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Irish whiskey: the brown jewel of the Emerald Isle

  • Bushmill Barrels.jpg

    Bushmills is also known also for its lovely single-malt whiskies, like the easy-drinking Bushmill’s 10 year old and the more complex Bushmill’s 21-year-old, a silky sip with notes of toffee and dried fruit. (Amy Zavatto)

  • Old Bushmills Distillery.jpg

    Bushmills Distillery in Northern Ireland began making its triple-distilled whiskey in 1608, but the first license to distill the spirit was granted in the area all the way back in 1408. (Amy Zavatto)

  • Peat and Grains.jpg

    Bushmills produces uses peat in some of its whiskies to add an infinitesimal yet very characteristic hint of underlying smokiness. Peat is the result of a years-long process in which heather, grasses, and moss decompose and form the chunky matter that is added to the kilns during the drying process for the malted barley. (Amy Zavatto)

The presidential election may well be separating many of us into fiery camps of support for Romney and Obama, but there is one thing we apparently can all agree upon: Irish whiskey.

Americans love the golden-brown hued liquid so much that the U.S. has become Ireland’s number one export country for the stuff. In just a decade, the volume of cases exported in the U.S. has gone from 434,000 to nearly 2 million, according to statistics from the Distilled Spirits Council of United States. And those numbers keep climbing. 

Produced at the Midleton Distillery in County Cork, Jameson - maybe the most recognizable Irish whiskey on shelves from coast to coast – plans to double their production by 2013. It’s an amazing notion when you consider that some distilleries stopped production entirely during Prohibition, and that today there are only four active distilleries in the entire Republic and Northern Ireland – Midleton, Kilbeggan, Cooley, and Bushmills. Among them, though, come dozens of different Irish whiskey expressions well worth exploring.

What makes Irish whiskey… Irish? Good question. If you go to any whiskey-producing area of the world – be it Ireland, Scotland, Canada, Japan (yes, Japan! They make quite a bit, too) or the United States, each place has their own methodology and rules. And if you break that down further among individual distilleries, the expressions of whiskies become even more unique. But there are two big items that distinguish Irish whiskey as a rule from most others.

The first: true original Irish whiskey is made from malted and unmalted barley and distilled in pot stills, those copper, chubby-bottomed, gorgeous pieces of metal-work that produce whiskies with full, rich flavor. You can find it in its pure form in whiskies like Redbreast and the newly launched Yellowspot from Midleton, or at other times blended with grain whiskies (usually distilled in tall column stills), like some of Bushmill’s elegant blends or workhorse whiskies like Paddy’s, which blend malted barley and grain whiskies.

The other distinction: traditionally, Irish whiskey is triple distilled. Most Scottish whisky, for example, is distilled twice. The third run through the stills for Irish whiskey lends itself to a very soft, lighter-style, easy-sipping final product.

Of course, there are exceptions to these rules. There are gorgeous, well-made Irish whiskies that engage other methodologies, too, adding to each distillery’s unique stamp on their spirit. For example, at Kilbeggan (which was purchased along with Cooley in 2011 by Beam Global), Master Distiller Noel Sweeney stops the distillation after the second round, because Kilbeggan and Cooley have made their mark with a sweeter style whiskey, although the traditional pot-still method is used for several of the expressions.  And with their Connemara Whiskey, the unusual choice to throw a little peat in the mix makes for a very unique whiskey in the Emerald Isle, indeed, as peat in the hallmark of whiskies made in Islay, Scotland.  

Barrel aging adds even more distinctions to the mix. Some producers buy used bourbon barrels to impart flavors of vanilla and spice to the whiskey as it ages; some use sherry casks to draw out more fruity characteristics and a darker hue; some throw a some port barrels into the mix to add in the rich elements of the fortified wine that once sat in the cask. And more often than not, you’ll find an Irish whiskey uses a blend of two or more of those options, adding even more interesting flavors and aromas to the mix.

So no matter how you like your Irish in a glass – the pure pot still, the blend, the triple or double distilled – there’s a bit of luck you can depend on: At the end of the Irish whiskey rainbow, there’s an ever-flowing pot of golden-hued options with which to fill your glass.