Far more than other kinds of spirits, Irish whiskey has been a social drink consumed mainly at bars and restaurants -- particularly on St. Patrick's Day -- but not so much bought for savoring at home. That's changing. Lately, this once stagnant spirits segment is busy introducing new products to rival more widely popular choices such as bourbon and Scotch whisky (spelled without an "e"). "The producers looked at their cousin, the Scotch market, and saw what they were doing," says Joseph Congiusti, a spirit specialist at Binny's Beverage Depot in Chicago. "New expressions of the old product line are what's hot."
Most of that stepped-up activity is occurring at Pernod Ricard, the French company whose Irish Distillers unit controls most of the market through brands such as Jameson, Bushmills, Power's, and Redbreast. While you can't go wrong with such standbys as Bushmills' 10-year-old or Jameson's 12 Years Old (formerly called 1780), which both cost around $30 for a 750 ml bottle, there are rewards for those willing to stretch their palates -- and their wallets.
Irish whiskeys have much in common. Unlike their cousins in Scotland, who dry their malt over open peat fires, Irish whiskey makers dry their malts in closed kilns -- avoiding those smoky overtones that some find off-putting in Scotch. But they are finding novel ways to add complexity by tinkering with the aging process and altering the proof. Almost all Irish whiskeys go through distillation three times to ensure that they're supremely smooth on the tongue.
Let's start with Bushmills, which is produced from malted barley and distilled in copper-pot stills, making for a drier finish. Its 10- and 16-year-old single malts are fine, but lately it has won raves for a 21-year-old (about $100) that spends most of its life in bourbon and oloroso sherry casks, then is finished in Madeira wine drums. The last step adds a sweet spiciness to the woody, chocolatey tones imbued by the bourbon casks.
In contrast with Bushmills, Jameson uses malted and unmalted barley, making for a longer finish and a lot of body. The big news is an outstanding 18-year-old Master Selection in individually numbered bottles that run about $60. It's a blend of three whiskeys that are finished for six months in bourbon barrels, yielding a fudge-and-toffee taste.
One of Pernod's more unusual initiatives, out last fall, was a trio of Bushmills' first cask-strength (higher-proof) single-barrel whiskeys. One has been aged exclusively in bourbon casks ($100 per bottle), another in sherry casks ($125), and the third in rum casks (approaching $200). Look for them at such major retailers as Binny's and California's Beverages & more! chain. And for heaven's sake, don't pour them into your coffee. By Gerry Khermouch