Since St Patrick's day is upon us, we decided that this was as good a time as any to discuss Irish whiskey. The Irish have been making whiskey at least as long as anyone else in northern Europe. Estimates vary, but it is known that whiskey was being distilled by Irish Monks in the 1200s. The monks are thought to have learned distillation from their travels in southern Europe, where wine was being distilled into what we would know as brandy.
It was a natural progression for the monks to take this method to distill their beer into what they called uisce beatha or Water of Life in old Irish. The name spread with the drink and the knowledge of how to make it. Methods and recipes varied over the centuries and were heavily influenced by tax laws, which heavily taxed malted grains, leading the Irish to make their whiskey and beer from at least partly unmalted grains, as well as making their whiskey in private--often in secluded areas away from prying eyes.
For centuries, spirits were distilled with some version of a pot still, which is easy to create and produces whiskey in batches, retaining the flavors of the grains, as well as the smoky flavor of the peat or wood that fires the stills. Irish whiskey was known for its flavor and quality. In the early part of the 19th century Ireland was the biggest producer of whiskey in the British Empire.
When the Coffey still was invented in the 1820's, allowing for more efficient continuous distilling, a cleaner, more neutral whiskey was produced. The Irish distillers largely dismissed this invention, and declared the mildly-flavored whiskey to be inferior. It was embraced, however, in the rest of the western world, and cheaper, lighter-flavored whiskey made from a variety of grains flooded the market.
By the time the industry modernized, the effects of the Irish famine and exodus, followed by two world wars, a revolution, and American Prohibition further decimated the Irish Whiskey industry and the full-flavored Irish whiskeys that were so fashionable lost market share. By the mid-twentieth century there were only a few whiskey producers left operating. In the last twenty or so years, Irish whiskey has had a re-awakening and has adapted to the modern palate, with triple-distillation that gives a very clean and approachable style but also by reinventing the old pot stills, and full-flavor that they were known for in the glory days.
Bushmill's Black Bush Blended Irish Whiskey
The first whiskey we tasted was a blended whiskey from Bushmills. The color was a rich amber and the aroma was nutty with a hint of fruit. I was reminded of pralines and peaches at the same time. This whiskey was aged in Oloroso Sherry casks for eight years before release, and the result was quite smooth and easy to sip. The finish reinforced the overtones of oak, but it was not overpowering. I could definitely taste the sherry. The crowd seemed unsure, but willing.
Venison and Apricot Paté
The paté was served on a house made parmesan cracker. I was thinking that this first whiskey would be fairly mild and that this was strong enough to complement but not overpower the whiskey. The apricots definitely stood out. I also considered that the venison would be more prominent but it was barely detectable-- it could easily have been pork. Maybe the whiskey was stronger than realized. When we tasted the whiskey again, it was noticeably smoother. The paté definitely helped.
Jameson Caskmate "Stout Edition", Triple-distilled Irish Whiskey
Jameson is known for its triple-distilled whiskey, a signature style that gives a very clean but not particularly memorable finish. They are working to rectify that; this series of whiskeys are aged in beer casks, in this case stout. The aroma is of chocolate or maybe dark coffee. The initial flavor is not all that different from regular Jameson, but after swallowing there is a definite hint of hops and malt that are reminiscent of the beer. This one was a little smoother and more approachable than the last. I wondered if we shouldn't have started with this one, but no one seemed to mind.
Smoked Wild Boar Sausage
to accompany this, I wanted something a little bolder, wild boar is ground with spices and hickory smoked to finish. We grill the sausage to concentrate the flavor, and then serve it with a really nice garlicky mustard I found from New Orleans. The sausage is ever-so-slightly-sweet with a hint of spice, a bit like the whiskey. I thought it worked very well.
The room was getting a little louder, and faces a little more pink.
Green Spot Single Pot Sill Irish Whiskey
This whiskey is distilled in a single pot, retaining more of the flavor of the grain bill. The traditional mix of malted and unmalted barley gives a slightly spicy note to the aroma. First sip seems slightly fruity, maybe apples or pears? The finish reads "oak"-- the whiskey is finished in Bourbon barrels but I'm not sure if the flavor comes through for me. Tasted again, just to be sure. The spiciness of the unmalted grain was reminiscent of rye-- maybe that was just me.
Beet and Whiskey-cured Salmon
To accompany this whiskey, we made a cure last week with salt, sugar, whiskey, beets and horseradish. The salt denatures the protein and draws out the moisture, curing the salmon. It is thinly-sliced then served over a toast point made from rye bread. We added a dab of crème fraîche to hold it together. The whiskey and salmon paired so well that it seemed made for one another.
Redbreast 12 Year Old Single Pot Still
This last one was the one I was waiting for...the sweet aroma of the bourbon cask was prominent and the spicy overtones of the barley came through very nicely. This was not meek or timid, the whiskey was full-flavored and bold, but still approachable and all around good. Having saved this one for last, I thought it was the best.
Candied Chocolate Covered Bacon
So, I decided that you can't really go wrong with chocolate or bacon and I think this was the right decision. The flavor was sweet, then spicy then salty, very good and very well paired with the whisky. I had totally lost the crowd by then, conversation and laughter was echoing around the room. Everyone seemed to really enjoy this combination, and all seemed happy.
We finished the day with a hearty bowl of Lamb and Turnip stew, with Anna's Soda Bread and honey butter made from our own Vi hives. I wish all of you a Happy Saint Patrick's Day and a great week!