Food and Drink: For peat's sake

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Indy Lifestyle Online
At a time when Islington Man determines what is socially acceptable, should we be drinking Scottish whisky or Irish whiskey? A trading standards case in the north London borough answered the question 90 years ago when it led to a Royal Commission which decided the Scots should be permitted to blend down their robust, batch-distilled malts with lighter whiskies made from other grains. Only after this did Scotch replace Irish as England's favourite whisky.

The Scots had until then been the more agricultural distillers, drying their grain over peat fires, while the Irish had been the more industrial whisky-makers, using indirect heat generated by coke. Despite further lightening over the years, even the most drammed- down Scotches have a touch of peaty smokiness, while the Irish like to sell theirs on its "smoothness".

This has always seemed odd to me. Ireland is covered in peat. For St Patrick's Day, on Wednesday, I would like a generous shot of the only truly peaty whiskey currently being made in the 32 counties. It is an Irish single malt called Connemara, and has more of a grassy-bonfire sweetness and perfuminess than the salty, seaweedy notes of the island Scotches.

The producer of Connemara also makes an unpeated single malt reviving the name of a famous Derry whiskey. This is Tyrconnell, oily-smooth, scenty and grassy, with a hint of charred wood from the casks. The distiller additionally has several blended Irish whiskeys: the faintly peaty, rooty Inishowen; the well-balanced Kilbeggan; and the light, flowery Millar's (the latter named after another long-gone whiskey, from Dublin).

All these are distilled on the Cooley peninsula, near Dundalk, County Louth. Overlooked by the Mountains of Mourne, the 10-year-old distillery makes malt whiskey in traditional pot-stills (so named because they resemble a cooking pot or kettle) and lighter grain whiskeys in continuous column stills. The Cooley whiskeys are then aged in County Westmeath, at the former Locke's Distillery at Kilbeggan, half-way along the road from Dublin to Galway.

To create a peated Irish whiskey, commission a new distillery, restore an element of life to an old one and bring back two or three revered labels on new products is a remarkable sequence of achievements. It derives from the dream of John Teeling, an Irish whiskey-lover educated at Harvard Business School. Teeling was reacting against the earlier monopolisation of the industry. The Irish argue that they invented whiskey, and they have no shortage of lore on the topic, but they have only three working distilleries.

Since the arrival of Cooley, its two older rivals (both owned by Pernod-Ricard) have extended their already- impressive ranges. Bushmills, in County Antrim, makes whiskeys with creamy, nutty, rosewater flavours. It has half-a-dozen variations under its own name and a further couple with the Coleraine label.

It is basically a malt distillery, though its best-known whiskeys are blends with grain from Midleton near the city of Cork. Apart from its spicy, elegant Midleton Very Rare, this distillery offers the orange-zest aromatics of the Jameson range (again in about half-a-dozen variations); the firm, crisp, Power's; the biscuity, gingery, flowery Paddy; big, flavoursome products like Redbreast and Green Spot; and the light toasty, Tullamore Dew.

Nothing peaty, though. Not yet

Connemara is available nationally at pounds 16.99; Tyrconnell and some other Cooley products are available from specialist wine merchants such as Weavers of Nottingham (0115 9580922) and Peckham & Rye, in Edinburgh and Glasgow (0141 445 4555) at pounds 18 to pounds 20; Kilbeggan from the Vintage House, Soho, London (0171-437 2592) at pounds 16.75; Millar's from First Quench (formerly Threshers) at pounds 11.89.

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