Liquids: Whiskey

I once spent a cold, rainy night at a fancy British inn where I was attended by a brilliant Irish butler named Morris, whose wry wit—and keys to the wine cellar—kept me entertained well into the night. Before he retired to bed, he poured me a glass of Tullamore Dew 12-Year-Old, a triple-distilled Irish whiskey that’s matured to perfection in old bourbon casks and old Oloroso Sherry butts, and made an old Irish toast. “Too much of anything is good for nothing,” Morris propounded. “Too much good whiskey is barely enough.” Short of Nicole Kidman tucking me in, it was a perfect evening.

That toast always comes to mind during this most Irish of months, because it’s both cleverly true and sadly ironic for the Emerald Isle’s whiskey trade. At the height of the British Empire, it could be said that Ireland had too much good whiskey, with more than 2,000 distilleries producing. But the Irish War of Independence beginning in 1916 resulted in a crippling British embargo on exports, and Ireland’s whiskey troubles weren’t helped by America’s plunge into Prohibition four years later. By the 1960s, Ireland really had only “barely enough” distillers, many of which joined forces to survive. Today, one company, the Irish Distillers Group, owns the most famous distilleries in Ireland, including Jameson, John Power & Sons, Cork Distilleries, and Bushmills—and this company is a subsidiary of the French Pernod Ricard group. Okay, so it’s not as bleak as the Great Potato Famine, but still. Anybody need a drink?

We can’t order a whiskey respectably without first clearing up some spirit terms, beginning with color. Whiskeys, no matter where they come from, are known in the trade as “browns,” obviously because of their color. (“Whites” covers vodka, gin, and rum.) Whiskey, by definition, is an alcoholic distillate made with a fermented mash of grains such as barley, rye, or corn. Bourbon, rye, scotch—they’re all whiskey (or whisky, without the “e,” as folks in Canada and Scotland spell it). Each possesses qualities based on the grain from which it’s been fermented. Bourbon comes from corn, scotch from barley, and rye from (you guessed it) rye. Unlike vodka or gin, whiskey is an elixir that is directly affected by its environment, from the local water to the shape of the stills to the type of barrel it’s aged in. Got that?

So, wanna start with a rye? Though its traditional home is Canada, rye is made in the United States, too. It generally has a spicy-smoky flavor similar to that of a smooth, rich bourbon. (See below.) Trendwise, rye’s time has largely passed. When was the last time you ordered a Seagram’s 7 and ginger ale highball that wasn’t for your grandmother?

Then how about a bourbon? It, by contrast, is undeniably all-American. Born in Kentucky more than 200 years ago, it’s America’s only native spirit. Its rich amber color and sweetness come from aging in new oak barrels, which are charred to caramelize the wood’s natural sugars and bring them to the surface. Variations depend on what’s added to the mash. W. L. Weller Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, for instance, is known for its subtle whisper of wheat, while Maker’s Mark Whisky uses a traditional sour-mash recipe.

Okay: Blended or single malt? Here’s where it gets tricky. Blended whiskey is a mixture from as many as 40 separate distilleries, while single malt is the product of a single distillery. This is an art form in Scotland, where single malt is king.

Did someone say scotch? In my youth, I reached for Dewar’s White Label, a blended scotch whiskey that is well structured and easy to drink. But now I look for scotch with maturity, depth of character, and the crash of the sea upon the peat bogs. I want a single-malt scotch, neat, and hold the umbrella, lad.

Why all the hype about single malts? Well, it’s sort of like the difference between a jug of Carlo Rossi table wine and a Robert Mondavi Winery Cabernet Sauvignon from the Napa Valley: The purer the drink, the more distinct the taste. Each scotch maker has its own formula, its own way of drying the malted barley over a peat fire, its own type of cask (used sherry or bourbon barrels are common), its own aging schedule. The rest of the brown drinks are like training wheels for the single malts. You need them to get here, but once you’ve arrived, you may never turn back. And the Scots aren’t the only ones making single malts. The popularity of the term has rallied Irish producers such as Knappogue Castle, Magilligan, Tyrconnell, Locke’s, and Connemara to bottle their own versions.

At bars around town, it’s the big brands from Ireland that get most of the bidding. At Kennedy’s Midtown in Downtown Crossing, general manager Ciaran (a.k.a. “Rocky”) Rockett sells a lot of Bushmills, Black Bush, and Jameson. “We have 12 to 14 whiskeys total, and the Irish ones are the best sellers,” he says. At Lucky’s Lounge on Congress Street, bar manager Matt Hennessy says, “The stuff that moves off the shelf fastest is Jameson and Bushmills, which covers your Protestants and Catholics.” (He’s referring to an old saying that Jameson is the whiskey of Catholics and Bushmills the whiskey of Protestants.) At the Field Pub in Cambridge, co-owner Jerry Coleman says it’s all about the browns, both in spirits and beer. “Jameson is, by far, the first thing on most people’s tongues when they chase their Guinness pints,” he says, adding, “but, personally, I think the smoothest and best Irish whiskey is Powers.”

Jameson is all the rage at Hennessy’s of Boston on Union Street, too, says manager Noel Gentelles. How they drink it, says the Dublin native, all depends on where they’re from. “Jameson, which is traditional among Irish people, will be served straight up,” he says. “We don’t like anything to affect the taste of good Irish whiskey. Americans like it slightly watered down with a side of water or on the rocks. In Ireland, we don’t even like to put ice in it because we don’t want to give the ice a chance to melt into it.”

When I ask Gentelles if anybody here drinks vodka, he says, “It depends on your age group. For the younger, it’s rum or flavored vodkas, while whiskeys and scotches go with an older age group—it’s acquired.” He adds, with a knowing laugh: “Once you go to whiskeys and scotches, you’ll never go back.”