By Richard Thomas
St. Patrick’s Day is the day after tomorrow, and from then clear through the weekend people will be donning green attire, slurping green beer and chasing leprechauns. I humbly suggest one change in these annual festivities: ditch the green beer and have a dram or two of a fine Irish single malt instead.
That statement will cause some to scratch their heads, because “single malt” is a term most often associated with Scotch whisky. Yet the Irish and Scotch whiskey industries have much in common. The Irish have been making malt whiskeys for centuries, and for much the same reasons as the Scottish. The principal differences between the two national whiskey industries are that the Irish: 1) often, but not always, triple distill instead of double distill their whiskey; 2) Ireland’s climate is milder, making a difference in maturation; 3) Ireland’s whiskey industry at one time contracted down to just two distilleries, whereas Scotland was always able to maintain a diverse portfolio of several dozen.
With that in mind, here are some Irish single malts you should keep an eye out for in the bars or as you do the liquor shopping for your party:
Bushmills 21 Year Old ($125): This particular Bushmills is a vatting of Bourbon barrel- and Sherry cask-aged malts, which then spend two years together finishing in Madiera casks. So, on top of being old to begin with, this whiskey got a very long period of secondary maturation. Yet what makes it most special of all is the price tag, because there are very few 20+ year old Irish whiskeys out there going for just $125!
The Dubliner 10 Year Old ($50): The ongoing boom in Irish whiskey has resulted in a bunch of sourced and bottled 10 Year Old Irish single malts hitting the market, and the (half-kept) secret about all these new releases is they come from the same supplier, and are in many instances virtually the same product. It’s like the brands based on MGP’s stock 95% rye: often the only real variation between brands is what proof it was bottled at and what the price tag says.
Keeping that in mind, as an informed consumer you want to find the most reasonably priced version, and that is The Dubliner 10 Year Old. There are sourced Irish single malts out there that are basically just like this one, but going for $10-20 more. So, if a fairly priced and middle of the road Irish single malt bearing an age statement is what you want, go straight to this item.
Teeling Single Malt ($60): Although Teeling Whiskey Company are the people who brought whiskey-making back to Dublin after a decades-long absence, they started out as a bottler, and founder Jack Teeling knew where to go looking to stockpile plenty of good whiskey. The Teeling Single Malt is a showcase of that stockpile. It draws on whiskey aged in five different types of casks: Port pipes, Sherry butts, Maderia casks and wine barrels used for Cabernet Sauvignon and White Burgundy. Noticeably absent from that mixture are the ex-Bourbon barrels that are the bedrock wood stock for whiskey-aging in Ireland. So, this is a five wood single malt, and a unique, strongly fruity and wine-oriented five wood at that.
Tullamore Dew 18 Year Old ($115): * For years, my favorite Irish single malt was Tullamore’s 10 Year Old Four Wood, so I was understandably dismayed when I learned that it would be gradually discontinued in favor of two new expressions. Although those expressions were older, the 14 and 18 Year Olds, there was one other key difference between the old and the new: the old Four Wood was drawn from stock aged in four different barrels (similar to the Teeling Single Malt listed above), whereas the new pair of Four Woods are finished in the same four different barrel types. Even so, the ex-Bourbon, Sherry, Port and Maderia wood still makes itself known, and the Tullamore Dew 18 Year Old Single Malt in particular shows a well-rounded, superbly balanced character. It’s worth every penny of the asking price, so if you can find it, buy it and be glad to have it.
West Cork 12 Year Old Sherry Cask ($66): West Cork was at the forefront of Ireland’s new distillery building boom, but following a model similar to that of their American counterparts, they are relying on sourced whiskey to plump up their profile with aged expressions. In time for St. Patrick’s Day, they released a trio of 12 Year Old single malts, each finished in a different type of wood: Sherry, Port and Rum. Of the three, it’s the Sherry cask finish that will be the most familiar and have the most fans.
* The Whiskey Reviewer will have a review of the Tullamore Dew 18 Year Old as the Whiskey Wednesday feature on St. Patrick’s Day.