Whiskey, Briskly

Pimsleur Approach • Food & WineComments (0)

A short print-out-and-keep guide to the Irish aqua vitae

Whiskey, with an “e”

The Scots soak up a lot of praise for their single malt whiskey, often leaving their Celtic compatriots in Ireland in the shadows. Truth is, the Irish have been distilling quality whiskey (with an “e” just like in the US) for centuries, and although they have nowhere near as many distilleries, they still come up with some seriously fine-tasting liquor. Their triple-distilled pot still spirit—the trademark Irish whiskey—has a syrupy smoothness which is delicious on the rocks, and also works well in cocktails and hot drinks. We’ll tell you how to mix a few of your own later on. But first, it’s time to brush up on some whiskey history.

(Whis)Key moments in Ireland

Glasses of Whiskey

• It’s thought the concept of whiskey was brought back to Ireland by monks who had traveled to the Mediterranean and learned the craft there, around 1000 AD. Some Irish people claim it was later introduced by them to Scotland, who started using a similar method of creation. Unsurprisingly, most Scots believe they came up with whisky without any help.

• The Irish excelled at distilling their own whiskey at home, and this was widely practiced until 1608, when many Tudor English started settling in Ireland, and it was outlawed. The Old Bushmills Distillery earned the
first ever whiskey-making license, from King James I in 1608.

• During the 18th century, the single pot still method of making whiskey was introduced. Using a blend of malted and unmalted barley, it is still unique to Ireland, and came about as a way of avoiding increasing malt taxes. Single pot whiskey flourished during the 19th century. But there was trouble looming…

• Into the 20th century, a succession of disasters struck the Irish distilling industry: civil war, refusal to accept Aeneas Coffey’s Patent Still (which was embraced successfully in Scotland), Prohibition in America and a trade dispute with the UK.

• By the 1950s, Scotland had overtaken Ireland as the world’s most popular producers of the spirit. Today only one of the original 28 Bushmills distilleries exists. But Irish whiskey is gradually making a comeback…

The remaining distilleries

Sixty million years ago, things weren’t as cool in Country Antrim as they are today. Some serious volcanic disturbances were brewing just below the surface and this led to the formation of nearly 40,000 basalt columns, an alien, honeycombed sort of floor fanning out from the fringes of Northern Ireland into the Irish Sea. As you’d guess from the mystical name, legends about previous oversize inhabitants abound, still luring in visitors from all over. Whatever you believe, the strange beauty of the Giant’s Causeway must be seen firsthand to be fully comprehended. Though it is incredible at any time of the year or day, it’s best captured in a summer sunset, when the sky is fiery red, and recalls the heated moments when this landscape first came into being.

The remaining distilleries

It’s difficult to comprehend that a few hundred years ago Ireland’s distilleries were virtually too numerous to count. Now, only four remain. Then again, before 2007, there were only three, and whiskey production and consumption is well on the rise again. New Midleton Distillery has been making it since the 17th century, and today creates some of Ireland’s most famous brands, including Tullamore Dew, Jameson (which arguably makes the best Irish coffee) and Redbreast, whose 12-year-old variation was proclaimed Irish Whiskey of the Year in 2010. Old Bushmills is of course the country’s oldest distillery, and welcomes over 120,000 visitors each year. If you find yourself in County Antrim, pop in for a taste of their single malts which range from a 10 to a 21 year. Cooley Distillery in County Louth produces a range of blends and single malts (the Connemara is unusual as it is only double-distilled), while the recently-reopened Kilbeggan Distillery in County Westmeath will celebrate its debut comeback batch next year.

Songs to sip to

The Irish like nothing better than to turn an average evening at the pub into a song-and-dance spectacular. To accompany any decent Irish whiskey, you need a decent ditty about Irish whiskey. Drink your first shot to the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem singing Whiskey, You’re the Devil, a jaunty tin whistle-addled number which belies sad lyrics about war. Crank up the tempo with Whiskey in the Jar (the Dubliners and Thin Lizzy both have excellent foot-stomping versions of this traditional folk tune, as do strangely, Brit-poppers Pulp). Follow this with the Pogues’ Streams of Whiskey, a drunk-philosophizing shanty liable to have you jigging on the table before you know what’s happening. Whiskey on a Sunday by Danny Doyle is the kind of wet-eyed ballad that will lead everyone into a mass display of nostalgic arm-in-arm swaying, and should be played as the finale.

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