Here's to Irish whiskey

SIPS

Demand for spirit continues to grow

Sips

March 17, 2004|By Sara Engram | Sara Engram,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

On a day when everybody can be Irish, it's worth noting that whiskey, too, has roots in the Emerald Isle.

The Irish may have been the first to distill spirits. Recounting the history of distillation in his Encyclopedia of Wine and Spirits, Alexis Lichine notes that aqua vitae, the early name for spirits, "was on sale in Italy in the Middle Ages; at about the same time, or a little earlier, it appeared in Ireland ... distilled from a barley beer."

The maker of the oldest continuously produced brand of Irish whiskey, Old Bushmills, was granted a license by King James I in 1608, and Irish distilleries proliferated and thrived for 300 years.

By the end of the 19th century, Irish whiskey dominated the worldwide spirits market, with some 160 distilleries producing several hundred different brands.

Then disaster struck in the form of two unrelated events. The Irish War of Independence, which began in 1916, led to a trade war with Great Britain and an embargo that denied the country trade access to the British Empire's vast markets.

In 1919, Prohibition took effect in the United States, wiping out another key market. Together, those developments devastated the Irish whiskey industry.

Scotch whisky stepped into the breach, building dominance in the market that is only recently being challenged by a resurgent Irish whiskey industry.

One factor in that resurgence, at least in this country, is the growth in the number of eating and drinking establishments patterned after Irish pubs - a trend evident here in Baltimore.

This city has a rich tradition of Irish bars, but in recent years the region has welcomed newer additions to the Irish scene like An Poitin Stil in Timonium and the James Joyce Irish Pub & Restaurant near the Inner Harbor, places that feature Irish beers and whiskeys as well as upscale versions of traditional Irish food.

The latest in this lineup is Ryan's Daughter Irish Pub in Belvedere Square, a handsome space dominated by a bar transported from Ireland. Some pieces of it can be traced back 200 years to buildings at Dublin's Trinity College, says co-owner and designer Donal Doyle.

From the bar, as from those of other Irish pubs, plenty of Guinness and Harp will be dispensed tonight - but also a fair amount of Jameson and Black Bush, Tyrconnell, Redbreast and Tullamore Dew.

A fair number of patrons have been paying $15.50 for a shot of Midleton Very Rare, a whiskey so fine that each bottle is numbered and comes in its own wooden box.

You can sample other whiskeys for much less, of course - a shot of the standard Jameson costs less than $6.

Compared to Scotch, Irish whiskeys are a good bargain. And because the malted barley used in their production is dried in kilns, rather than over peat fires, Irish whiskeys don't have the smoky, peaty flavors characteristic of many Scotch whiskys.

Moreover, Irish distillers don't seem quite as concerned with cultivating the mystique that seems to be part of enjoying a fine single-malt Scotch. That may have helped keep prices down, at least so far. It also makes Irish whiskeys accessible to a wider range of drinkers.

As more than one fan of Irish spirits has noted, you don't need a degree in British history to enjoy these drinks.

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