St. Patrick’s Day does not have to mean green beer and a cheap hangover. It can be a day of really nice whiskey and a more refined hangover. The Irish make some of the finest whiskey in the world and there is no reason not to imbibe of the Emerald Isle’s heritage spirit this holiday.
Next to Guinness, Ireland’s claim to fame in the world wide bar scene, whiskey is the country’s best kept secret. Ireland has plenty of secrets it seems . Giving birth to things such as color photography, the nickel zinc batteries we use in our phones, milk chocolate, the submarine and the military tank have all fallen second behind the country’s two most prominent consumables.
Between Guinness and Irish whiskey, the most significant impact through history is, hands down, the whiskey. That sweet, so-called “water of life” giving nods back to its Gaelic heritage that we have grown to love so much has challenged the industry’s notions of distilling, drinking and aging. It revolutionized an industry for hundreds of years to come.
But with St. Patrick’s Day revelry at a fever pitch this weekend along the Grand Strand, we went on a journey to find the cream of the crop of Irish whiskeys you can sample here along the Grand Strand. Previously, we’ve told you about local Irish cuisine and searched the Grand Strand for Irish beers not named Guinness and Harp, and you probably know about Jameson Irish Whiskey, but now it’s time to take your St. Patrick’s Day imbibing to a new level of sophistication.
Chances are there’s more than simply a bottle of Jameson (not that there’s anything wrong with it) at your Myrtle Beach-area watering hole, and chances are it’s now being used for more than mixing up some Irish coffee.
According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, sales of Irish Whiskey in the U.S. were up 400 percent since 2002 - so it’s time you got with the program and pushed your palate beyond green beer this St. Patrick’s day.
But first, some history...
Just the facts, Seamus
One of the earliest distilled beverages in European history was, what we now call, Irish whiskey. It showed up in the 12th Century and has been in production ever since. Believed to be developed by monks using the Mediterranean method of perfume distilling, Irish whiskey, quite possibly, helped to invent the world of spirits as we know it today. At a minimum, it challenged what was possible.
To clarify, the spelling of the word “whiskey” itself has fallen into as much historical controversy as the origins of the booze. It is perfectly acceptable to spell it “whiskey” or “whisky”. Both words mean the same thing. Generally, countries that have an “E” in the name, will use “whiskey”. Countries without an “E” will go with “whisky”. Never go to Scotland and spell it “whiskey”. You may find yourself in a compromised situation. Same in Canada or Japan. So as not to offend and seeing that we live in the United States, we will stick with the proper, American and Irish spelling of “whiskey”.
The worldwide popularity of Irish whiskey should have given rise to more distilleries in Ireland. However, once the most popular spirit in the world, Irish whiskey had been on a steady decline since the 19th Century.
In fact, there are only three working distilleries in Ireland today that produce Irish whiskey. There are some smaller liqueur stills that are still producing the sweetened spirits, but only three putting out the country’s namesake spirit. For perspective, world whiskey mogul Scotland has a little more than 100 distilleries in operation. What’s more, there are more legal distilleries in South Carolina than in the entire country of Ireland. If you factor in the illegal stills, we could, theoretically, produce more whiskey than the entirety of Ireland. Not that we should.
Yet during the last decade, history is correcting itself be seeing Irish whiskey climb in popularity. The Spirits Business web site listed in February that Irish Whiskey was set to double in sales by 2020. Of course it is calculated speculation based on planning and inside figures.
By classification, Irish whiskey must be produced in Ireland. We hope this is not a surprise to anyone. It must also be distilled to no more than 94.8 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). Lastly, the aging process must last at least three years in wooden casks. In the big scope of the spirits world, these are not very stringent rules and conditions that are very attainable for a business.
This recent resurgence in popularity has nothing to do with the rules that define the whiskey, but, rather, because Irish whiskey is triple distilled. It has always been that way. This makes for a smooth drinking spirit. Scotch, which is an acquired taste admittedly, most often, distills only twice. As does American bourbon and Canadian whisky. The extra distillation in Ireland produces a much smoother spirit. The masses, often, find it more palatable than its sister whiskeys.
This is not a sweeping statistic that covers all of the brands of these countries. in Ireland, Cooley Distillery uses a twice-distilled method for most of the Irish whiskey it produces. However, the most popular Irish whiskey labels in America fall into the triple distillation category.
The flavor difference between the whiskeys of the world is the aging process and ingredients used to make them. American whiskey achieves great flavor profiles by aging much longer than most Irish whiskey. Likewise, neither Irish nor American whiskey uses peat on a wide scale to produce the smoky and earthy aromas found in Scotch. Purists will also argue, and they would be correct, in adding the quality of the water used is also a big factor in the flavor of the whiskey.
The bottom line is that the Irish achieved a smoother whiskey than anyone else in the world by distilling one more time. Today, this point is debatable and hardly able to be proven as tastes differ and preferences run the gamut among the professionals in the business.
The Distilleries of the Republic of Ireland
Midleton and Cooley are the only two working distilleries in the Republic of Ireland, which is a vast span of the southern island and is a politically separate entity from Northern Ireland. Dublin is the most metropolitan area in this region and was home to the original Jameson & Son distillery.
If you visit the Jameson’s distillery in Dublin today, you will only find a museum. In 1966 John Power & Son, Jameson & Son and the Cork Distillery Company merged to form the Irish Distillers Group. They closed all operations with the exception of the distillery in Midleton, which is in the Republic of Ireland. They were one of the first to do so and produce all brands from one location. In 1975, IDG began production in a brand new facility just next door to the original and it is still considered one of the most advanced distilleries in the world. Today, it and all of its labels are owned by Pernod-Ricard, a French worldwide beverage conglomerate.
