Spirits: For St. Paddy's Day, make my whiskey Irish

The author's holiday choice: a shot of Irish whiskey with a pickle juice chaser.
The author's holiday choice: a shot of Irish whiskey with a pickle juice chaser. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post; glassware from Crate and Barrel.)
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By Jason Wilson
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 10, 2010

For all the holiday's focus on drinking, St. Patrick's Day libations usually push the limits of absurdity and good taste. Green beer? Cocktails spiked with green creme de menthe? Shamrock Shakes? Novelty usually trumps all.

Of course, novelty isn't always a bad thing. My own St. Paddy's Day drink, for instance, will be something called a Pickleback, a shot of Irish whiskey followed by a chaser of pickle juice. As a pairing, that might sound less than promising, but here's the surprise: A Pickleback is simply awesome. Brine and whiskey make one of those mysteriously wonderful combinations, and it doesn't hurt that pickle juice is second to none in preventing dehydration (thus helping to stave off the post-St. Paddy's Day hangover). Still not convinced about the Pickleback? That's okay. Just skip the pickle juice and stick with the Irish whiskey, the true star of the holiday.

It's a shame that most of us don't pay Irish whiskey a second thought except at this time of year. And too many 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.

That might be slowly changing. In a spirits market where revenues were mostly flat last year, Irish whiskey sales posted a 10 percent increase, one of the few categories that improved. Obviously, somebody is buying more of the stuff. I suspect it is the whiskey drinker who's looking for real value.

"Irish whiskey is the most smooth and approachable whiskey," says Amir Peay, a Washington-based entrepreneur who began importing the John L. Sullivan brand in November. Not many new whiskeys from Ireland pop onto the market, and John L. Sullivan is rich, complex and balanced: an unbelievable value at $23 and a standout among the 20 Irish whiskeys I tasted recently with a panel of friends. If John L. Sullivan is any indication of where the world of Irish whiskey is headed, then I'm on board.

Irish whiskey has always been an odd category. First of all, only three distilleries in Ireland 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 (recently named distiller of the year by Malt Advocate magazine), maker of Connemara and Tyrconnell and, now, John L. Sullivan.

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. Most of the whiskeys made at Bushmills and New Midleton are triple-distilled, which makes them lighter and rounder and thus the perfect entry for newbies. But not all Irish whiskeys are triple-distilled; Cooley is committed to double distilling for its brands. (By the way, Irish whiskey is spelled with an "e," unlike Scotch whisky).

There is a dicey -- and misguided -- aspect of Irish whiskey loyalty that splits along partisan lines. I've known a lot of older Irish Americans 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 vs. Protestant whiskey is bunk. For one thing, from 1972 to 2005, coinciding with some the worst of The Troubles, both distilleries were owned by the same company, Irish Distillers, before Bushmills was sold to Diageo. Jameson is now owned by Pernod Ricard, a French conglomerate. Also, John Jameson was a Scotsman, and therefore in all likelihood a Protestant.

Still, the perception persists. As we were tasting, one of my friends, Kevin Meeker, who owns an Irish pub in Philadelphia called the Plough and the Stars, gave a thumbs up to Bushmills Black Bush blended whiskey. He texted his Irish managing partner, Patrick Nester, at the bar and asked whether they sold a lot of Bushmills. Nester's reply: "Not much because u idiots think it's a Protestant whiskey." Perhaps it's best, as usual, to avoid discussing religion and politics while drinking.

That's what we did during our tasting, and we found a number of great values. Although several of the single malts, such as Connemara and Bushmills 16-year, were outstanding, they're also a little pricey, at $60. I generally enjoyed the blends just as much as the single malts, and they were significantly more affordable. My favorites were the Redbreast 12-Year-Old Pure Pot Still ($45), Bushmills Black Bush ($29), Jameson 12-Year-Old ($35) and John L. Sullivan ($23).

I would enjoy any of them, with or without the pickle juice chaser.


Irish Sling

Wilson can be reached at food@washpost.com. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/boozecolumnist.

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