The Water of Life
By Timothy Long
“If you’re lucky enough to be Irish, you’re lucky enough!” – Irish Proverb
Are you Irish? If you answered no, you’re wrong. Fine, you’re not wrong. But there is a fact you need to face. You’re going to be Irish. A day is coming, a grand day. A day that will cause you to be Irish, whether you like it or not. Because on that day, everyone is Irish! It’s the most magical day of the year. On March 17th you’ll rise from bed and you’ll be Irish! Well, at least for one day anyway. It’s a beautiful thing. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself craving Irish beer and whiskey. It’s been known to happen. You may even eat potatoes, or corned beef and cabbage.
This miracle of a day needs to be celebrated properly. First, you’ll need to pick a good Irish pub. There are plenty of them. Almost every town has one. The shamrock is everyone’s friend.
Next, you’ll need to decide which Irish beer and Irish whiskey you’ll be drinking. Guinness is always a good start. I usually start with it. Then follow it with Smithwick’s. In the Irish language, Irish whiskey is referred to as uisce beatha, which means the “water of life.” I guarantee you just pronounced it wrong. Everyone does, even most of the Irish. Here is the phonetic spelling: ish-ca baa-ha. Many of you probably mispronounced Smithwick’s as well.
And Irish whiskey is always spelled with an “e”. This was done to differentiate their whiskey from the Scots who spell it whisky. The Canadians and Japanese drop the “e” as well. Here in the states, we spell it whiskey, like the Irish do.
The roots of Irish whiskey are quite fascinating. Irish whiskey was one of the earliest distilled drinks in Europe, arising around 12th century. According to new-hibernian.com:
“The exact origins of Whiskey are widely debated, but it has been suggested that Irish monks may have picked up the skills of distilling perfumes while on trips to the Mediterranean during the 11th century. Producing Irish Whiskey evolved from a local pastime into an industry in 1608, when Northern Ireland’s Bushmills Distillery became the world’s first licensed whiskey maker.”
Remarkably, it was Irish whiskey, not scotch, that dominated the world in the 19th century. Irish whiskey accounted for nearly 60% of global whiskey sales. This dominance ended when The Irish War of Independence, Prohibition in the United States, and two world wars greatly damaged the industry. Many distilleries were bombed and destroyed during the wars. By the mid-1970s, there were only two large distilleries left, New Midleton Distillery, which made Powers and Jameson’s Irish whiskey, and the Old Bushmills Distillery. And this is how things remained for decades.
But Irish whiskey has rebounded. Perhaps a better word is exploded. By 2010, there were four distilleries in Ireland. And by 2020, there were 40. What used to be a selection of two shelves in liquor stores in the U.S. is now an entire section.
Yes, I am a bourbon drinker. But I have also always loved Irish whiskey. These whiskeys tend to be sweet, malty, and smooth. They also contain the complexities that a brown liquor should. The flavor profiles can range greatly depending on how the whiskey was distilled. It’s not uncommon to find Irish whiskeys with floral, spicy, or silky notes. The rules are not as complex for making Irish whiskey as they are for bourbon or scotch. The main rule, it must be made in either Ireland or Northern Ireland. The process is similar to scotch, except that scotch starts with malted barley and Irish whiskey starts with a mix of both malted and un-malted barley. Legally, Irish whiskey falls into four categories: Single Malt, Single Pot Still, Single Grain, or Blended. Each of these processes can give you a variety of flavors.
Now, back to St. Paddy’s Day. You’ll be Irish for a day. Take advantage of the situation. Enjoy an Irish whiskey. Try a couple of different ones. You can start with the big boys, like Jameson or Bushmills. I personally love Redbreast Single Pot Still 12. (I recommended it in last March’s article, “A Stout or Porter, What’s The Difference?”) Or go with one of the newer Irish whiskeys. Teeling Whiskey opened in Dublin in 2015 and makes great product. Their Single Grain and Single Pot Still are two of my favorites. Slane Irish Whiskey makes a Triple Cask Blend that has wonderful complex flavors. And Clonakilty Distillery has a Double Oak Irish Whiskey that’s matured in ex-bourbon casks and then finished in American Oak and shaved, toasted, and re-charred ex-red wine European oak casks. No wonder I love it.
For decades my friends and I have traditionally gone to the upstairs bar at Murphy’s Grand Irish Pub in Old Town. I’m not stating how many decades. I want to stay young in your eyes. A variety of Irish beers and whiskeys will be sampled. We’ll also honor our heritage by slaughtering Irish folk songs at the tops of our lungs. We prefer celebrating in the afternoon. As my one friends always puts it “Let’s get out before Amateur Hour hits.” Amateur Hour starts around happy hour on St. Patrick’s Day. Everyone may be Irish on that day. But not everyone is good at it.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Slainte!!
Tim’s Whiskey and Cigar Recommendations
Bushmills 12 Year Single Malt Irish Whiskey
I love this whiskey. There was a time when some of my friends would have admonished me for recommending a Bushmills product. It was the whole northern/southern, protestant/catholic Irish situation that many Irish Americans had strong opinions about, and some still do. But there’s been a peace accord since 1998. Things are different now. I’d rather embrace a Northern Irish whiskey in the name of unity. And this whiskey is worth embracing. It’s uniquely aged. It starts off in 11-year-old ex-bourbon and ex-Oloroso casks that have been married. Then it’s finished for six to nine months in ex-marsala casks. I think this second step is what develops its smooth dried fruit taste and warm soft mouth feel. You definitely get dried fruit on the nose; apple and pears, with some malt and vanilla too. The palate is fantastic with more dried fruit, honey, nuts, vanilla, and a hint of sweet strawberry. The finish is sweet and smooth with honey, fruit, and malt. It’s 80 Proof and well worth the $60 price.
Montecristo Espada Oscuro Guard
You need a good cigar with a little body to go with your Bushmills 12-Year-Old Single Malt. This is it. I had another whiskey and cigar conversation with my friend John Pann at John Crouch Tobacconist in Old Town. He and I thoroughly enjoy our whiskey and cigar talks. He recommended the Montecristo Espada Oscuro Guard. And once again he hit the nail on the head. The wrapper has that classic roasted coffee bean color that I love. Up front, you get chocolate and malt, with citrus followed by some baker’s spice on the back. As you smoke it, this cigar gets earthy. But in a good way. The citrus and baker’s spice are joined by cedar and a hint of pepper on the tongue. It’s medium body and spices blend well with Irish whiskey. The finish is wonderful with all the flavors still fully present. Enjoy.
This cigar, and many other fine cigars, are available at John Crouch Tobacconist at 215 King St. in Old Town Alexandria.
About the Author: Timothy Long is an educator, writer, consultant, and experienced restaurant operator. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Instagram and Twitter: @wvutimmy. Blog: What is that fly doing in my soup? http://whatflyinmysoup.com