Irish whiskeys are fruitier and lighter in body, but still flavourful

With more than a dozen distilleries making whiskey in Ireland, sales have soared over the last 15 years, and so has the level of quality for this distinctive spirit. PHOTO: NYTIMES
With more than a dozen distilleries making whiskey in Ireland, sales have soared over the last 15 years, and so has the level of quality for this distinctive spirit. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK - (NYTIMES) It's that time of year again, when St. Patrick's Day approaches and the thoughts of beverage writers across the land turn to Irish whiskey. But for American spirits drinkers, Irish whiskey is clearly no longer a once-a-year fling.

Irish whiskey has been the fastest-growing spirit in the country, with sales soaring during the last 15 years. Consider that in 2002, just 434,000 cases were sold in the United States, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, a trade group.

By 2016, that number had reached more than 3.8 million cases, growing by almost 19 per cent in that year alone, an astounding growth rate that was nearly three times that of the next highest category, American whiskey, at 6.8 per cent, according to the council.

I have to admit that The New York Times spirits panel may not have been paying close enough attention to this surge. It's been more than 10 years since we last tasted Irish whiskeys, and though many of the whiskeys available now are familiar names, the selection has expanded greatly.

Thus it was that the spirits panel assembled recently to sample 20 whiskeys from Ireland. I was joined by two drinks writers, David Wondrich and Robert Simonson. Florence Fabricant was traveling and could not be with us.

  • Recipe Pairing: Oyster and Blue Cheese Pie

  • An Irish drink calls out for oysters. Stout, especially Guinness, is a classic with the mollusks. Irish whiskey, with its occasional hints of fruit and brine, is another excellent choice. Shuck the oysters, serve them cold and shimmering, pour a few drams, and you're home free.

    I wanted something more elaborate for an appetiser to pair with the whiskey: an oyster pie layered with blue cheese. Fredrik Berselius, the chef and owner of the Nordic restaurant Aska in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, has an unusual oyster preparation.

    He serves them shucked, in a broth tarted up with pickled gooseberries and a creamy sauce. He barely cooks the oysters, for just four or five minutes, at 60 degrees Celsius. It is enough time, he said, to avoid any potential problems with raw oysters, something that may concern a chef.

    It's a genius method because oysters done this way are a snap to open and do not taste cooked. Oysters prepared this way are suitable for any recipe not calling for strictly raw bivalves, like this pie. All you need is a candy thermometer to monitor the temperature.

    - FLORENCE FABRICANT

  • INGREDIENTS

    1 cup all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling

    Salt

    8 Tbsps unsalted butter

    1 large egg, separated

    1/2 cup finely chopped leeks

    1/2 cup finely chopped fennel bulb

    1/2 cup finely chopped, peeled green apple

    1/2 tsp ground black pepper

    12 oysters, preferably Fishers Island or Beausoleil (East Coast), or Hood Canal (West), scrubbed

    140g blue cheese, preferably Cashel Blue

    1 Tbsp minced fennel fronds

  • METHOD

    1. Make the pastry dough: Heat oven to 205 degrees Celsius. Whisk flour with 1/2 teaspoon salt. Using fingers, pastry cutter or food processor, add 6 tablespoons butter in bits and combine until the mixture's crumbs are the size of peas. Beat egg yolk with 3 tablespoons cold water, add to flour mixture and toss with a fork or pulse by machine until the mixture starts to come together to form a dough. You may need to add another tablespoon or so of water.

    2. Gather dough on a floured surface, form in a disk and roll in a 30cm circle. Fit into an 20cm pie pan. Crimp edge. Line with foil, add pastry weights and bake 15 minutes. Remove foil and weights and bake until golden, another 10 minutes or so. Remove from oven.

    3. Make the filling: While pie shell bakes, melt 1 tablespoon butter in a 25 to 30cm skillet, add leeks, fennel and apple, and sauté on low until tender and translucent. Season with a pinch of salt and pepper and remove from heat.

