At the end of the 19th century, Irish whiskey was the gold standard around the world, but World War I changed that as shipping across the war-torn seas became a fool’s errand, both dangerous and expensive.
At the time, the influx of Irish immigrants into the United States had helped make North America the No. 1 export market for Irish whiskey. Indeed, a 1886 book, “The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom,” listed 28 distilleries in Ireland. Only two of those stand today.
After the war put the first nail in the Irish whiskey industry’s coffin, Prohibition hammered in the rest. Between 1915 and 1933, many Irish distilleries shut down.
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In the meantime, Scotland’s distilleries, financed in part by the English, ramped up. By the time American soldiers returned from England after World War II, Scotch had replaced Irish whiskey in American hearts, bars and liquor store shelves.
Today, it seems that all types of whiskey, from Scotch and Canadian (which both drop the “e” in whisky) to Irish and of course, American bourbon, have a wide fan base.
Irish whiskey is typically made from malted or unmalted barley, corn, rye, wheat or oats and then triple-distilled and aged for a minimum of four years in casks previously used to age stuff like sherry, rum or bourbon.
Scotch whisky is typically made from only malted barley, dried over peat fires to give it a smoky flavor. Canadian whisky is often a blend of rye, corn, wheat and barley that is wood-aged for three years, while bourbon is usually made from corn and aged in new oak for at least two years.
The oldest licensed whiskey distillery remains in Ireland: Bushmills of Ulster, opened in 1608. In the early days it wasn’t unusual for a bit of bread to be added to a glass of whiskey for flavoring, helping to take the edge off the less refined aspects of ancient brewing and distilling practices.
The bread eventually led to the ritual of verbal toasting before a drink, the etiquette of which traditionally involved raising your glass with the right hand, a symbol that you had come in friendship and were not concealing a sword. It was then equally important to maintain eye contact before taking a sip.
As steeped in history as the rite of toasting is the oft-whispered rumor that Bushmills is the preferred whiskey of Protestants, and Jamesons the brand favored by Catholics.
Portland, Oregon-based bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler puts those rumors to rest.
“The widely accepted Irish-American version is that Jameson is Catholic whiskey and Bushmills is Protestant whiskey,” he says. “But that’s based merely on geography.”
Bushmills is made in Northern Ireland; Jameson is from Cork, a predominantly Catholic enclave.
“According to everyone I’ve spoken with on the subject, you only really find this debate in the States, where Irish-American support of the Republic can sometimes be blind and often fueled by the very product we’re speaking of,” Morgenthaler says.
I say don’t let religion or politics get in the way of a good drink. Regardless of your leanings, try Bushmills 16-year-old, which is matured in separate bourbon and sherry barrels for 16 years, then blended together into a port-infused cask for another six to nine months. It’s a whole lot of wow in one glass. Up another notch is the 21-Year-Old Bushmills Malt, a hedonistic swirl of pure honey.
Kilbeggan Irish Whiskey is reclaiming some history of its own by making its whiskey at the Cooley Distillery, named for one of the oldest continuously licensed distilleries in the world, rescued and restored in 2007 by the Teeling family. Kilbeggan makes an 18-year-old and a reserve malt whiskey, but its standard bottling is preferred for cocktails like the Irish Insider, below.
Kilbeggan Irish Insider
Created by Martin Meade, head bartender of the Clyde Court Hotel in Dublin.
1 cube brown sugar
2 dashes bitters
1 ounce Irish whiskey, such as Kilbeggan
1 lemon zest knot
Brut Champagne, chilled
1. Place the brown sugar cube into the bottom of a Champagne flute.
2. Add the bitters.
3. Add Irish whiskey.
4. Muddle to break down the sugar and combine the ingredients.
5. Drop the lemon zest knot into the glass.
6. Quarter-fill the glass with Champagne and stir the ingredients together to infuse the flavors.
7. Top with Champagne.
Top photo: Irish Insider whiskey cocktail. Credit: Kilbeggan Irish Whiskey