold Label ($29) I tasted at Irish Distillers; in the Deluxe category, Bushmills 10-Year-Old ($39.95), Jameson 12-Year-Old ($40) and Jameson 18-Year-Old ($89.85) are available, as well as Redbreast 12-Year-Old ($36.55).