Irish Whiskey: A St. Patrick's Day Primer
It's been said that God created whiskey to keep the Irish from taking over the world. If it's true, he didn't do a great job of it -- the Irish take over the world every day on March 17. But while everyone may be from the land of the clover on St. Patrick's Day, before you go around pinching everyone who forgot to wear green and asking them to kiss your Blarney Stone, there are a few things you should know about Ireland's chosen liquor. Here to help is Steve Goumas, owner of Tempe Irish pub Rula Bula. A whiskey expert who's been to Ireland quite a few times ("I lost count after a dozen," he says), Goumas has likely brought more Irish whiskeys into the state than you've brought into your mouth.
Knowing your whiskey
First of all, it's whiskEY. Scottish, Japanese and Canadian distillers drop the E in the spelling of their liquor; those in America and Ireland keep it.
Second, the grain used to make Irish whiskey is kiln-dried. In, say, Scotch, grains are smoked over peat fires, infusing the malt with big smoke flavors. Drying the malt in an oven makes for a clean, smooth malt flavor.
Third, Irish whiskey is always triple-distilled. Here we may need to get a little technical. Distillation -- the process by which a grain mash is turned into sweet, delicious whiskey -- happens in an apparatus called a still, which consists of a pot with a large rounded bottom and tapering neck connected to a spiral tube called a condenser. When the fermented mash in the pot comes to a boil, vapor rises up into the condenser, where it cools and returns to a liquid state. Because alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water, this collected liquid has a higher alcohol concentration than the original mixture. The big point of difference between Irish whiskeys and those made in other countries, Goumas says, is that the Irish stuff is required by law to be distilled three times. "The more you distill a whiskey, the smoother it gets, so Irish whiskey as a class is the smoothest of the whiskeys," he says.
Lastly, Irish whiskey is actually aged in used American bourbon barrels. "The really good ones start out in bourbon then move into sherry or other barrels, Goumas says. Whiskey takes on not only the characteristics of barrels it's aged in, but the environment in which it's aged. "Since they're not aged by the sea like Scotch, Irish whiskey doesn't get that salty flavor some of them have," he says.
Which whiskey to buy
Unlike Scotch and bourbon, which can get a little pricy in top-shelf ranges, Irish whiskeys of extremely high quality can be picked up at a reasonable cost, Goumas says.
If you're a whiskey beginner, = go with the bar regulars: Jameson and Bushmills. "Those two are like the Chevy and Ford of Irish whiskeys," he says. "Excellent representation of the product, but just a starting point." Redbreast Pure Pot Still -- a whiskey Goumas brought into Arizona eight years ago, is the next step up. With notes of apricot and cherry, it's become the number two seller at Rula Bula. "For the money, I think it's one of the best whiskeys on the planet," Goumas says. If you really want to pretend you're Irish on St. Patty's, go for a Powers --the favorite drink of the working man in Ireland. "It's your usual shot and beer whiskey there," he says. Those with a little more coin should go with Blackbush, a complex whiskey aged in multiple barrels. "I was introduced to it by the distiller at Bushmills," Goumas says. "It's the type of product that's more expensive, but you buy a bottle for a friend you haven't seen in a few years."
How to drink it
According to Goumas, most people in America don't know how to properly drink Irish whiskey. It's not a drink made for shooting, but rather for sipping. "Put maybe a tablespoon of water in," he says. "This dilutes the alcohol so it doesn't numb your taste buds, and you can pick up all the flavors."
Whichever whiskey you choose and however you drink it, rejoice in the fact that you've made a good drinking decision. "It's a superior liquor," Goumas says. "If I gave you a blindfold and put American bourbon up against Irish whiskey, you'll drink the Irish stuff and never go back."