Spring is nearly upon us here in the desert—and it’s a great time for me and other transplants to remember how fortunate we are to have traded gray 40-degree days for 82 degrees and sunshine.
Granted, we now have to dodge double-decker buses packed with house-peepers, as well as land yachts piloted by frail and bespectacled nonagenarians; such is the trade-off, I suppose—and late winter/early spring is certainly a better time for my wallet. I don’t know if it was the extended chilly weather or the dilution of the clientele base caused by the frenzy of development, but “season” definitely came late this year for most of us craft bartenders. And as summer approaches, we’re gonna need some whiskey.
Specifically, we’re gonna need some Irish whiskey.
If there is one drink that pretty much every bartender has in common, it’s Irish whiskey—specifically, the stuff in the green bottle. I used to think it was a Boston thing, or an East Coast thing, as I grew up on the stuff, but the reality is that bartenders from coast to coast and beyond will revert back to it after they’re done pretending they’re all cool and esoteric.
Americans drink 40 percent of the entire output of Irish whiskey, which helped save it as a viable export, according to Forbes.com. It’s so easy to drink, and it gets you where you’re going without a lot of burn—so what’s not to love?
Without the Irish, we might not have had whiskey at all. As legend has it, Irish monks invented it. They saw that Muslim Moors were wasting the technology of alembic distilling on things like “medicine” and decided to give it a proper use! The resulting “uisce beatha”—pronounced something like how a Bostonian would say, “Ooh, whiskey bar” and meaning “water of life”—became the root of the word “whiskey.” Of course, their cousins the Scots didn’t take long to make their own “whisky” after the Irish showed them the process, and a bit of a rivalry began.
Irish whiskey was originally made in a pot still from malted barley, and could even be peated, like many Scotches are—but chances are the ones you’re drinking at most bars weren’t. There are four types of Irish whiskey, according to Whisky Advocate:
• Malt: One hundred percent malted barley, made in pot stills; if it’s all from a single distillery, it’s called “single malt.”
• Pot still (my favorite): At least 30 percent malted and 30 percent unmalted barley, and no more than 5 percent cereal grains.
• Grain: No more than 30 percent malted barley, distilled in a column still, with pretty much any other common cereal grain, like corn or wheat.
• Blended: A blend of two or more of the above styles.
The brands most people, including inebriated bartenders and/or Bostonians, drink are of the blended variety. This doesn’t make them inferior, necessarily, as some of the tastiest Irish whiskeys are blends; it’s one of the reasons people think of Irish whiskey as a smoother option than other whiskeys. However, I thoroughly advise branching out and trying some of the pot-still varieties: While still quite easy-drinking, they have a good deal more body and a fuller flavor. The recent rise in popularity of premium Irish whiskey (skyrocketing since 2002, according to the Distilled Spirits Council) has meant that finding smaller brands making a more craft-focused product has never been easier.
America has had a taste for the stuff for some time. As David Wondrich points out in Imbibe!, Irish whiskey was quite popular in The States in the 1800s, with bartenders as storied as Jerry Thomas recommending it in cocktails like the Irish Whiskey Skin and the notorious Blue Blazer. I will put the recipe for the Blue Blazer here, but my team of high-powered lawyers has advised me to state that this should not be tried at home. If you burn down your midcentury-modern house or singe the hair off of your eyebrows (and/or the skin off of your arms), I don’t want to hear about it.
- Two silver-plated mugs with handles and glass bottoms (Wondrich recommends using ones with tulip-flared edges)
- One teaspoon full of sugar
- A wineglass of Scotch and Irish whisky mixed (one ounce each, Wondrich says)
Add one wineglass (1 1/2 ounces, per Wondrich) of boiling water; set it on fire, and while blazing, pour from each into the other mug, being particular to keep the other blazing during the pouring process. Serve in small bar tumblers; add a piece of lemon skin; pour the mixture into glass blazing; and cover with a cup.
Thomas recommends practicing with cold water to get the pour down first, as do I if you simply must try this despite my warnings.
Since the only purpose of the Blue Blazer is to show off, let’s do a safer cocktail instead, no? How about something boozy that uses a green ingredient (Chartreuse) and actually tastes good … right on time for St. Patrick’s Day! Come to think of it, I did a column on Chartreuse last month. I love it when a plan comes together. Here’s the Tipperary Cocktail No. 1:
- 1 ounce of Irish Whiskey
- 1 ounce of Green Chartreuse
- 1 ounce of sweet vermouth
Stir and serve up!
This is basically the version in Hugo Ensslin’s 1917 (or 1916 … cocktail history, oof) Recipes for Mixed Drinks, but I adapted it from the Savoy Cocktail Book. I like adding a dash of orange bitters, since this is basically a Bijou cocktail with whiskey, and garnishing with orange zest. Pot-still stuff holds up nicely in this drink, but the blends give it a softer touch, which I prefer in this application.
A lot of bartenders favor the recently late and lamented Gary “Gaz” Regan’s Tipperary No. 3, which reduces the Chartreuse to a half an ounce and ups the whiskey by double. It’s a nice drink, to be sure, but I like it closer to the original. As for the No. 2, let’s just say it doesn’t work for this piece.
Feel free to substitute Irish whiskey into your Old Fashioned, of course, and your highballs and Collinses as well. There is even a shot we used to drink back in the day, a riff on the Washington Apple, called the Irish Apple: It’s two parts green-bottle Irish whiskey, and one part each of cranberry juice cocktail and sour-apple liqueur. Don’t judge me; those years are mostly a blur. But I might just order one on St. Patrick’s Day, to remember the days when I had to elbow my way through the throngs of drunken parade-goers on Dorchester Street on my way to a double shift downtown.
These buses and Buicks don’t seem so bad now, actually. Sláinte!
Kevin Carlow is a bartender at Truss and Twine, and can be reached at CrypticCocktails@gmail.com.