For years now, I’ve been a pretty big fan of bourbon and rye. And I do love some Scotch and trendy, award-winning Japanese whiskies. Although I’m just a bit embarrassed to admit it, my knowledge of Irish whiskey was pretty limited. So in the spirit of St. Patrick’s Day, I set out to chat with three Las Vegas whiskey experts and learn as much as I could about Irish whiskey.
I spoke with Wally Lang at Ri Ra at Mandalay Place, Jessica Fesler at Double Helix at Town Square and Max Solano at Delmonico Steakhouse at the Venetian, who work with some of the largest whiskey selections in the state (Delmonico, at 700+ labels, has one of the largest in the country) and brought back a few fun facts — and many tasting notes — on this surprisingly fascinating spirit.
So, before you head out for St. Paddy’s Day festivities, arm yourself with this primer.
1. It’s a great beginner’s whiskey.
Looking for a gateway spirit that doesn’t conjure up memories of college party hangovers?
“Irish whiskey is more of an entry level whiskey for those who aren’t experienced whiskey drinkers,” says Solano.
This is because most Irish whiskey is triple distilled as opposed to double distilled, so it generally tends to be more palatable than the complex flavors of other whiskies.
More specifically, Fesler suggests Jameson when “you’re tired of vodka, or sick of Jagermeister.” Think of it as a post-graduate spirit.
2. It’s best neat or on the rocks but mixes well with mild flavors.
The mellow flavor of Irish whiskeys can get lost in a lot of standard whiskey cocktails, so Fesler suggests it solo or with simpler cocktails.
“The light body of Irish whiskey can really get overwhelmed if you’re doing a sour,” says Fesler, although she notes that Irish Mules – Jameson and ginger beer – are very popular right now.
“You don’t want to overwhelm and you don’t want to underwhelm. You want to create an interesting cocktail that they’re going to work with.”
3. Ireland’s history has shaped the development of its whiskey in interesting ways.
To get around British tax laws around the time of the Napoleonic Wars, which taxed distillers for each still, the Irish started using one massive whiskey still instead of many small ones. The practice has mostly stuck around since.
“This defined style of Irish whiskey not because they planned it out, but because it’s what they had to do,” says Fesler.
Even the word itself has its roots in the Emerald Isle. The word “whiskey” itself comes from uisce beatha, what it was called by the Irish monks who invented it. It literally means “water of life” in the Gaelic tongue.
4. There is such a thing as Irish moonshine.
Lately, it’s really trendy to put unaged whiskey in mason jars and call it moonshine or white dog and label it with some Americana-inspired artwork.
The Irish equivalent is called poitín or potcheen and has more of an interesting cereal taste from the barley.
“You get none of that corn flavor [of moonshine],” says Lang. “It’s very clean.”
5. You can call it a comeback.
“For a while, a lot of distilleries happened to shut down and there was a lot of consolidation,” says Solano. These days, starting to see a lot of smaller distilleries pop up, reminiscent of what was around 100 years ago. But because whiskey needs time to age in barrels, the product is slow to trickle out.
“The category is starting to expand and becoming very experimental,” says Solano. “The craft distillers are going to save the day. You’re going to see some interesting things in 20 years.”
For all the talk of Irish whiskey being mellow and a safe bet gateway spirit, there’s a surprising variety of flavors out there. Here are a couple of recommendations from our experts:
For something authentically Irish: Powers
This brand is becoming a little more visible in the United States, but is Ireland’s most popular whiskey. It’s the brand used in the original Irish coffee and its emblem, featuring three swallows, has become a bit of a catchphrase… for how long it should take to finish a glass.
For the bourbon drinker: Jameson Black
This recent Jameson release, aged in ex-bourbon and ex-sherry barrels, is a bit more complex than its mass-market brother.
“You can tell by the difference in color,” says Solano of the darker-hued Jameson variation. “They’re going after, the more sophisticated whiskey drinker.”
Fesler shares that sentiment, adding “They want to stay relevant and interesting, so this one’s approachable but this one’s sweet and interesting from start to finish. It actually HAS a finish!”
For the Scotch drinker: Connemara 12 Year
Peat is generally more associated with Scotch whisky, but Connemara’s peat flavor reflects its southern region namesake’s peat bogs.
“All these peat bogs are a gorgeous landscape of just green. [Through Irish history, they] farmed the peat, [they] burned it in their stoves, cooked over it,” says Lang. “You sip this and you’re in Ireland.”
However, it’s still a mellower than the peat flavor you’d get with Scotch. Which for some, is a good thing.
“It’s not heavily peated like Islay, but more like Isle peated,” says Solano, who is more of a Scotch guy himself. “Way subtle. It’s really light for a 12 year.”
For the sweet tooth: Bushmills Irish Honey
This one is Lang’s favorite honey flavored whiskey. Honey flavored spirits can be a little too sugary and syrupy and leave a bad aftertaste in your mouth, but this lets the whiskey do the talking while the honey hangs back with just enough sweetness.
“It’s like they said ‘We don’t have to make a cordial, when we can make this a whiskey,’” says Lang.
For the high roller: Knappogue Castle 1951
At $350 a pour at Ri Ra, this should be your first purchase after you hit the jackpot at Mandalay Bay. Please. Do it for the rest of us.