I come from a line of whiskey drinkers. Well, that’s really only about half true. The other line drinks whisky. But perhaps I should explain. Irish whiskey gets the ‘e’ (as does most American whiskey), while Scotch whisky goes without (and shares that spelling with Canadian whisky). Even the paper of record updated its style on the subject. By surname, my father’s family is more Irish than anything else. On the other hand, my mother’s family can be traced to Scotland. Both family histories, for what it’s worth, pass through Kentucky, itself no slouch when it comes to distilling. To the best of my knowledge there weren’t actually any distillers (or moonshiners) in the family, but I digress.
I do enjoy a wee dram now and again, but I like to do so on the merits of the spirit, not just for the benefit of getting blind. As such I tend to avoid bars on the major drinking holidays. Since I believe that one should respect the spirit, and I also believe that Irish whiskey deserves that respect, here’s a primer on some of the Irish whiskey you can find in the DC area in advance of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. If I’ve left out your favorite, please feel free to set me straight in the comments. It’s been too long since I’ve had Clontarf for me to have an opinion on its merits.
Irish whiskey comes with its own nomenclature. There isn’t really an Irish equivalent to the legal naming of single malt Scotch whisky, for instance, but “pure pot still” now carries some meaning, if not the force of law. Irish whiskey also has a tradition of using unmalted barley in addition to the malted grains, resulting in whiskey that is lighter in both color and body than its Scotch counterpart. I started drinking Bushmills in college because I couldn’t afford to drink single malt Scotch all the time, and I couldn’t bring myself to buy blended Scotch when I already had a taste for single malt. Irish whiskey was different enough from Scotch whisky that blends didn’t hurt my sensibilities (and I agree, this argument makes no sense, but we all make mistakes while we’re in college).
If you came of age when I did, Irish whiskey meant Bushmills or Jameson’s. While Bushmills and Jameson’s are often cast as Protestant and Catholic (respectively), potentially resulting in fisticuffs if you order the “wrong” one in an Irish bar, this notion seems to be a strictly Irish-American invention, and a clumsy, inaccurate one at that (John Jameson, a Scotsman, was likely Protestant, despite living in Catholic Cork), and both brands were under the same ownership until Diageo bought Bushmills. Just about any bar in DC will have one of the two, and most of them will stock both (Science Club, friend to WLDC, only stocks Jameson’s, owned and distributed by Pernod-Ricard). Between the two I think your preference will come down to which one you had first. Bushmills is still my choice (stand near me when I have Bushmills neat and you’ll probably hear me sigh and mutter that it tastes like college), but Jameson’s is also a fine whiskey.
Beyond those two and their variant offerings there now exists a broad range of Irish whiskey. And you don’t even have to go to a bar named Ireland’s Four Fill-in-the-blanks and put up with the din of amateur night and have someone get sick on your shoes just in order to get these newer, more interesting options.
The first you might find is Powers, a blended whiskey produced by the same distillers as Jameson’s (and thus available nearly everywhere Jameson’s is). It’s got a little more complexity than Jameson’s, coupled with increased sweetness. If you’re new to Irish whiskey this might be a great one to have first, since it has a lot in common with Bourbon.
You might also find Paddy, produced in the same distillery, which has a higher malt content than other Irish whiskey (and thus a flavor profile that more closely resembles Scotch — but to be honest, I’ve never bothered, since if I want Scotch I’ll just get Scotch).
Next, available at least in better stores in DC and Virginia (the importer is a DC businessman), you might find John L. Sullivan Irish Whiskey, which I first learned about thanks to the Post’s Jason Wilson. It’s also somewhat ironically named, because the real John L. Sullivan, Irish-American heavyweight boxer (pictured on the bottle), became a teetotaler and temperance icon in his retirement (noted in Daniel Okrent’s excellent history of Prohibition, Last Call). It’s aged in single-use Bourbon barrels and carries more of that wood character than, say, Jameson’s. There’s a slight citrus note to it, and maybe a hint of banana.
But my favorite Irish whiskey is yet another product of Pernod-Ricard’s Irish Distillers, the Redbreast 12-year. The name itself comes from old practices at the Jameson distillery, where the bonded whiskey was labeled Redbreast to distinguish it from other products. The name had fallen into disuse and was resurrected for this aged whiskey, which is a fine, fine bottling. Its aging results in a strong vanilla overtone, with notes of dried cherries and woody complexity. Pernod-Ricard have just announced US distribution of a 15-year-old bottling as well, so be on the lookout for that.
But with any of these, drink responsibly and with respect for the spirit. If you’re going to order whiskey in a bar, it helps to know the terminology: “straight up” is meaningless, because “up” means “shaken and strained.” If you want whiskey in a glass, by itself (the way I order it), order it “neat.” If the bartender doesn’t know what “neat” means, find a better bar. Good whiskey should be served at room temperature or only slightly chilled, and not doctored up with other flavorings. Some people like their whiskey with ice or a drop or two of spring water, but I take mine neat, with a water back.
And remember not to drink and drive.