St. Patrick's Day is only a couple of days away, which means that - by unwritten law - any column about drinks this week must be about Irish whiskey. I mean, there are other St. Patty's Day libations. But with all apologies to the Shamrock Shake, I'm a grown man, and when March 17 rolls around, I look to drink something a little more, you know, adult.
Last week, I attended a fascinating tasting of Irish whiskeys at the huge and handsome new Fine Wine & Good Spirits store in Fishtown. The buzz of the evening was about the astronomical growth that Irish whiskey is experiencing in the U.S., up 24 percent in 2011 alone. Last year in the U.S. market, Irish whiskey surpassed single-malt scotch in volume sold.
"Irish whiskey is the fastest-growing spirits category in the world," said John Wagner, spirits manager for the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. "After flavored vodka, of course."
Flavored vodka? It's me, Jason
Ah, yes, flavored vodka. Before I talk more about Irish whiskey, please let me get something off my chest. Flavored vodka is not new. The number of flavored vodkas on the market has more than tripled since 2003. For years, I've railed against them - completely, utterly unsuccessfully, I should add. But this trend toward childhood tastes is a new low.
It frankly surprises me just how god-awfully ubiquitous Pinnacle Vodka's whipped-cream vodka has become. But whipped-cream vodka was only the beginning! I thought the infantilization of America's palate finally reached its, uh, pinnacle (or more precisely nadir) with Pinnacle's cake- and cotton-candy-flavored vodkas. Then a new low happened recently when I tasted Pinnacle's Gummy vodka, with a red Swedish fish on the label. Yeah, Pinnacle, it tastes just like "authentic" Swedish fish, all right. Congratulations. I thought sweet-tea- and espresso-flavored vodkas were bad enough, but they are XO cognac next to gummy candy and cherry whipped cream. "Grow up!" I want to scream.
Which brings me directly back to Irish whiskey. It is perfect for the newbie who's interested in dipping his toe into the world of whiskey.
"It's smooth, it's easy to drink," said Patrick Caulfield, brand manager for Jameson, who was pouring the brand's 12- and 15-year-old at the PLCB event. There are a number of reasons for this.
Most Irish whiskey is bottled at 80 proof, significantly lower than most scotch or bourbon. Because most of it is also triple distilled, you get a lighter, rounder whiskey too. As for price, good Irish whiskey is often a fraction of a good scotch. Finally, compared with scotch, the Irish stuff is also pretty straightforward to understand.
Only three distilleries in Ireland - compared with dozens in Scotland - produce the majority of brands: There's Bushmills in Northern Ireland, which claims to be the oldest active distillery in the world, dating to 1608; the New Midleton Distillery in County Cork, maker of Jameson, Redbreast and Powers; and Cooley Distillery in County Louth (named distiller of the year by Malt Advocate magazine in 2010), maker of Connemara, The Tyrconnell and Kilbeggan. Irish whiskeys can be single malts or blends of malted barley and grain whiskeys. There is also "pure pot still" whiskey, unique to Ireland, which is a blend of malted and unmalted whiskey. (By the way, Irish whiskey is spelled with an "e," unlike Scotch whisky.)
Well-known Jameson, owned by French conglomerate Pernod Ricard, is the 800-pound gorilla, selling more than 1 million cases per year (the entire Irish whiskey category sells about 1.7 million). "Jameson has almost transcended the Irish whiskey category," Wagner said.
"It's the best time to be involved with Irish whiskey," Caulfield said. "All the big players want in."
Pernod Ricard was followed by rival Diageo, which bought Bushmills in 2005. Tullamore Dew was snapped up in 2010 by William Grant (which owns Hendrick's gin, Glenfiddich scotch and Stolichnaya vodka). And earlier this year, Beam Inc. purchased Cooley Distillery for $95 million.
At the PLCB tasting, there were some old favorites, such as Bushmills Black Bush and Jameson 12-year-old, as well some new surprises like the crazily named Wild Geese Irish Soldiers & Heroes Limited Edition. I appreciate the chance to taste different Irish whiskeys at places with good lists - Village Whiskey, Lemon Hill or Tir Na Nog. Too many of us who do drink it stubbornly lock onto one brand and never experiment outside it. They're a Jameson girl or a Bushmills guy until the day they die.
There is a dicey - and misguided - aspect of Irish whiskey loyalty that splits along partisan lines. I've known a lot of older Irish whiskey fans who will drink only Jameson because it is considered the "Catholic" whiskey, as opposed to Bushmills, which is perceived as the "Protestant" whiskey. During grad school in Boston, I drank once or twice in a hard-core Irish pub where you might come to physical harm if you ordered a Bushmills. (That bar also passed around a hat once a night, and you were strongly "encouraged" to donate to "the cause.")
This idea of Catholic versus Protestant whiskey is bunk. For one thing, from 1972 to 2005, coinciding with some of the worst of the Troubles, both distilleries were owned by the same company, Irish Distillers, before Bushmills was sold to Diageo. Multinational companies are not usually in the business of religion. Also, John Jameson was a Scotsman, and therefore in all likelihood a Protestant. Perhaps it's best, as usual, to avoid discussing religion and politics while drinking.
At the PLCB tasting, the only note of discord for me was when I tasted a new product from Bushmills, its Irish Honey flavored whiskey. I was surprised to see Bushmills following American whiskey producers such as Jack Daniels and Wild Turkey into the honey whiskey market. I'm also disappointed in Jim Beam's for launching Red Stag (its black-cherry-flavored bourbon). Jim Beam will soon roll out Red Stag Spiced and Red Stag Honey Tea. Flavored whiskey! Heresy! But they're obviously following the same playbook as flavored vodka.
As he poured the Irish Honey, I looked askance at John Heffernan, the Master of Whiskey for Bushmills. He smiled and shrugged. "For the young drinker, let's face it, whiskey is a scary category!"
Not nearly as scary as the prospect of a whipped-cream whiskey in the not-so-distant future.
Jason Wilson has twice won an award for Best Newspaper Food Column from the Association of Food Journalists. He is the author of "Boozehound" and editor of "The Smart Set," an online arts and culture journal at Drexel University. Follow him at twitter.com/boozecolumnist or go to jasonwilson.com.