Sunday, March 14, 2010

St. Patrick's Day Preview

Irish Whiskey Makes Me Frisky 3" Button Pin

On Saturday afternoon, March 12, 2010, Union Square Wines & Spirits held its annual St. Patrick's Day tasting of various Irish Whiskeys.  There were a total of 18 Irish Whiskeys represented -- try as I might to sample all of them, I could only do ten, just barely more than half.  Many of these -- if not most -- should be quite familiar to you all ... but there's at least one interesting surprise in the mix this year ... 

First up was Greenore Single Grain.  With an age of 8 years, this one has a sweet, floral nose to it and a very mild taste.  Like many of the Irish Whiskeys, it is aged in a cask from the United States -- formerly used for Bourbon.  Its smooth, gentle taste was deceptive -- if you didn't know better, you'd swear that it was aged much longer than just 8 years. They also had a 15 year version and I was tempted to try that one after the pleasant experience of this, but I couldn't manage to get through the line for it, so I moved on.

Second was Kilbeggan, a blend.  If you are a fan of Jameson, this one is very close.    At $25, it's very reasonably priced and a good choice for a mixing Irish Whiskey -- for example, if you're going to make an Irish Coffee.  As a sipping whiskey, I couldn't really recommend it, however.  

Next was my go-to Irish Whiskey.  Being a Scotch drinker, I love Connemara for its peated, smokey flavor.  A single malt, there were three kinds from which to choose.  Already familiar with the least expensive one (I have a bottle at home right now), I opted instead for the Cask Strength, which, at $70, is slightly more expensive.  This differs in that it has a higher alcohol content than its less expensive brother -- this one is 120 proof, as opposed to 80 proof.  One guy who tried it put it best, I thought -- he said that it was like drinking a fireplace!

Their high end brand is one that is aged 12 years.  If you are also a Scotch enthusiast, you might just appreciate this one as they describe it as "Ireland meets Islay" -- and with a catchphrase like that, I think you know what to expect from its taste.  The aging gives it a smoother, softer, more subtle taste than the Cask Strength -- however, there's of course a price to be paid for this at $110 per bottle.

Perhaps the best find and most pleasant surprise at this tasting was something called Coole Swan Superior Dairy Cream Liqueur out of Dublin.  If you are looking for a Bailey's alternative, I highly recommend Coole Swan.  They served it on its own and in a cocktail called Coole Mint -- 2 parts Coole Swan, one part peppermint schnapps.  Although I found the cocktail a little too sweet for my taste, the cream liqueur on its own was superb.  At 32 proof, Coole Swan contains double the cream compared to something like Bailey's; you can safely keep this non - pasteurized liqueur refrigerated for as long as a year.

Jameson's would be unforgivable to skip in an Irish Whiskey tasting, so I tried a few next.  Passing on the blended version, I started with its high - end Limited Reserve and worked my way backwards.  Aged for 18 years, it's stored in two different types of barrels:  for the first three years, it's kept in a Bourbon barrel, then for the remaining 15 years, it's switched to a sherry cask.  This is the secret and it adds a definite sweetness to the taste -- it's more expensive, but it's certainly worth the extra dollars.

At $80, I thought the Gold Reserve was actually the best of the Jameson lot.  Aged anywhere from 15 - 25 years, it spends a quarter of its time in Bourbon barrels and the rest of the time in sherry casks.  Lastly, there was the Special Reserve, aged 12 years.  It spends three quarters of its time aging in Bourbon barrels and the rest of the time in sherry casks.  While good, you can certainly taste a difference compared to the more expensive bottles.

Finally, I wrapped up with a pair of Michael Collins, starting with a blend, then finishing with a single malt.  Dedicated to the Irish troublemaker, hero and rabble rouser, this 80 proof blend, like the others, is stored in Bourbon barrels for anywhere from four to eight years.  Seeing this trend, I asked the representative about this; he said this was common with Irish Whiskeys because it's simply more cost effective -- there are so many Bourbon barrels out there that they are constantly being recycled.  Winding up, the single malt is aged for 12 years.  Made from peated barley, it's got a heavier, smokier note to it, which certainly worked well for me.  

As I said earlier, Connemara is my favorite and thus the one I would most strongly recommend -- however, the Coole Swan was excellent and I suggest you give it a try should you see it available in your favorite liquor store.