From the Midleton distillery, one of the most famous names in Irish whiskey is produced. Jameson is the best-selling Irish whiskey in the world. It is the one that most bars and restaurants will offer without fail. The popularity is due to sustained quality over a long period of time and attention from the people that dole out the awards for such products. In addition to Jameson, Midleton produces Tullamore Dew, Powers, Redbreast and Midleton Very Rare. Quite a library of heavy hitters in the Irish whiskey world.
The Cooley Distillery is a relative newcomer in Irish whiskey production with beginnings as recent as 1985. John Teeling bought a potato schnapps distillery and converted it to a full-fledged whiskey distillery in 1987. Even without the hundreds of years of lineage, Cooley is making its own way.
In 1998, Cooley received ample recognition at the International Spirits Competition for outstanding quality. This, along with maintained quality through the years, prompted the label’s purchase in 2010 by Jim Beam, Inc. for $95 million.
Labels such as Kilbeggan and Connemara are mainstays for Cooley. Aging for much longer than the required three years and by using American bourbon barrels to age have all proven beneficial in their quality rating. In addition, Cooley is even producing an Irish whiskey with the notorious Scottish ingredient, peat. This distillery can be seen as the innovator in the category.
The Distillery of Northern Ireland
In the north, which is part of the United Kingdom, and where Belfast remains the largest city of note, there is but one active distillery. Bushmills Distillery is the last producer of Irish whiskey in Northern Ireland. While this may seem dreary, they are making plenty of it.
Bushmills’ license to distill was granted in 1608 to Sir Thomas Phillips. This type of history is worthy of keeping the place around. More than 400 years of whiskey history hover around Bushmills and the distillery only closed for six years during World War II.
Bushmills focuses on its flagship label and its various incarnations. Now owned by Diageo, the largest spirits producer in the world, there is no need to change as Bushmills takes its spot just behind Jameson in Irish whiskey sales.
Unlike the distilleries of the south, Bushmills has only a few labels that it distills. The variations of the Bushmills label are the most known and sought after.
Irish whiskey at the beach
We all know that you can have the Jameson experience nearly anywhere on the beach. It has become a late night service industry standard. As we expand our knowledge and taste, the selection is growing. Albeit slowly, it is growing.
Meanwhile the number of Irish pubs along the Grand Strand has reduced in the last few years, for whatever reason and gone are Blarney Stone’s at Broadway at the Beach, Shamrock’s in Myrtle Beach, and Pat & Mike’s Irish Pub in Little River.
Newcomer and proven expert of the restaurant and bar scene, Fire and Smoke Gastropub (411 79th Avenue, Myrtle Beach) offers two Irish whiskeys behind the bar. Jameson and Tullamore Dew are the labels you will find. Owner Jimmy Horkan says that those are the two he likes the best, but hopes that there will be more of a surge in popularity so that more bottles can join his growing whiskey selection.
There are two things that go together without fail. Steak and whiskey. At Greg Norman’s Australian Grille (4930 U.S. 17 S., North Myrtle Beach) the whiskey selection is as you might expect from an establishment like this. In the Irish whiskey department, Greg Norman’s offers Jameson and Bushmills. The two most popular and called for brands in the category.
This is the trend for most businesses on the beach. We could list places all day long that have one or two selections. To no fault of their own, this is due to the demand for the smooth stuff. If you want to sit for a while and try a few different labels of Irish whiskey, there are couple of places in the local hotbed of Irish culture - North Myrtle Beach.
Flynn’s Irish Taven (421 Main Street, North Myrtle Beach) has, quite possibly, the most comprehensive selection of Irish whiskey in town. Everything from Feckin to Powers. Kilbeggan to Paddy. Redbreast to Tyrconnell. Nearly all of the aged Jameson and Bushmills labels. Even a few more obscure bottles that are tucked away for special occasions, we assume. Flynn’s is as real as it gets in the way of Irish around here. If you want to taste Ireland on the rocks, head to Main Street.
And down on the oceanfront of North Myrtle Beach’s Ocean Boulevard, there’s Molly Darcy’s Traditional Irish Pub & Restaurant (1701 S. Ocean Blvd.), which also boasts an impressive selection of Irish whiskey, including Bushmills, Jameson, Tullamore Dew, Powers, Midleton Very Rare, Michael Collins Irish Whiskey, and Feckin.
In central Myrtle Beach, Tilted Kilt (1317 Celebrity Circle, Broadway at the Beach) switches things up a little bit with bottles of Kilbeggan, Michael Collins and the more commonly found Bushmills, according to its Web site.
For the home bar, Green’s Discount Beverages (2850 N. Kings Highway) has a decent selection of the Irish stuff. Ranging from $18 to more than $65 per bottle, you can find something that suits your budget and taste. It was pleasant surprise to see the lesser known labels mingling with the Irish powerhouses.
And Owens Liquors (8000 N. Kings Highway) has quite the selection as well. Most of the same labels, but this store also add the highly sought-after Midleton Very Rare Irish Whiskey 2010 at just shy of $150 per bottle. We have heard that it is worth the cash.
Celebrate the true Irish contributions during your St. Patrick’s Day fun. Try a pint of Guinness, a Tullamore Dew on the rocks and eat an Irish breakfast just when you feel like you might need to slow down a little. While we cannot all be from Ireland, we can all give a tilt of the cap to the country that has impacted our lives so very much through the years. We can do our part to stay true to the holiday and bypass the gaudy novelty light-up necklaces for something more traditional.
Irish whiskey has won over many hardened bourbon drinkers, Canadian whisky drinkers and even some folks that “do not drink brown liquor”. It has history. Heritage. Craftsmanship. It has a place in our bars on more than just St. Patrick’s Day. Plus, it is delicious and smooth as a whiskey should be.