Irish whiskeys for St Patrick’s Day that are just local enough
There is a saying that: “Everyone is Irish on St Patrick’s Day,” and certainly St Patrick’s Day is a big U.S. celebration, one of the top three “drinking holidays,” the other two being Cinco de Mayo and the Fourth of July. However, there is quite a bit of irony in that saying too. One: St Patrick wasn’t Irish. He was the son of a Romano-British citizen who was originally kidnapped by Irish pirates. And two: St Patrick has never been formally canonized, meaning that technically he isn’t actually a saint.
But where would we be without irony? Maybe we Americans would be celebrating “Mexican Independence Day” on the wrong day? And/or cheering the date of the signing of a foundational democratic document that actually mostly occurred almost a month later than the day we celebrate. So, a non-Irish non-saint is not as unusual as it first sounds. Three cheers for irony!
When we think of Irish celebrations we almost always think of corned beef and cabbage, along with Irish beer and Irish whiskey. The food part we will relegate to another sections, and since we often think of local connections in the pages here, obviously Irish made beer and Irish made whiskey would seem out of the realm of possibilities. And with Irish beer that is mostly true, but with Irish whiskey it’s a little bit different.
First of all, all whiskey starts out as an unhopped “beer” or “wash,” having been brewed from cereal grains. Brewing is the act of cooking those grains to convert their starch into sugar and then introducing yeast to feed on that sugar and excrete alcohol. That alcohol is then refined or distilled into whiskey. The word “whiskey” itself comes from uisce beatha, an Irish translation of the Latin aqua vitae, or “water of life,” a ubiquitous term that finds parallels in French as “eau de vie” and in Slavic as “vodka.” The legal definition for Irish whiskey is fairly broad, firstly it must be made and matured on the island of Ireland. It also has to be made from malted cereal grains (not just barley), and not exceed 94.8 ABV at distillation. It also must be aged a minimum of three years in small wooden casks (used or new is not specified).
Practically speaking, most Irish whiskey is triple distilled (unlike Scotch which is double distilled) and unlike Scotch, Irish whiskey does not use peat to dry the malt, meaning that Irish whiskey often tastes smoother and doesn’t contain the peaty iodine overtones of Scotch. Important to note, Irish whiskey’s minimum age is twice that of the minimum age of American bourbon or rye. Irish whiskey can also contain caramel coloring (American bourbon and rye cannot).
And it’s in that aging where the Bay Area comes into play. There are two Irish whiskeys that have used, or do use, American wine barrels to age their products. An innovation that makes them not only yummy, but both local-ish, and Irish. Making it possible for us to bring a little Irish home without having to frequent your local Irish pub, bar or brewery. And take it from a kid of Irish extraction who was born almost exactly nine months after St Patrick’s Day, I certainly do get the double entendre in that statement.
Concannon Irish Whiskey $31
Concannon Vineyard’s is a winery in Livermore, most famous for its petite sirah. But Concannon is also the name of an Irish whiskey. Formerly connected via family, the whiskey was distilled in Ireland and then aged in former American bourbon barrels before being finished in those award winning petite sirah casks. Soft, velvety, and luxurious, Concannon Irish whiskey makes excellent Irish coffees. The winner of “Best New Irish Whiskey” in 2012, these days the name is licensed to an East Coast distiller. But the whiskey is still readily available, and still really delicious as well as being both nominally Irish and local.
Teeling Single Grain Irish Whiskey $55
Teeling Distillery in Ireland makes several Irish whiskeys. This one is unique in that it uses an unconventional mash bill of 95% corn and 5% malted barley, which is then triple distilled and matured in French oak former Cabernet Sauvignon wine casks from California (and we all know where most California Cabernet comes from, don’t we?). Well over the legal limit for bourbon (51% corn) this whiskey is assertive without being obnoxious. 95% makes it qualify for “single grain” labelling and the triple distilling smooths out the flavors, while the softer used barrels give it just enough oomph. Not bourbon and definitely not Scotch, this whiskey is all Irish, almost.
Note: Both of these whiskeys can take some effort to find, but then again nobody ever said that sainthood was going to be easy. Just ask St. Patrick.
Jeff Burkhart is the author of “Twenty Years Behind Bars: The Spirited Adventures of a Real Bartender, Vol. IandII,” the host of the Barfly Podcast on iTunes (as seen in the NY Times) and an award-winning bartender at a local restaurant. Follow him at jeffburkhart.net and contact him at [email protected]