Saint Patrick’s Day makes March the most appropriate month in which to cast an evaluating eye on the whiskeys of Ireland. Though whiskey is believed by most historians to have originated on the Emerald Isle circa 1000 A.D., Irish whiskey (whiskey with an "e" when speaking of the Irish drop) has erroneously been viewed over the past few decades as the rustic distant cousin of Scotch whisky (no "e"). However, the dissing of Irish whiskey hasn’t always been de rigeur. England’s King Henry II and his army were enchanted with Irish whiskey in the 12th century, and Peter the Great, the 18th century czar of Russia, reportedly said, "Of all the wines, the Irish spirit is the best."
By the early 20th century, Irish whiskey enjoyed unprecedented popularity in the United Kingdom, continental Europe and the United States. Then, with blood-curdling speed, the floor dropped out. Hurt by the double whammy of a deluge of blended Scotches and the mothballing of the American market due to Prohibition, Irish whiskey tumbled out of the consciousness of all but its most fervent admirers. Scotch became the talk of the town after Prohibition was repealed and even more so after World War II.
That situation is now changing on a small but noticeable scale in the U.S. Recent introductions of nearly one dozen Irish single malts and blends are a first attempt at answering the continuing onslaught from Scotland. Presently, Ireland’s premier whiskeymakers number three, including the Old Bushmills Distillery, nestled in the tranquil hamlet of Bushmills in County Antrim, the Cooley Distillery located in Dundalk in County Louth, and the Midleton Distillery in County Cork.
Each distillery produces multiple blends, and Cooley and Midleton create whiskeys under several labels. Cooley produces Connemarra, Kilbeggan, Tyrconnell, Inishowen, Brennan’s and Locke’s; Midleton is the source of Jameson, Paddy, Crested 10, Powers, Redbreast, Old Midleton, Green Spot and Tullamore Dew.
Irish whiskies differ from Scotch in both distillation and grain preparation. While the vast majority of Scotland’s malt whiskies are distilled twice and all employ 100-percent malted barley, Irish malts are distilled three times and combine both malted and unmalted barley. Triple distillation makes for extra smoothness, aromatic freshness, and easy enjoyment, the traditional thumbprints of most Irish whiskeys. They also possess significant complexity and depth.
And now, a toast…
Health and long life to you, land without rent to you, a child every year to you, and may you die in Ireland. (Unless you’re English, of course.)
—F. Paul Pacult
CLASSIC (96-100)/Highest Recommendation
Midleton 1998 Very Rare Blended Whiskey (Austin, Nichols & Co., New York, NY) 40% abv $100. Honey/amber/harvest gold color. The luscious aroma is apple-like and bountiful right from the pour; the second pass reveals a decadent maltiness that’s multilayered; still later, the bouquet expands into a two-track whiskey experience that’s sweet/malty/toasty on the surface and rich/fruity/ripe underneath. The palate entry shows a fleeting glimpse of orange zest, then turns into sweet malt and toffee at the midpalate stage. Profoundly concentrated and complex. The finish is long, sweet, malty, and a touch spicy. Compares favorably with the glorious 1995.
SUPERB (90-95)/Highly Recommended
Black Bush Blended Irish Whiskey (Brown-Forman. Louisville, KY) 43% abv $35. Highly malted/mashiness/graininess, mildly sweet, sherry foundation in ever-changing nose; the luscious, medium-weighted texture supports the flavors of mature oloroso Sherry and pine nuts; Black Bush offers uncommon approachability due no doubt to triple distillation; the soft, medium length finish is touched with ripe apples; takes its place among the world’s better blended whiskies.
Connemara Peated Single Malt Irish Whiskey (Preiss Imports, Ramona, CA) 40% abv $40. Golden amber hue. The opening whiff unveils a definite fireplace aroma of burnt embers as the peat component reveals itself immediately then the peatiness gives way to the piquancy of the alcohol; after seven minutes of aeration the alcohol pungency blows off, leaving behind roasted aromas of lichee nuts, dried fruit (white raisins especially), and damp hay. The courteously smoky palate entry reminds me remotely of the softer Islay malts, in particular, Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain; the midpalate stage is firm, medium-full, nutty, nougaty, honey sweet, and mildly smoky. The aftertaste is long, a touch briny, and semisweet.
VERY GOOD (85-89)/Recommended
Brennans’s Authentic Blended Irish Whiskey (Shaw Ross, Miami, FL) 40% abv $18. The attractive harvest gold/amber color reminds me of fino Sherry. The nose at opening is pleasantly forthcoming and biscuity, showing very soft notes of wood and malt; the middle stage nosings reveal a snappy, vibrant, and piquant but not prickly aromatic zest that closely resembles bramble and fresh ground black pepper. In the mouth, the taste opens up at palate entry with a bit of fire and considerable grainy sweetness; by the midpalate stage, the overriding tastes are of malt and wood, with a touch too much harshness at the back of the tongue. The aftertaste is lean, sweet, resiny, and long. But for the fleeting phase of raw, spirity harshness just prior to the finish, I’d have given it a higher rating. Best Buy.
