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Irish Whiskey Buyer’s Guide

Slainte! An Insider's Guide to Irish Whiskey

The word “whiskey” comes from an Irish Gaelic phrase, Uisce Beatha, translated into English as “water of life.” This has its origins in a medieval Latin term with the same meaning for distilled spirits: aqua vitae. For the Gaelic-challenged, “Slainte” is how you say “Cheers!” in Ireland.

Being a first-generation American, having both parents hailing from the south of Ireland, Irish whiskey has long been a huge part of my life. As infants, our mother would rub Jameson on the gums of my brothers and sisters and me while we were teething. The jury is out on whether it eased the pain or just put us to sleep. Ask a doctor.

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As a child, when we caught those bad colds that lasted for days, a hot toddy was often the cure. Whiskey is a great decongestant because it dilates the blood vessels, allowing the mucus membranes to deal with the infection, believe it or not.

However, it was the first time I had a real shot with my father that sealed that bridge from childhood to adulthood. In that case it was a shot of potcheen (Irish moonshine) that the drummer in his band brought back from the old country. It tasted pretty damn horrid, like rubbing alcohol and sugar. I could see it putting people off alcohol for good!

Connemara single malt, Jameson’s and, The Sexton are three of the author’s staples when it comes to Irish whiskey.

Legal Definition
Irish whiskey is a protected European Geographical Indication and its production, labelling, and marketing must be verified by the Irish revenue authorities as conforming with the Department of Agriculture.

These requirements include:
Irish whiskey must be distilled on the island of Ireland (comprising the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland) from a mash of malted cereals with or without whole grains of other cereals, and which has been distilled at an alcoholic strength of less than 94.8-percent alcohol by volume in such a way that the distillate has an aroma and taste derived from the materials used.

Maturation only takes place on the island of Ireland with a minimum of three years in wooden casks, such as oak, not exceeding 700 liters.

Irish whiskey is to have a minimum alcoholic by volume content of 40 percent.

How to Drink it
I may be a purist, but I tend to look at Irish and Scotch whiskey as a single-ingredient cocktail. I very rarely order it as a mixer. On a rare occasion I might order an old-fashioned or whiskey sour with Jameson if I’m out with friends and not in the mood for Guinness or Heineken.

The most basic way to drink Irish whiskey is as a shot. Most often this is 1.5 ounces of liquor poured in a glass and thrown in the back of your throat as quickly as possible. It will cure what ails you and is appropriate for most of your blended whiskeys, such as Jameson, Tullamore DEW, Bushmills, and especially potcheen.

While on the subject of “shots.” The name doesn’t come from the Old West where cowboys would trade a round of 45 Colt for a small glass of whiskey. A shot of whiskey was typically 12 cents. Consider that you could buy a Colt revolver for $6 in the 19th century and a 50-round box of 45 Colt would cost that much if you’re talking 12 cents a round. In fact, a box of that ammunition cost less than a dollar at the time. If there was any truth to that I’d go on a mission to find that bartender and trade him ammo all day!

Some whiskeys are better with a splash of water, because it releases the water-repellent elements in the glass, allowing you to taste more flavors on your palate.

Pour 2 ounces of whiskey into a highball glass. Add a drop of water and swirl the whiskey with a bar straw. Let it set a few seconds and take a sip. Repeat until you find that perfect flavor. If you go beyond five or six drops, then you just need to slam it and find a better whiskey.

I prefer the single malts on the rocks — that’s just a few ice cubes. Some say that ice numbs your palate and dulls the flavor of the whiskey. I think there’s nothing better at the end of a hot summer day.

A few ice cubes in a glass or a splash of water is all anyone needs as a mixer with whiskey.

Jameson Irish Whiskey
Of all the blended whiskeys I’ve tried, Jameson must be my go-to brand. It’s the Glock 19 or 16-inch-barreled AR-15 of whiskeys — always good to have around and dependable. It has been distilled since 1780 and was originally one of the six main Dublin whiskeys. Jameson is now distilled in County Cork, the southernmost part of Ireland.


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Jameson is blended from light and medium-flavored whiskeys that were triple distilled to create smoothness. The whiskey is matured in casks that once stored sherry, wine, bourbon, and even IPAs. The end result is a smooth, clean, and mellow taste.

I like it as a shot and as a mixer for some of the previously mentioned cocktails or in an Irish coffee.

The Sexton
I discovered this single-malt Irish whiskey a year or two ago, because of the unusual-looking bottle and the artwork. It might be one of those “judging a book by its cover” things, but in this case, I was glad I gambled the $30 on the bottle.

It’s distilled in the coldest regions of County Antrim in the north of Ireland, where they filmed some of Game of Thrones. The Sexton is made from 100-percent Irish malted barley and is triple distilled for smoothness in copper pot stills and then aged for perfection in former Oloroso sherry casks, sourced from Jerez de la Frontera, Spain.

Don’t let the low price fool you, this is a top-shelf whiskey all the way. It has a subtle fruity aftertaste of peach, apricot, and honey due to the sherry casks, and it goes down so smooth.

The bottle is hexagonal in shape and has artwork of a skull in a top hat on the front and the same character in a horse-drawn cart with a coffin on the rear label. This has to do with the name; a Sexton is sort of a janitor or custodian in a church, but in old times was also the gravedigger, as every church I’ve seen in Ireland has its own cemetery.

I find it perfect in a highball glass with about six drops of water swirled in or as the key ingredient in an Irish coffee. This is the CZ or Steyr of whiskeys. A little different and a great value for the price, until everyone else discovers it and sees the light.

Connemara Cask Strength
The Connemara region of County Galway is famous for three things: exquisite green marble, intelligent Connemara ponies, and Connemara whiskey.

I discovered it nearly 20 years ago when it was new to the U.S. and was surprised at its low cost at the time. However, as time went on and they could properly age more barrels, Connemara has truly come into its own.

There are several varieties, but my favorite is the Cask Strength. Inspired by the 18th century art of drying malting barley over peat fires, Connemara has a distinct peat flavor with a touch of smokiness and a smooth taste.
Connemara Cask Strength is undiluted with no chill filtration, and, to my palate, it’s the most unique whiskey in the world.

I typically drink it in a highball glass with four ice cubes. This is the SIG P210 of Irish whiskeys, a classic and top shelf all the way. Mixing it with anything but a little ice or a drop of water is the same as mounting a cheap red-dot, pink rubber grips, and a $19 laser on an HK P7M8.

Always remember, drink and shoot responsibly. Slainte!

Irish Coffee Cocktail Recipe

I’ve mentioned this a few times, and this is the perfect after-dinner drink. It contains the four basic food groups: sugar, fat, caffeine, and alcohol.

2 oz. Irish whiskey
1-2 tsp. sugar
Freshly brewed black coffee
1-2 oz. heavy cream
Whipped cream to garnish

Place the sugar and Irish whiskey into a heat-proof glass or mug. Stir until blended and add coffee and heavy cream. Stir again and top with whipped cream.


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