    4. Place oysters in a saucepan with just enough water to cover. Heat pan on medium high until water reaches 60 degrees, measuring with a candy thermometer. Shut off heat and let sit on burner for 5 minutes. Remove oysters from water and allow to cool briefly. Holding oysters flat side up, use an oyster or clam knife to open shells (they will have gaped enough to make this easy) and remove oysters, doing so over a bowl to catch the juices.

    5. In a separate bowl, mash cheese, adding 3 tablespoons reserved oyster juice. Beat egg white until softly peaked and fold into cheese.

    6. Spread leek mixture in pie shell. Spread cheese mixture on top. Place in oven and bake 20 minutes.

    7. Melt remaining tablespoon of butter and allow to turn nut-brown. Mix with oysters. Remove pie from oven and arrange buttered oysters on top. Bake 2 minutes more. Strew with fennel fronds. Let pie set about 10 minutes, then cut in portions and serve.

What makes whiskey Irish? Simply that it must be distilled on the island of Ireland, including Northern Ireland. Otherwise, it can be a lot of things.

Some Irish whiskeys are a blend of grains, and some are entirely barley. Some are a blend of malted and unmalted grains, but more and more are single malts, made only from malted barley.

Some are the products of a single pot still, the ancient, distinctively rounded vessel for distillation that produces the most flavourful whiskeys. Others are made in the more efficient column still, and some are blends of both. Some whiskeys are triple distilled, but not all.

Despite the surge, Irish whiskey is far from the top-selling spirit. The 3.82 million cases sold in 2016 were well below the 21.75 million cases of American whiskey sold, to say nothing of the 17.14 million cases of Canadian or the 7.41 million cases of blended Scotch, according to the council. Surprisingly, last year, Irish whiskey outsold single-malt Scotch, which was at 2.14 million cases.

No matter how robust whiskey sales may seem, they are dwarfed by those for vodka, America's most popular spirit: close to 70 million cases in 2016, more than all categories of whiskey combined.

Judging by Irish whiskey's inroads in the United States, it may not be surprising that the whiskey business has changed enormously inside Ireland since our last tasting in 2006. Back then, only three distilleries were operating on the island, which accounted for all of the available brands. Now, more than a dozen distilleries are making whiskey, and that number is rapidly growing with at least 12 more in the planning stages.

As it is, most of these newer distilleries are so young that they haven't issued any whiskey commercially yet. So a good deal of further growth is coming.

David and Robert both agreed that the revival of the pot still, which in the mid-20th century had largely given way to the column still (used mostly for clear spirits like vodka), had played an important role in elevating Irish whiskey. Where once purists had to search long and hard for a traditional single pot still Irish whiskey, now examples abound, including at least three among our top 10.

To complicate matters further, single malts are also pot still whiskeys. But the term "single pot still" refers to whiskeys that are a blend of malted and unmalted grain, hence not single malts.

Not to worry. The pleasure is in the drinking, not the recitation of facts. And for drinking, our tasting showed many excellent, distinctive whiskeys, ranging from young and fresh to deep and complex, with most showing a sense of purity and freshness.

"The best ones had a subtlety that is rare in Scotch whisky and almost nonexistent in American," David said. In nearly all the bottles, he said, he found depth, elegance and clarity.

Robert agreed. "Even with all the expansion, it's all identifiable as Irish whiskey, fruity and lighter in body," he said.

The 20 bottles in our blind tasting ranged in price from US$23 (S$32.27) to US$95 (we limit ourselves to bottles under US$100), and we apparently preferred the more expensive bottles, which tended to have more age. Even so, we found worthy entry-level whiskeys, like Kilbeggan for US$30 and Clontarf for US$23. They are young, but don't ignore these good values even if they couldn't crack our top 10.

