If your name is Timothy or Pat, Kiley, Finnegan, or Flynn, so long as you come from Ireland, there's a welcome on the mat, so the song goes. It's also a good bet there are three fingers of Irish whiskey in your glass on St. Patrick's Day, and probably a bottle in your sideboard.
'Tis a shame we often only take a look at what is new and delicious about Irish whiskey in March. But such is the way of the calendar. The good news is that when the broad swath of people belly up to the bar on St. Patrick's Day, and call them themselves Irish for a day, there are more choices than ever when it comes to brands and premium pours.
Growing up in New Jersey, we were a Jameson's house. The only other brands to be found at the local liquor stores were Bushmills, John Power, and Paddy's (no longer available in the U.S.). Tullamore Dew turned up here and there as well. Today, better liquor stores carry lesser-known but very worthy brands such as Knappogue Castle, Midleton, Connemara, Clontarf, Kilbeggan, Tullamore Dew, Cooley, and Redbreast.
For most of the 20th century, Irish whiskey was the poor relation of Scotch. A staple in Irish homes like mine, but almost never having as many facings as Scotch in bars that don't have a shamrock in their façade. Today, it is the fastest-growing segment of the whiskey category, up 19%, compared with American and Scotch brands.
In the U.S., houses were often divided between the two biggest brands available here, Jameson, based in the Republic of Ireland, and Bushmills, based in Northern Ireland. In most first-generation Catholic Irish houses, Bushmills was a rare sighting. Jameson is now a division of French wine and spirits giant Pernod-Ricard (PERP.PA). Bushmills is owned by British distiller Diageo (DEO).
What distinguishes Irish whiskey from Scotch, Welsh, and American versions is the thrice distilling. Scotch is distilled twice. American and Welsh whiskey is distilled just once. Like Scotch, Irish whiskey is aged in used oak barrels from American whiskey distilleries, and often finished in sherry, Madeira, or port barrels depending on the whims of the master distillers. Irish whiskeys tend to have sweeter, lighter profiles than their Scotch counterparts. While Scotch is made from blends of malted barley, Irish distillers play around more with blending both malted and unmalted grain.
Though releasing single-malt whiskey has not been a tradition in Ireland, the Scots have woven a modern-day prestige around single malts, so Irish distillers have followed suit for marketing reasons. Many of the results are splendid.
Like whiskey distilleries in Scotland and the U.S., shoppers will find, if they research, that some of the Irish brands come from the same distilleries. That leads the uninitiated to think that distilleries are just gaming the system by getting multiple facings on the shelves of liquor stores and bars. But that does a disservice to the master distillers who know their aging barns like their children, and are able to concoct subtle differences by blending different ages of whiskey and using barrels from different corners of the barns that age differently because of variable humidity and temperatures, not to mention the nuances achieved from oak barrels derived from different forests. It's all a lovely alchemy.
See the BusinessWeek.com slide show for a roundup of the Irish whiskeys we most like to see behind the bar.