Long Holiday Season For Whiskies

The portal is about to open on a season dear to the Gaelic and Celtic folk of Ireland and Scotland and, indeed, their millions of descendants all over the U.S.

March 20-21 brings in Alban Eiler, known elsewhere as the spring solstice or vernal equinox. Weather be damned, it means spring has arrived and will last until June 21-22, the longest day of the year, when we will encounter Alban Heruin, or the summer solstice.

In between, we have such frolics as St. Patrick's Day on March 17 and Tartan Day on April 2. My sense of history sometimes can be a bit addled, but I think I know this one.

St. Patrick's Day celebrates the patron saint of Ireland driving the snakes into the sea where they became sharks, politicians and TV reality show producers.

Tartan Day celebrates that moment in 1320 when King Robert the Bruce and his Scottish parliament sent off a letter called the Declaration of Arbroath to the Pope in Rome asking him to get the English off their backs. It worked so well that England rules Scotland to this day.

Both historic events, as well as the arrival of Easter, spring and a bunch of other traditional religious and secular days, will in this span be marked in many communities with once-a-year church attendance, parades, festivals, dances, silly hats and drink specials at your favorite pub -- featuring Scotch and Irish whiskies, in particular.

The line between Scotch and Irish distillations is blurry for some (although they, along with Canadians, spell whiskey without the "e.'') The difference comes primarily in the malting stage.

For Scotch whisky, malted barley is dried over peat (turf) fires, which allows the smoke to penetrate the grain and create its signature smokey flavor. For Irish whisky, malted barley is dried in closed ovens and never comes in contact with smoke.

In addition, Scotch whiskies usually are distilled twice, Irish whiskies three or four times, thus increasing their purity and smoothness. In some instances, further aging in used bourbon or sherry casks or a bit of blending creates a crossover

taste between the two categories. As is the case with most such things, there is no right or wrong, best or worst. There is only personal preference.

Bushmills, for example, is an Irish whisky preferred by many. It is turned out in the town of the same name by the world's oldest whisky distillery, located in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. Sir Thomas Phillips founded it in 1608 under license from James I of England. His business descendants obviously are doing something right.

Their products (10-, 16- and 21- year-old single malts; Black Bush, aged 8 to 10 years then blended with a small portion of a delicate sweet single grain whiskey; Bushmills Cream, a sweet Irish cream liqueur concoction, and Bushmills Original, aged five years) all are smoothed out by aging in used bourbon or sherry casks, a touch also employed by some other Irish and Scotch distillers.

In a recent tasting, Black Bush ($34.99 retail for a 750 milliliter bottle) -- so called because of its black label -- stood out for me with its clear honey coloring and rich, seductive depth reflective of the sherry casks in which it's aged and the small portion of a delicate sweet single grain whiskey added to it.

Among other popular Irish brands are Jamesons, Powers, Clontarf, Kilbeggan and Tullamore Dew. Virtually all offer a range of ages and strengths.

On the Scotch side of the equation, we run into a situation something akin to the vodka market: so many labels you need a directory to keep track.

Scotch export sales keep rising each year, with the U.S. still the leading consumer but places like China, India and the emerging economies of former Soviet Bloc nations in Eastern Europe increasing demand.

Atop the heap is Glenfiddich, the top-selling Scotch whisky in the world. The company made a particular splash last spring when it re?leased its 1972 Vintage Reserve, a mere 519 bottles extracted from just two numbered casks that had been aging nearly 30 years. Such events are treated with great reverence and jubiliation in the whisky world.

The No. 2 distiller, The Glenlivet, is just now shipping limited amounts of its 15-Year-Old French Oak Reserve ($49.95) to retailers in time for Tartan Day. It's a much-anticipated Scotch originally limited to sales only in select major markets, but I was able to acquire a bottle for a tasting.

This is a distinctly non-peaty Scotch, instead offering a sherrylike nose from being aged in Limousin oak casks usually reserved for wine. That smooths the bite, adds a hint of spice, and provides a long, creamy aftertaste. Several of our tasters who are not Scotch regulars were enhusiastic about this offering.

Happy holidays.

To Dowd's Spirits Notebook latest entry.
To Dowd's Wine Notebook latest entry.
To Dowd's Brews Notebook latest entry.
Back to Dowd's Bar Blog home page.

No comments: