For whiskey lovers, March means one thing: St. Patrick’s Day. This year, there’s plenty to celebrate. Not long ago, the Irish whiskey industry was in decline, dwindled to a shadow of its former self. Today, that’s nothing but a distant memory. Irish whiskey is thriving, and Ireland’s people are reveling in a groundswell of global interest in their native spirit.
That’s not the kind of party we want to miss out on. This month, many of our club members will be enjoying a special Irish whiskey, including some lucky drinkers who will be greeted by a bottle of one of our very favorite Irish tipples, Redbreast Lustau. In honor of the intrepid St. Patrick (yep, he really did exist) and the persistence and grit of Irish distillers, we’re raising a glass to the luckiest of holidays—and we hope you’ll join us.
An Authentic Celebration
While St. Patrick’s Day is most often celebrated in the States with green clothing, potted shamrocks, and perhaps an inadvisable amount of Guinness, there’s much more to the holiday than that. It’s actually a religious holiday that pays homage to a real Christian missionary from the fifth century who’s widely credited with being the first to introduce Christianity to Ireland.
Patrick was born somewhere in Britain, which was part of the Roman Empire at the time. Ireland, on the other hand, wasn’t, and relations between the two weren’t exactly frictionless. Patrick was captured and enslaved by the Irish, only to later escape, return to Britain, and become a priest. Later on, he returned to Ireland to spread the good word to the pagan Irish. (Perhaps an example of a good Christian turning the other cheek, or perhaps a way to enact a subtle kind of revenge on his former slavers, depending on your perspective!)
More than 15 centuries later, St. Patrick’s contributions to Irish culture continue to be celebrated on March 17th, his feast day. It falls smack dab in the middle of Lent, a time when observant Christians often refrain from indulgences like eating meat or drinking alcohol. But the church makes an exception for St. Patrick’s Day, which means the day has been long been associated with eating meat, especially corned beef, and drinking. So, when you enjoy a generous pour of Irish whiskey or beer, you can rest assured you’re celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in authentic style.
Irish Whiskey’s Revival
Speaking of Irish whiskey, we’re delighted to report that the industry’s revival is continuing in full swing. Before Prohibition, Ireland was a major global powerhouse in the whiskey industry, exporting vast quantities to North America. But American Prohibition and two World Wars took its toll on the Irish industry. By 1975, consolidation and contraction meant that just two Irish distilleries remained in operation: Bushmills, and the New Midleton Distillery. For the next 10 years, Ireland barely hung on to its whiskey industry, subsisting on inexpensive, export-oriented blends like Jameson and Bushmills.
But in the mid 1980s, that began to change. John Teeling opened the Cooley Distillery in 1987, representing the first sign of new life in Irish whiskey. Others soon followed. Today, there are dozens of Irish distilleries selling remarkable whiskey, with many others still in the opening phases, and Irish whiskey sales in the U.S. are up more than 400% over the past decade.
To the surprise of many only familiar with the big blends, Irish producers are crafting an enormous range of whiskeys. Irish single malt, made in much the same way as Scottish single malt, is exploding in popularity, as is the uniquely Irish single pot still category. This distinctive style is made only in Ireland, and must be produced at a single distillery from a combination of malted and unmalted barley distilled on a pot still.
Why unmalted barley? Like so many things in life, it all goes back to taxes. In the late 1700s, the Irish government began to levy an exorbitant tax on the use of malted barley. To get around it, distillers started adding a percentage of unmalted grain to their mash bills. After a while, however, they began to appreciate the grassy flavor and thick mouth feel the combination imparted. Even after the tax was repealed, some distillers continued to employ unmalted grain, cementing the single pot still style. While there are numerous terrific single pot still Irish whiskeys available in the United States today, none are as beloved as Redbreast.
Produced at the New Midleton Distillery, Redbreast has been the standard-bearer for the single pot still style for more than a century. It’s triple-distilled on the largest pot stills in the world, and typically matured in a combination of used bourbon and sherry casks to develop rich honeyed and fruity flavors.
This month, we’re delighted to be sharing a very special Redbreast release with some of our club members: Redbreast Lustau. Named Irish Whiskey of the Year by Whisky Advocate Magazine in 2017, this delicious whiskey starts with maturing Redbreast single pot still whiskey in bourbon and sherry casks for nine to 12 years, then finishing it for another year in first-fill sherry butts seasoned with Oloroso from Bodegas Lustau in Jerez, Spain. Bodegas Lustau is one of the most prestigious sherry houses in the world, and a longtime friend and collaborator with the New Midleton Distillery.
The resulting whiskey is a show-stopper, with rich flavors of dark fruits and nuts, a creamy mouth feel, and sweetly spiced finish. We can’t think of a more delicious way to celebrate St. Patrick’s intrepid nature and fierce devotion to the Irish people, or the irrepressible spirit of Ireland’s distillers. Sláinte Mhaith!