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3 Irish whiskey cocktails to celebrate St Patrick’s Day

Upgrade your tipples this St Paddy’s Day with M. Carrie Allan’s pick of the standout Irish sipping whiskeys that make the best cocktails

Thursday 17 March 2022 09:28 GMT
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Here’s a little secret about the lives of cocktail writers: there are certain times when we open our email inboxes preparing to wince. We know what awaits: a pile of drink pitches themed around an upcoming holiday.

At least, this used to be a secret. Now we all kvetch about it on Twitter.

Booze writers who’ve been around a while may pine for yesteryear, when at least the holidays were real, by which I mean they were occasions that could be found on calendars during which festive drinking might organically occur. Now such holidays are few and far between, largely replaced by National Whatever Days, invented by a marketing cabal to sell you more Whatever.

The past month I’ve been staring down the shillelagh of an actual, real holiday. One wonders – as one hits the delete key next to a pitch for a drink garnished with Lucky Charms – how a fifth-century missionary known for bringing Christianity into Ireland and hurling the snakes out of it might feel about the paddywhackery with which his holiday is now feted in these parts. You know: the wearin’ o’ the green, the drinkin’ o’ the beers, the adoptin’ o’ the brogues, the drinkin’ o’ more beers, the regrettin’ o’ the behavior.

(By the way, shout-out to the PR rep who, a few years back, suggested that St Paddy’s was the perfect holiday to write about a new mezcal. That took real McChutzpah, as they call it back in the auld country.)

An Irish derivative myself, I manage some guilty enjoyment of our debased St Paddy’s celebrations. I will miss them particularly this third year of not decamping to a chockablock pub to raise a pint. But I am ever willing to drink good whiskey in the name of service journalism, even if I’ll be doing it safely at home during the traditional bingin’ o’ the Netflix.

Here’s something you should know if you’re going to use this quieter St Paddy’s to graduate from shots of Jamo with 500 of your closest friends: you will still encounter, here and there, cocktail recipes that call for “Irish whiskey” as an ingredient. And if your goal is simply celebrating all things Hibernian, fine. Many subtleties of spirits do disappear in drinks, and individual palates may be more or less sensitive to such subtleties.

But these days, with the Irish whiskey category going through a serious boom and more whiskeys making their way onto the market, a cocktail recipe calling for “Irish whiskey” can be a bit like a food recipe calling for “herbs”. Imagine the result of substituting cilantro for tarragon in your Béarnaise sauce. While the majority of the tippling public tends to see the category through the lens of one or two famous brands, Irish whiskey is not just one thing.

The character of Irish whiskey “doesn’t come from the commonly noted identifiers of the category, because every one of them has exceptions,” writes whiskey writer Lew Bryson in his excellent 2020 book, Whiskey Master Class.

“Triple distilled? Not all of them. Unpeated? There are a few exceptions. Uses unmalted barley? Certainly not the Irish single malts; and they’re not blended either – another identifier you might hear,” he writes. Bryson lands on the notion that one common characteristic of Irish whiskies is their approachability, an almost universal friendliness that contrasts with some of the aggressive whiskeys that hail from other places.

As the category continues to rebound, Irish whiskey may become even more varied. In 1976, points out Robert Caldwell, a brand ambassador for Teeling – one of the families and distilleries most responsible for the ongoing reinvention and rejuvenation of Irish whiskey – there were two distilleries in Ireland, four by 1993. In 2015, when Teeling opened its distillery in Dublin, there were about six. “Five short years later, there are 38,” Caldwell says.

Who knows how all those new makers will affect the category?

One of the most common descriptors applied to Irish whiskey, thanks to the triple-distillation common, is “smooth”. Smoothness is appealing in whiskeys intended for drinking neat, but that very affability may have led Irish whiskey to have been a bit neglected in the cocktail renaissance, as bartenders sought spirits that stood out and held their own amid a roster of other ingredients. Caldwell notes how often he’s heard people suggest that Irish whiskey gets “washed away” in cocktails.

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