Bushmills 10 Year Old Single Malt Irish Whiskey (Brown-Forman, Louisville, KY) 40% abv $48. Flaxen/gold color, with curious green/blue highlights in the core. The dry, delicate, almost beer-like nose is slightly smoky and offers underlying scents of barley malt and soft, old oak. On the palate, the richness is subtle and refined as flavors of apple, lemon, and barley come together nicely. The finish is semisweet and dark toffee-like. A supple, understated malt that requires some element of patience, but it’s well worth the wait.
Jameson Blended Irish Whiskey (Austin, Nichols & Co., New York, NY) 40% abv $24. Light to medium amber. The nose emits an unnerving bit of nail polish remover in the first nosing pass to the point where I changed glasses, pouring anew; with aeration, the ethyl acetate quality blew off, leaving behind a crisp, tart, baked red apple aroma that was shadowed by a vegetal quality. In the mouth, Jameson shows its best face as clean, tart, edged flavors of oak, vanilla extract, red apple, and grain combine for a very pleasant, straightforward taste experience. The aftertaste is semisweet, medium-long and almost caramel-like. The taste and the finish were sound enough to pull it through to recommended territory.
Old Bushmills White Label Blended Irish Whiskey (Brown-Forman, Louisville, KY) 40% abv $30. Pretty light amber tone, golden core highlights, superb purity; the fragrant nose is keenly malty and mashy, with backnotes of flowers and wet earth; in the mouth, it’s nicely balanced, a bit tart, and generous as well-defined flavors of yeast, dough, toasted barley, and lanolin keep the taste buds happy; the finish is medium-long and very smooth; an unassuming, polite dram.
Tullamore Dew Blended Irish Whiskey (Imported by Allied Domecq, Westport, CT) 40% abv $21. Yellow/honey/medium amber hue. The nose approaches being ambrosial, so intensely fruity is it; alluring estery, ripe and sweet scents of tropical fruits, most predominantly tangerine backed up by guava, orange rind, and kiwi, make for an unusual but totally captivating whiskey perfume. The sweet palate entry gives way to a midpalate off-dry firmness which spotlights caramel, toffee, woody flavors; succulent and feather-light on the tongue, but strangely the concentrated fruitiness isn’t evident in the taste. The finish is clean, medium-long, sweet and squarely focused on the caramel/toffee component. An easy, uncomplicated, and undemanding Irish dram.
Tyrconnell Single Malt Irish Whiskey (Heaven Hill Distilleries, Bardstown, KY) 40% abv $24. Attractive medium amber tone. This nose has a trace of the Kilbeggan damp fabric in it at first, then that quickly blows off and develops into a soft, citrusy, mildly grainy, delicately floral fragrance that’s almost fragile in its bearing. In the mouth, it’s medium-bodied, almost plump in texture and shows off lovely, well-behaved flavors of sweet, toasty malt. An approachable, smooth tasting whiskey that finishes in a gentlemanly way with only the slightest hint of burn. A good combination of drinkability, manageable complexity, and affordability.
Kilbeggan Blended Irish Whiskey (Heaven Hill Distilleries, Bardstown, KY) 40% abv $14. Soft golden tone. The peculiar nose reminds me of damp fabric, especially cotton; I detect the scent of mild spiciness which emerges with aeration finally overwhelming the wet cotton/damp fur smell—I wasn’t ga-ga over this bouquet. It’s on the palate that this nimble whiskey shines as pleasant, sweetish tastes of corn, honey wheat, and light toffee make themselves known in a harmonious manner. Medium-long, sweet aftertaste.
BLENDED SCOTCH WHISKIES
CLASSIC (96-100)/Highest Recommendation
Chivas Bros. Royal Salute 21 Year Old Blended Scotch Whisky (Joseph E. Seagram, New York, NY) 40% abv $175. Medium amber color. Backward during the first nosing, the aromas opened up incrementally over the next three passes into a fetching, mature breath of Speyside—that magically refined, floral, beautifully structured, finesse-filled bouquet of the world’s greatest whisky district. Decadent, satiny on the tongue, with splendidly balanced flavors of dried fruit, lightly peated malt, old oak, and dry cereal at entry, then at midpalate a succulent, candied sweetness and embers-like warmth mesmerize and bedazzle the tastebuds. The aftertaste is luxurious, sweet, and wonderfully refined. An ideal marriage of maturity, elegance and quiet power.
SUPERB (90-95)/Highly Recommended
Chivas Regal 12 Year Old Blended Scotch Whisky (Joseph E. Seagram, New York, NY) 43% abv $30. Gold/amber color. The enchantingly sweet and delicate nose is soft and refined, emitting mature, bountiful aromas of pears, apricots and heather. The palate entry is smoky, then the roasted, peaty, qualities accelerate in the throat where they seem to cascade in a complex, vanilla, butterscotch aftertaste that lingers. The intricate flavors are beautifully melded and somehow keep evolving at the rear of the tongue. Chivas’s top-notch character is at once powerful and understated.
