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Luck of the Irish | Irish whiskey

Irish whiskey has played second fiddle to scotch for too long. But that's all about to change.

Now that the Nineties are in their final weeks, I can't help feeling that I missed out on all the things that made the decade so enjoyable for everybody else. I did not make millions on an Internet start-up. I did not show a film at Sundance. I did not have a sexual relationship with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.

And I did not learn to like single-malt scotch. This last failure has been my greatest source of shame. I'd pretend to be excited whenever I was offered a sip of one of those expensive Scottish imports. But as I raised it to my nose and let it pass my lips, my face contorted--I could never stop it--into that of a small child tasting a grown-up drink like, well, single-malt scotch.

So the past 10 years have proved to be an ordeal. But the decade ahead promises to be much better, if only because I am right on top of the new wave of top-shelf spirits.

Irish whiskey shows every sign of becoming the drink of the next decade. Only two years ago, most American bars and liquor stores reliably carried two Irish whiskeys--Bushmills and Jameson--and no others. Today, as many as a dozen Irish whiskeys are exported to this country. The new arrivals have the clarity and smoothness that have always characterized Irish whiskey, but they also have a greater depth and complexity that are sure to appeal to whiskey connoisseurs. Best of all, I already like them.

The danger of being so far ahead of the pack, though, is that the pack doesn't always notice. That is why I recently took on the project of converting all the scotch drinkers I know to Irish whiskey, starting with my friend Adam. He is fiercely attached to one of the most extreme and forbidding single malts, Lagavulin. If he could be won over by the easy going charms of Irish, anybody could.

We began by tasting an Irish whiskey with an unusual touch of smokiness that might remind Adam of his favorite drink. Scotch smells and tastes like smoke because Scottish distillers roast their grain over smoldering bricks of peat before putting it in the still. The Irish almost never do this, even though Ireland may be even richer than Scotland in those delightful pools of decaying vegetable matter known as peat bogs. But one new Irish whiskey, Connemara, is lightly peated, and I thought it might just serve as a bridge.

"This tastes like scotch!" Adam said.

"I knew you'd like it," I said. "What's interesting about Connemara is that the peat doesn't smother the taste. It just adds one more flavor. That's why it still tastes like Irish whiskey."

"Well, actually, before you cut me off, I was going to say that it doesn't taste enough like scotch. The peatier single malts, like Lagavulin, try to overwhelm you. I really like that."

I had not taken into account the perverse personality of my friend Adam. He doesn't want a drink that nuzzles softly against his cheek. He likes a drink that brings tears to his eyes. His ideal whiskey would come from a still that was fired by lightning bolts. It would taste like a mouthful of charcoal and be produced in a limited edition consisting of a single bottle that could be obtained only by swimming across the Atlantic in mid-February.

If the smokiness of Connemara wasn't the answer, maybe the clarity of Knappogue Castle was. Knappogue, the winner of FOOD & WINE's 1999 Spirit of the Year Award, is a single malt--a single-malt Irish whiskey, which is actually not as strange as it sounds. Most Irish whiskeys are distilled from a mix of malted and unmalted barley, but a single-malt Irish (like a single-malt scotch) is made strictly from malted barley. It's not traditional, but it's not entirely unheard of either. And the rest of the process by which Knappogue is made is very traditional indeed.

"It's certainly smooth," Adam said suspiciously. People in Ireland, I told him, think that their whiskey is so mellow because it is distilled three times, once more than scotch. They also imply that the Irish climate, warmed by the Gulf Stream, has something to do with it.

"But one of the things I like about scotch is that it comes from a place that's cold, dark, wet and punishing," Adam said. "Somehow, knowing that it's made under such awful conditions makes me like it more."

If he didn't appreciate the delicacy of Knappogue Castle, which I found so appealing, perhaps he would enjoy the full-bodied flavor of The Tyrconnell. Like Connemara, The Tyrconnell is made by the upstart Cooley Distillery, which has offered some healthy competition to Ireland's distilling monopoly since it was founded 10 years ago. Cooley's products are patterned after old-fashioned whiskeys from the days before blending and mass production.

"I like this better than Knappogue," Adam said. "It doesn't have that lingering honey and melted-butter taste."

"You don't like honey and melted butter?" I asked.

"Not particularly."

Was there any hope at all for this man? He seemed to enjoy The Tyrconnell, with its rich citrus and roasted- pineapple flavors. Still, I could tell that it was not a knockout punch. My liquor cabinet is capacious, however, and it contained an Irish whiskey so stunning and powerful that there could be no arguing with it: Jameson Gold. True to its name, this Jameson is a gorgeous burnished-gold color with an even more gorgeous taste of oranges and berries wrapped in a beautiful creamy texture. It is deeply layered, but the layers are as clear as windowpanes. I looked at Adam with anticipation.

"I don't like this at all," he said.

That knockout punch was on its way, and it wasn't going to be delivered in liquid form either. Steadying myself, I argued that when a talented distiller makes a blend like Jameson Gold, he brings out the best traits of many individual batches of whiskey while ironing out their flaws. The result is a complex yet balanced drink.

"But I like the flaws," Adam said. "They give it personality."

I had one more bottle, though, something even I hadn't tasted. The people who make Knappogue Castle recently acquired a cache of whiskey that was produced in 1951 by a now-vanished distillery and was then aged in wood casks for 40 years. It is said to be one of the rarest whiskeys in the world.

Adam drank. He was silent for a long, long time. So was I. The 1951 Knappogue Castle drove every stray thought from my head. Its flavor, not overbearing, was nonetheless strong and steady, promising to go on for weeks. In its four decades on earth, it had grown into a whiskey of terrific complexity, one that demanded respect.

"Hmm," Adam said.

"Yes?" I responded.

"This is interesting...How much did you say it costs?"

"About $600 a bottle. When you can find it." I waited for this information to register. Adam stared into his glass with something close to awe. He seemed to be considering the investment, calculating the sacrifices it would require. He smiled.

It was, admittedly, an expensive victory, but I didn't mind. Adam had finally come around to Irish whiskey, which meant that the rest of the world could learn to like it too. All you need to do is acquire a taste for tastes that don't need to be acquired at all.

Published November 1999
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