Reasons to Love Irish Spirits and Holiday Traditions

We live in the best era to be drinking Irish spirits. All. Year. Round.

photo by David Kressler

photo by David Kressler

We’re in such an exciting time for Irish spirits that it’s a shame they only seem to get any recognition surrounding St. Patrick’s Day. New distilleries are opening at a pace similar to the American craft spirits boom of the early 2000s, with exciting new whiskies entering the fold. The latest trend is cask finishes (using ex-wine or ex-other spirit barrels for a period of maturation), with with delicious expressions such as Egan’s Fortitude (Pedro Ximénez), Glendalaugh Double Barrel  (bourbon and Oloroso sherry), Redbreast Lustau Edition, Bushmills 16 Year single malt (Oloroso sherry, bourbon and Port, which you can discover more about watching this video from The Daily Beast), and 2018 NY International Spirits Competition silver medal winner Powers 3 Swallow (single pot still, bourbon and Oloroso sherry). Ireland has even gotten into the world gin game with excellent releases such as Concullin Gin from the Connacht, Two Trees Gin from West Cork Distillers and Dingle Gin (all of these distilleries have won medals in the NYISC). And it’s not just a men’s game anymore! Women run distilleries are making an impact, such as Tipperary Distillery helmed by Jennifer Nickerson (here she is on the One Nation Under Whisky Podcast) and Chapel Gate, which, under Louise McGuane, currently produces the bonded J.J. Corry The Gael.

According to the Distilled Spirits Council, sales of Irish whiskey have increased by 500% alone since 2002. Events showcasing the spirit and Irish culture such as FarePlate, which was held in New York City earlier in March are, according to its organizer Bridget Bray, “shaping a new narrative outside of Ireland.” To celebrate the category’s worldwide success, the team behind New York’s Dead Rabbit--Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry--have teamed up with Irish whiskey expert Tim Herlihy and writer Conor Kelly to publish From Barley to Blarney: A Whiskey Lover’s Guide to Ireland. In its pages are information (and excellent photos by Elaine Hill) detailing all things Irish whiskey from distilleries by region, their “key bottlings”, pubs and other useful bits of information about the category, including cocktails. This is an extremely useful guide for anyone interested in whiskey in general, and is a valuable snapshot of the increasingly expansive Irish craft spirits industry.

With such important strides for Irish spirits, the whole notion of St. Patrick’s Day shenanigans as the only excuse to indulge in them needs to go away once and for all. But since the day is coming up this weekend, here’s how three pros of the industry celebrate the tradition.

Family Time

Tony Carroll, European brand ambassador for Castle Brands, which recently launched two new cask finished expressions of Knappogue Castle 12 Year Single Malt--Ch. Pichon Baron and Marsala--says the day starts with the entire family taking a walk along the Wild Atlantic Way, which builds up an appetite for later. “In the kitchen and the heart of every Irish Family home we prepare starters of shellfish with traditional brown bread and a main course of one of the most traditional dishes in Ireland, Bacon & Cabbage, served with my wife Joanne’s delicious mashed potatoes.” He says the house will be filled with 12 - 14 adults and 12 kids across generations. “As the meal is enjoyed we have some traditional Irish music on the playlist which always leads to a sing song at the table. This of course is helped by the the free flowing wine, and good old Irish Whiskey.”

“The family are always blown away when we see the images of St. Patrick’s day celebrations from around the world,” adds Carroll. “It’s an immensely proud feeling but mixed with a tinge of sadness for all our fellow compatriots who cannot make it back to the old country for its most celebrated day. The final toast of the day is one of thanks, pride and love.”

Making a new home away from home

photo courtesy Egan’s

photo courtesy Egan’s

For those who are away from their Irish homeland on St. Patrick’s, some say the day is mixed with a little homesickness, but there are new traditions to celebrate. “The day is less about the green drinks and Irish tomfoolery but more about spending time with friends and family celebrating something we are very proud of,” says Kilbeggan brand ambassador Michael Egan. “This is my 5th St. Patrick’s Day in the US and it’s setting up to be one of the best yet! There’s great Irish sport on in the morning and I’ll then make my way to a favourite Irish pub to listen to some live Irish music.”

Egan recently helped launch Kilbeggan Small Batch Rye, with mash bill similar to that of pre-Prohibition era Irish whiskey, using malted & unmalted barley along with 30% rye. “I look forward to celebrating this St. Patrick’s Day with a new, unique Irish whiskey on a uniquely Irish day! Two things definitely worth toasting to!”

Classic celebrations in New York City

St. Paddy’s, (particularly when it’s incorrectly spelled “Patty’s”), can be a hectic, grueling day to work a bar shift, but Dale DeGroff, a.k.a King Cocktail, has fond memories of working on March 17th in midtown west in the 1970s and ‘80s. Charley-O’s was a beloved haunt opened by Joe Baum of Restaurant Associates off of Rockefeller Plaza on 48th St. (it sadly closed in the 1990s). DeGroff says Irish coffees were prepared there all day long starting in early morning when former Senator Pat Moynihan hosted an Irish Breakfast. They we made assembly row style, with one bartender adding sugar to the glass, another adding coffee, another the whiskey and finally the hand-whipped cream. DeGroff says this order of preparing the coffee is “the only way to get that perfect demarcation of black and white” [it should look a bit like a perfectly poured Guinness].

Aside from this order of preparing the drink, DeGroff has other tips:

  • The cup has to be a “normal” size, not too big.

  • The cream has to be hand-whipped so it lies on top of the drink in just the right way.

  • Use the right cream, real cream, not from a can, “to avoid an oil slick.”

  • Don’t add sugar to the cream, and don’t garnish it with nutmeg.

  • As for the coffee, use a medium roast, not a dark roast, so as not to overpower the delicacy of Irish whiskey.

About that whiskey, it’s best to choose one that will stand up to the coffee flavors, such as Jameson (which recently underwent a bottle design facelift), West Cork Black Cask, Slane, Proper No. Twelve or The Sexton.

DeGroff says he repeated his Irish coffee assembly line tradition once he took over the bar at the Rainbow Room, where this was a big day for the staff to give back to regular customers who braved the midtown crowds to visit the bar. “New Yorkers go out on a holiday,” he says. “The only difference is they usually make reservations on the way out the door.”

From all of us at Alcohol Professor, Happy St. Patrick’s Day! If you are out and about this weekend, please, as always, don’t forget to tip your hardworking bartenders, servers and cabbies well. Sláinte!

Confused about the difference between single malt and single pot still Irish whiskey? Here’s an explanation!