Duggan’s 12 Year Old Blended Scotch Whisky (Duggan’s Distillers, West Nyack, NY) 40% abv $19. Light to medium amber color with gold/orange highlights. The nose is inviting and shows a bit of a nip; the focus is all grain, as sweet dry-cereal aromas capture your attention. There’s a smoky, intensely tart, grain-like thrust that builds at midpalate, then turns sweetish, plump, and well-mannered in the aftertaste. An intriguing, complex, multifaceted blend that hasn’t lost a step of vivacity in its dozen years of aging. Best Buy.
Pinch The Dimple 15 Year Old Blended Scotch Whisky (Schieffelin & Somerset, New York, NY) 43% abv $28. Amber/orange color. The assertive, aldehydic, dry nose offers hints of hay, cooked rice, corn husk, iodine and toasted cereal. Once on the palate, voluptuous tastes of smoke, iodine, and soft peat come together in a graceful, well-coordinated dance of flavor. It ends rather smokily with a sweet, toffee tail. No question but that the 15 years of aging really makes the difference in this medium- to full-bodied Scotch, as the various components complement each other beautifully. A prime example of the glories of blending.
Teacher’s Highland Cream Blended Scotch Whisky (Allied Domecq Spirits USA, Westport, CT) 43% abv $20. Amber/harvest-gold hue. The nose opens up after a couple of minutes of air contact with subtle notes of bittersweet chocolate, dark toffee and bacon fat; further aeration adds nuances of heather and marzipan—a compellingly harmonious bouquet. The palate entry is marked by sweet Sherry-like tastes; the midpalate offers chewy flavors of malt, light peat, light oak, pepper, and toffee. The aftertaste is medium long, creamy, and may be likened to oloroso Sherry. One of the best values in all of whisky. Best Buy.
Usquaebach Original Blended-Stonecrock Flagon (Twelve Stone Flagons, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) 43% abv $110. Golden honey color. The finely scented, nose evokes juniper berries, light peat, a hint of Sherry, and spirit-marinated fruit; not aggressive in the least. Upon entry, there’s no mistaking the richness of the oaky/peaty flavor as it rolls over the tongue, but it’s at the midpalate stage that this sensational whisky takes flight with charcoaly, spicy, tobacco-like tastes that extend into the sublime aftertaste. The blend is 85% malt/l5% grain whisky and aged in Sherry oak.
White Horse Blended Scotch Whisky (Shaw Ross International Importers, Miami, FL) 40% abv $17. Warm honey/gold color. The sweet, fruity nose leans to smoky peat more so than any other major production blend. A meaty, fleshy, substantial whisky that’s semisweet on palate and ends with a ripe fruit, sweet oak, and mildly peaty aftertaste that leaves a comforting imprint of warmth. One of Scotch whisky’s greatest all-around values. Best Buy.
VERY GOOD (85-89)/Recommended
Duggan’s Dew Blended Scotch Whisky (Duggan’s Distillers, West Nyack, NY) 43.3% abv $12. Flat, amber/gold color. The nose is more a middleweight than a heavyweight and is exceedingly pleasant, echoing more of a grassy, clean Lowland malt style than Speyside, Highland, or island. In the mouth, the taste sweet and offers subdued, but complementary background flavors of chocolate, honey, and sweet oak. The finish is clean, gently sweet, and surprisingly long. Best Buy.
Johnnie Walker Black Label 12 Year Old Blended Scotch Whisky (Schieffelin & Somerset, New York, NY) 40% abv $30. Deep amber color with copper highlights. The salty, pungent Talisker imprint comes out in the nose and carries with it the unflappable confidence of age. The medium-bodied, slightly salty flavor has loads of refinement, much more than the Red Label. On the palate, it begins dry and peaty but ends semisweet in a long, ripe-apple, grapy and malty aftertaste.
William Grant’S Family Reserve Blended Scotch Whisky (William Grant & Sons, New York, NY) 43% abv $17. Amber color. The nose is of a Speyside bent, in that it’s plump, oily and semisweet with layers of rubber, biscuit batter and honeyed oatmeal. Unmistakable familial influence of Glenfiddich and Balvenie single malts in the comely, nectar-like flavor; tastes of almonds, toffee, chocolate, and vanilla extract abound from palate entry through to the lovely, candied aftertaste. Offers truckloads of flavor and true complexity.
Famous Grouse Blended Scotch Whisky (Remy Amerique, New York, NY) 40% abv $20. Amber/tawny color. Irresistibly friendly, round nose of barely discernable peat, ripe fruit in a clearly evident majority of grain whisky. On the palate, it’s amiable, simple, smooth, fruity and uncomplicated. Long, sweet, caramel finish. A Saturday afternoon blend.
Scoresby Rare Blended Scotch Whisky (Heublein, Stamford, CT) 40% abv $12. Tawny/honey color; the softly fragrant nose offers aromas of sweet corn and cream; the pleasantly candied, piquant, peaty, tea-like flavors are nicely balanced and married; medium-weight, silky texture; medium-fast finish of malt and ripe fruit.