Our favourite was a new brand, Barr an Uisce (pronounced bahr-an-ISH-kah). The single malt 1803, aged 10 years, was wonderfully complex and smooth, with flavours of fruits, caramels, spices and oak. It first showed up in the United States last year and, like many new Irish whiskeys, is currently made under contract with an existing distillery, West Cork, until its distillery is built.

Next were a couple of old favourites, the Knappogue Castle single malt 12 years old, classic and complex with flavours of butterscotch and heather, and the 12-year-old single pot still Redbreast, a once rare but now widely available whiskey that was pure, smooth, fresh and delightful. At US$57, the Redbreast was our best value, although it's still pretty expensive.

The last in the top echelon was the Irishman Single Malt, a minimally aged whiskey that nonetheless was lovely in its floral, mossy freshness.

At No. 5 was a rich, round and complex 10-year single malt from Lord Lieutenant Kinahan's. The No. 6 was the 12-year Yellow Spot, a single pot still whiskey that was our most expensive bottle at US$95 but showed layers of flavours. Its sibling, the No. 8 Green Spot, is a slightly younger single pot still whiskey, and the difference was apparent. Where the Yellow Spot showed flavours of fruits, nuts and caramel, the Green Spot was grassy and fresh.

In between the two Spots was the distinctive Connemara peated single malt, the rare Irish whiskey in which the grain is dried over a peat fire as is traditional with so many single malt Scotches, giving it an almost Islay-like smokiness, although its gently floral undertones identify it as an Irish whiskey.

Don't disregard the last two on our list, the subtle Bushmills, a 10-year-old single malt, and the fresh and floral Donegal, just $34 for this minimally aged whiskey.

The level of quality in all of these bottles was thrilling, and with new distilleries and new whiskeys on the horizon, it is hard not to be excited about what comes next. Irish whiskey may be about to have its annual moment in the spotlight, but that moment could last a good long time.

Tasting Notes

Barr an Uisce Irish Whiskey Single Malt 1803 10 Years Old 92 Proof, US$85 , 3 1/2 stars

Gorgeous, complex and smooth, with creamy flavours of fruit, caramel, spices and oak.

Knappogue Castle Irish Whiskey Single Malt 12 Years Old 80 Proof, US$58, 31/2 stars

Classic and complex, with rich flavors of butterscotch, heather and apricot.

Best Value

Redbreast Irish Whiskey Single Pot Still 12 Years Old 80 Proof, US$57, 31/2 stars

Pure, smooth, rich and fresh, with flowery aromas and flavours of caramel, grain and moss.

The Irishman Irish Whiskey Single Malt 80 Proof, US$53, 3 1/2 stars

Lovely and light, with floral, grassy aromas and a fresh note of moss.

Lord Lieutenant Kinahan's Irish Whiskey Single Malt 10 Years Old 92 Proof, US$59, 3 stars

Rich and round, with complex flavours of fruit, caramel and grain.

Yellow Spot Irish Whiskey Single Pot Still 12 Years Old 92 Proof, US$95, 3 stars

Nutty and toasty, with complex, lingering flavours of fruits, caramel and chocolate.

Connemara Irish Whiskey Peated Single Malt 80 Proof, US$45, 2 1/2 stars

Smoky and grainy, with underlying aromas and flavours of flowers and honey.

Green Spot Irish Whiskey Single Pot Still 80 Proof, US$60, 2 1/2 stars

Sweet and grassy, with the fresh scents of meadows and moss.

Bushmills Irish Whiskey Single Malt 10 Years Old 80 Proof, US$53, 2 1/2 stars

Oaky yet fresh, with subtle flavours that gather dimension in the mouth.

Donegal Irish Whiskey 80 Proof, US$34, 21/2 stars

Light, fresh, floral and fruity.

What the Stars Mean: Ratings, up to four stars, reflect the panel's reaction to the spirits, which were tasted with names concealed. The whiskeys represent a selection generally available in good retail shops and restaurants and on the internet. Prices are those paid in the New York region.

Tasting coordinator: Bernard Kirsch