St. Patrick was not much of a seafarer, having been kidnapped from his native Scotland and brought by marauders to Ireland. But the whole history of Irish emigration is carried on the ocean to America, where the Irish have celebrated their patron saint’s day with a gusto that has made it a de facto national holiday here.
Where once that might have been marked by a requisite visit to a pub or two, St. Patrick’s Day has turned into the kind of feast that can be celebrated as well on the water as on land, provided the man steering the boat steers himself away from the spirits. In fact, Irish whiskey, once pretty much restricted to one or two brands this side of the Atlantic, has become much more available, and, thank the good lord, Guinness has found a way to ship its dark brown elixir in cans that comes pretty close to having a double-poured pint at a Dublin pub. Add to that some wonderful cheese now being made in Ireland, and you’ve got the makings of a fine St. Paddy’s Day feast.
Irish whiskey uses malted barley dried over coal fires, whereas Scotch is dried with peat smoke, which gives the latter a smokier flavor and the former more aromatics. Both malted and unmalted barley is distilled three times in a fairly small pot still to make Irish, after which lighter and heavier whiskeys are blended for a house style.
For many years the dominant Irish whiskey has been Bushmills, which has the world’s oldest distillery on record (1608), produced in County Antrim, and the most popular has been its basic label, affectionately called “White Label,” which really is a fine standard introduction to a whiskey that Russia’s St. Peter the Great declared the best spirit in Europe. The same distillery’s Black Bush has been a considerable hit here, with a more pronounced maltiness and a near sherry-like, soft finish on the palate. The firm has also marketed a 10-Year-Old Single Malt to compete with the successful Scotch Single Malts. There is a lovely smokiness in the bouquet, and then you begin to taste level after level of complex spices and fruit, finishing like velvet on the back of the throat-a whiskey to be sipped at sunset.
Jameson, which dates merely to 1780 in Dublin, is a solid contender, though it is not as rich as Bushmills’ basic label. I much prefer the 12-Year-Old, which shows off nutty, woody flavors and a pleasant undertone of sweetness.
John Power & Sons, which was one of the first to bottle its whiskeys from oak barrels, begins dry and almost severe, but it mellows on the palate and takes on nice caramel-like notes, then comes up again with just the right heat in the finish, though I also find a somewhat medicinal flavor in there that I’m not mad about. It’s a powerful (though with no more alcohol-40 percent-than most Irish whiskeys) kick of a drink.
Two strong competitors in the U.S. market are Tullamore Dew and the new Michael Collins. Tulach Mhor (big hill) gives Tullamore its name, while the “Dew” is from the letters of general manager Daniel. E. Dew’s name, and the company motto is “Give every man his Dew.” The company’s original distillery was passed on to another producer during hard times, so that today there are only two distilleries in all of Ireland.
Tullamore makes a basic brand and a 12-Year-Old, while its Heritage label, blended from 20 casks laid down in 2000 to commemorate the company’s Heritage Centre opening, is a fine mix of spice, citrus notes, and vanilla from wood aging. It is available at duty-free shops.
Michael Collins is named after the beloved Irish political leader, known as the “Big Fellow” (Liam Neeson played him in a 1996 biopic). According to the words on the back of the slender, pleated bottle, “his heroic spirit lives on in Michael Collins Whiskeys.” The spirit spends a minimum of eight to 12 years in old bourbon barrels, and it has a real bite at the start, then a softening elegant sweetness and maltiness on the palate, fading slowly without any harshness whatsoever. It’s a beauty, as is its slender bottle.
And then there’s lovable Paddy Old Irish Whiskey, named, inauspiciously, after a company sales rep. It’s pleasant enough and mild, if lacking in finesse, and is ideal for Irish coffee, which happens to be one of my favorite beverages and one I count as dessert.
Irish coffee was first created in 1942 at the bar at Foynes Dock, where the flying boats docked during World War II and as of 1947 was promoted as a welcoming drink at Shannon Airport. In 1952 visiting American newsman Stan Delaplane introduced the drink to San Francisco at the Buena Vista Bar, where it was featured and made famous around the world.
To make Irish coffee, simply add hot water to a warmed eight-ounce goblet or Irish coffee glass, stir in two teaspoons sugar, add one-and-a-half ounces Irish whiskey and five ounces strong coffee, then top off with whipped cream. With some Irish shortbread, it is the perfect ending to an evening.
But before that you might want to have some fine Irish cheeses with nutty dark Irish bread-which goes remarkably well with a glass of Irish whiskey. The best veined cheese-and the first of its kind in Ireland-is Cashel Blue, made since the 1980s by the Grubb family in County Tipperary. I find it a much finer blue than the overly salty France’s Roquefort and somewhat milder than Italy’s Gorgonzola, a nice creamy cheese with a buttery component that gives it its sweetness.
The wonderfully named Gubbeen (Gaelic for “small mouth”), made around Cork by Tom and Giana Ferguson, has nutty flavors in with the butter cream, made from cow’s milk, not unlike Pont L’Évêque or Saint-Nectaire, with a touch of sea salt air and a little smokiness below.
Milleens is another cow’s milk cheese from Cork, this made by Veronica and Norman Steele, who founded the Irish Cheesemaking Association named Cáis, and because it is made from raw milk and aged only three weeks, it is not imported here. It has pungency to spare, and is quite distinctive and unlike any other Irish cheese.
Durrus is made by Jeffa Gill of Cork, who cooked it up in her own kitchen. Not dissimilar to Gubeen, with a semisoft paste that turns very soft, like Camembert, after a few weeks. It is made from cow’s milk and has a pungent aroma, not unlike Reblochon.
As noted, you can eat these unique cheeses with Irish whiskey, but they also are wonderful paired with Guinness, that potent cure-all porter that the Guinness family began making in 1759 and first shipped to America in the 1840s. In 1931 the company christened a custom-made ship, the S.S. Guinness, to transport its product, and in 1988 it was put in cans, then in 1999 in bottles, by a process that helps maintain the fresh flavor of a Guinness poured from draught in a pub, where by tradition it is topped off after the foam subsides.
Since most yachts don’t have draught beer facilities, this is a very good idea for a St. Paddy’s Day feast onboard. But don’t rock the boat too much: It disturbs the Guinness, as they say in Dublin, where poet Louis MacNeice wrote “the air [is] soft on the cheek/And porter running from the taps/With a head of yellow cream/And Nelson on his pillar/Watching his world collapse.”