A good dram of whiskey, like a good glass of wine, pint of beer, cup of coffee, or square of chocolate, is a sensuously intoxicating experience. However, just like all of the other gustatory experiences listed above, whiskey can run the gamut from wondrous to rot gut. Deciphering the difference between the two is not only a matter of taste; it’s also a matter of tasting.
As St. Patrick’s Day approaches, it seems a good time to do just such a tasting in honor of a particular type of whiskey—Irish.
What is Irish Whiskey?
Whiskey is a broad term used for various types of spirits. The first time I truly understood just how varied the genre can be was a few years ago, at the annual Whiskies of the World Exposition  in San Francisco. In addition to putting some serious hair on my chest, the expo helped educate my palette on the distinguishing influences of various ingredients, processes, and crafts—all elements that matter in the creation of very different products.
The country of origin is just one of several reasons why Irish whiskey differs from Scotch and bourbon. Irish whiskey is triple-distilled (Scotch is double-distilled) and must be aged in oak or wooden casks for at least three years; some higher quality whiskies are aged up to twelve years or more. The wood imparts distinctive color and flavors, ranging from vanilla to leathery tannins. While Scotch is often distilled from peated barley, Irish whiskeys typically use unpeated barley, which can be malted or unmalted. Bourbon, on the other hand, is usually made from corn or rye.
There are three main types of Irish whiskey:
1. Single Malt
When people think of single malt, they often think of Scotch whiskey, but single malt simply refers to the type of grain used. Single malt whiskies are distilled solely from malted barely. Malting allows the barley to germinate and increases the sugar content in the grain. Single malts have a soft mouth feel, a light character, and a sweet finish, making them some of most desirable Irish whiskies on the market.
For some specific recommendations on whiskey tasting, I tracked down Riannon Walsh, whiskey expert, President of Cloonaughill Celtic Malts and Distillers, and founder of the Whiskies of the World Exposition. Riannon suggests adding a couple drops (five to ten percent of the total volume) of pure spring water to whiskeys, especially the ones with high alcohol by volume. The water softens the alcohol and changes the mouth feel. While she is an advocate of drinking whiskey the way you like it best, she prefers hers at room temperature, which maximizes the aromas.
Her single malt recommendation:
- Knappogue Castle Single Malt 1995 (around $35)
A velvety, smooth single malt.
- Connemara Peated Single Malt Cask Strength (around $60)
This is the only peated single malt Irish whiskey on the market. The peat imparts a smokey flavor, but it isn’t too heavy. Cask strength means it is not watered down before bottling, so definitely add water to this one to open up the flavor.
2. Pot Still
Pot still is the traditional method of distilling Irish whiskey. It is a hands-on method that usually uses a blend of malted and unmalted barleys. The final taste is less malty, less round, and has less of a velvety feel than the single malts, but has a fiery, spicy flavor that is characteristic of an Irish whiskey. Riannon recommends:
- Redbreast Pure Pot Still Irish Whiskey (around $55)
Aged for over twelve years in oak casks. Slightly sweet aromas, with a bold flavor.
Blended Irish whiskey usually mixes unmalted barley with other grains. Their quality ranges from good to something you’d use as paint stripper. Riannon recommends:
- Jameson’s Gold (around $50)
Though standard Jameson’s blend is a good everyday choice, the Gold has a much smoother, richer flavor that is well worth the extra cash.
- Midleton Very Rare Blended 2004 (around $125)
The recipe changes with the vintage, so it might be fun to do a vertical tasting of various years. Then again, at $125 a bottle, it might be nice to stick to just one.
- A good lower budget blend:
Bushmills Black Bush Blended (around $30)
Smokey aromas with a smooth, soft mouth and nice finish.
Serious tasters might want to consider getting a special glass, one that helps maximize the flavors of each whiskey. Riannon (who has developed her own glass  available for purchase) suggests looking for one with a stable foot; a good-sized bulb that makes swirling the whiskey (oxygenating it properly) before drinking easier; a narrow neck for concentrating the flavors; and a tulip lip that directs the whiskey across the sweet receptors on the tongue.
It’s also important to remember that tasting should include plenty of water and food, so that participants aren’t breathing barley at the end of the evening.
Photo courtesy of Midleton Distillery