Saint Patrick's Day Guide to Cult Irish Whiskey: John Mariani

A book titled "101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die" by Ian Buxton (224 pages, $19.95) should keep connoisseurs busy drinking and debating the merits of this bibulous bucket list.

While it's a good selection, I'm disappointed that so few Irish whiskies made the cut at a time when sales are soaring.

In 1988, when Pernod-Ricard SA (RI) bought Irish Distillers, the whiskey maker was selling fewer than half a million cases a year.

Last year its Jameson brand alone passed the three-million- case mark, with 22 percent growth in the U.S. alone. Rival Diageo Plc (DGE) has invested more than 6 million pounds ($9.7 million) in Bushmills since acquiring its distillery in 2005 for 200 million pounds.

The non-Scotch sector of the whiskey market is among the fastest growing, according to a report by London-based International Wine and Spirits Research. Ireland drinks up about 6 million bottles of its whiskies a year, with France the next biggest consumer.

Just three large distilleries — Midleton (owned by Pernod- Ricard) in Cork, Bushmills in Antrim, and Cooley in Louth (the only one Irish owned) — produce nearly every bottle of Irish whiskey, via dozens of labels. The miniscule rest is made by Kilbeggan Distillery, re-opened in 2007 and owned by Cooley.

Each year all the brands compete mightily to come up with a "new" whiskey, which in fact may be from very old casks. Most Irish whiskies are made from a mix of malted and unmalted barley and other grains.

But the stand-out new products are the single malts, made from only one type of malted grain, barley, distilled at one distillery, usually in pot stills.

Irish Tears

Cooley's Coonemara brand now makes four small-batch whiskies: a 12-Year, a Single Cask, a Cask Strength and the heavily peated Turf Mor label. Most of these, like the romantically named Irish Tears, never leave Ireland. Some are even sold exclusively at The Irish Whiskey Collection at Dublin Airport, including a Midleton Single Cask that costs about $400. At these prices, they're better sipped than splashed into coffee.

Much as I'd like an excuse to go out and buy all the new Irish whiskies in the market for a Saint Patrick's Day column, I can't say enough new items come into the U.S. market each year.

One new release causing justified excitement is a 16-year old Knappogue Castle "Twin Wood" single malt ($100), the oldest release by this producer so far, spending 15 years in old bourbon casks, followed by 9 months in oloroso sherry butts.

With only 1,900 numbered bottles released so far, most of it going to the U.S., this may be the new cult whiskey.

Smoky Burn

It is a beautifully crafted spirit, the malt and oak in equal measure to a sherry-like sweetness and a faint, lingering smoky burn at the end.

Knappogue Castle is also offering a Master Distiller's Private Selection 1994 vintage ($95) of 1,100 bottles. Vintage dating is still controversial in the whiskey world, since master blenders have traditionally drawn on many years' whiskies to come up with a consistent product.

The spirits in this bottle are from various barrels, all from 1994. It is remarkably pale, a little citrusy, with barley and oak providing a subtle peaty and sweet balance.

With Midleton Very Rare ($125), bottled in 2010, you're paying a bit for the package — a pretty oak wood box — but this bottle, from John Jameson & Son, is labeled their "Supreme Selection." The bottle is numbered, with a printed signature of the master distiller, Barry Crockett, and only 50 cases are made each year.

It's a gorgeous pure gold color with a burry nose, a little hotter than I would have thought, with a piney-vanilla aroma and complex sweet flavors that end with a long finish. It takes a splash of water well.

Pot Still

Redbreast Pure Pot Still Irish Whiskey ($40), another of Pernod Ricard's Irish Distillers' brands, aged 12 years, has a niche following as an ideal expression of small batch Irish whiskey, claiming to be the "only 100% pure pot still" example on the market today.

The label says it's "triple distilled," but then, so are all Irish whiskies. It has strong pepper in the nose, hints of nutmeg and cinnamon, with a lush caramel undertone and fine long finish.

It's quite a buy at just $40. There is also a newly released 15 year old ($65-$85) in very limited supply.

The label of tiny Kilbeggan dates the distillery back to 1757, omitting to mention that it closed in 1957, and only restarted in 2007, with its own bottlings not due for release until 2014.

The Kilbeggan found now in the market ($20) is actually made by the Cooley Distillery and transported to Kilbeggan for storage. It is very, very pale, with a pronounced sweetness and old-fashioned burn that makes this a good starter Irish whiskey, at least until the distillery releases its own brew.

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