Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk
Aspen Times Weekly
As it is St. Patrick’s Day as I sit down to write this, and I have a drop or two, or even three, of Irish blood coursing through my veins, I find it necessary to steer towards the Emerald Isle in this column.
Many might assume that that would mean a turn towards Dublin and St. James Gate for a story on the virtues of Guinness Draught, arguably the world’s best beer. And while that would no doubt be enjoyable, I think St. Paddy’s Day 2011, given the state of the world, deserves a little stronger spirit. So yes, let’s raise a glass in praise to Irish whiskey. Spelled with an “e” and generally distilled three times, unlike the whiskys of Scotland, which generally get just two passes through the still.
There are those who claim that Ireland is the birthplace of whiskey, though in truth the Chinese distilled liquor in around 800 B.C. But don’t let the facts get in the way of Irish blarney.
Some suggest that St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland despite being born in Britain, brought the spirit with him in the fifth century A.D. – which is about as unlikely as the legend of how he drove the snakes from Ireland into the sea. But what may have some validity is the tale of how St. Patrick’s Day, celebrated on the date of his death, March 17, came to be a drinker’s day.
It is said that St. Patrick was once served a glass of whiskey that was something less than a full serving. Rather than be disappointed, St. Patrick looked at his small serving as an opportunity to teach the innkeeper who poured the reduced dram a lesson in generosity. He told the innkeeper that a devil lived in the cellar of his inn and fed and thrived on the innkeeper’s dishonesty. If the proprietor wished to rid himself of the dishonesty-consuming devil he best change his ways. So the next time St. Patrick visited the inn he discovered a changed man and all the drinks in the bar overflowed.
St. Patrick’s Day has been a drinking holiday for more than a century here in the U.S. and the Irish Distillers – there are just four significant players – have used the occasion to heavily market their wares. So successful have they been, in fact, that the single fastest-growing spirit category in America is Irish whiskey, which despite the tough economy grew at a rate of 13 percent in 2010.
Leading that charge has been Jameson Irish Whiskey, which last year sent 1 million cases of its product to American shores. That represents a doubling in the size of their market in just three years. The growth has been pushed along, no doubt, by a cheeky television commercial that gets heavy play on ESPN and tells of the legendary John Jameson, who leaps into the ocean to salvage a barrel whisky that has washed overboard in a storm. Jameson is a product of the New Midleton Distillery in County Cork in southwest Ireland.
In the far north of Ireland is the Old Bushmills Distillery. The original distillery was granted the rights to make whiskey by King James I in 1608 and is considered to be the world’s oldest licensed distillery. The old building is one of the most visited places in the north of Ireland and a living museum honoring the art of distillation.
Both Bushmills and Jameson are owned by large liquor companies today, with Bushmills under the control of Diageo and Jameson in the Pernod-Ricard family of brands. While they compete for a piece of the ever-growing thirst of young men for the smooth taste of Irish Whiskey, their combined marketing muscle has served to grow the pie substantially.
Much of the attraction has to do with the smooth flavor profiles imparted by the Irish iteration of distilled grains. Leave the peat and smoke to the famed single malts of Scotland; the Irish pours are softer on the palate and don’t burn the tongue as much. Irish Whiskeys are a little easier to drink than some of the other brown spirits and, as such, are poised to continue their rise in the spirits world.
We may be beyond St. Patrick’s Day but any day is a good one for a drop of whiskey.
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