Hearing about all the work that goes into producing Irish whiskey can make a person feel like an ungrateful wank, remembering all the times shots were guzzled down on St. Patrick’s Day instead of savored by the sip. Suffice to say, it’s worth learning about the six-part process at one of those Irish whiskey tours, the kind where the day ends with flattering photos of your pop getting stewed off 80 proof.
During a tour, you’ll note the differences between Irish and Scottish versions: the Irish spell whiskey with an “e;” the Scots and Canadians drop it. Irish malt is dried in closed kilns; Scottish, over open peat fires (accounting for Scotch’s smokier flavor). Then, there’s the fact that Scottish whiskey is distilled twice and Irish, often three times. “But unless you’re a whiskey drinker, you probably wouldn’t notice the difference,” claims a bartender from Woodside pub Sean Og’s Tavern. “And after they get a few drinks in ’em, they don’t care either.”
Of course, it’s always saddening to find out that Ireland, home to a once-dominant industry, now only boasts three major distilleries—and of these only Cooley, maker of smaller-label brands like Kilbeggan’s, Lockes, and Tyrconnell, remains independent. The Old Bushmills Distillery and Midleton Distillery (home to Jameson and Powers) come under the mighty, overreaching arm of monster French liquor conglomerate Pernod Ricard, producer of everything from Wild Turkey bourbon to Chivas Regal. Nevertheless, a longstanding battle continues between Bushmills vs. Jameson and Powers—i.e., Protestant vs. Catholic whiskey. (The Old Bushmills Distillery is located in Northern Ireland; Middleton is in the South). “Some people will buy southern whiskey cause they don’t want to give money to a certain establishment, but I think most people just purchase what they like the taste of,” says Guen, an Irish bartender at Rocky Sullivan’s who’d rather downplay the rivalry.
Of these three, the best-seller (well, in the world, in fact) remains Jameson, and at Sean Og’s and Breffni Inn, only that and Powers is stocked—try hitting Failte if you want pick from over 40 varieties in all. Maybe that’s because beer is preferred in the U.S., and whiskey more popular back in Ireland. Asked what she’d choose if she could buy any brand, however, and Guen defensively replies, “Well, I can buy any brand, and I buy Jameson.” Can’t get a more ringing endorsement than that.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 8, 2005