Cornering Flavors of Irish Whiskey in Dublin

Merin is a New York City free-lance writer .

You can enjoy a sip of Irish whiskey almost anywhere in the world, but for a lesson in it, as well as a taste or five, try Dublin's Irish Whiskey Corner.

There, in an old, restored warehouse on Bow Street in the Smithfield section of the Irish capital, visitors can sample a selection of Irish whiskey for the modest price of $1.50 per person.

At this quaint retreat, showplace and museum, which once belonged to John Jameson Distillery, guests are entertained with tales of Irish whiskey, wonderful old photographs and drawings, informative displays and a film showing how Irish whiskey is fashioned from barley grain, crystal-clear water and yeast.

And when they've tired of history, visitors may taste the best and most popular Irish whiskeys--many of which are not available in the United States--before selecting a bottle to take back home.

At Irish Whiskey Corner tastings, five shot glasses are filled with different kinds of Irish whiskey and are set out for sampling.

Each label has its own character. There's light and mellow Jameson, the world's largest selling Irish whiskey, often served on the rocks; mild and malty Bushmills, often sipped straight up; Paddy, smooth and light with a hint of maltiness, popular in Ireland; John Power & Son, Ireland's most popular label, which has a rich flavor enhanced by malt undertones, usually served half-and-half with water, and Tullamore Dew, light and delicate with a well-balanced flavor, usually served with ice and water.

Tasters sip each to select a favorite, which they then compare to their favorite labels of Scotch whiskey, and with American-made bourbon. Needless to say, discussion is lively.

Although there's serious debate in Ireland about whether whiskey was discovered or invented, nobody doubts that Christian missionary monks brought with them a device called the alembic, a small still invented in the Middle East that was used to make alcohol for perfumes.

The Irish soon learned how to use it to distill alcohol from a fermented mash of barley and water. They called the beverage uisce beatha (pronounced ish-ke-ba-ha)--Gaelic for "water of life."

Today, we know that beverage as Irish whiskey. Although the anniversary of its invention has not been commemorated with annual celebrations, the "water of life" has been an integral part of celebrations and anniversaries since it was first sipped in Ireland, way back when.

The drink has an historical following that reads like Who's Who. It was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I and Peter the Great. Sir Walter Raleigh once stopped off in Cork on his way to the New World to pick up, in his words, "a supreme present of a 32-gallon cask of the Earl of Cork's home-distilled uisce beatha. "

Historians say the word "whiskey" was first used in about 1171, when the soldiers of England's Henry II invaded Ireland.

While these uninvited guests were greatly taken with Irish whiskey, they couldn't get their tongues to negotiate the words, which were anglicized to "fuisce" and finally to "whiskey."

Today, the Irish and Americans spell that name "whiskey," while Scots and Canadians spell it "whisky," without the "e."

However it's spelled, Irish whiskey is made of both fresh and malted barley used in varying amounts to create single and double malts. Government regulations define Irish whiskey: how it is made, from which materials and for how long it is to be matured.

Malted barley is made by steeping in water. It then is allowed to sprout. The germination produces diastase, an enzyme that converts starch in the barley to fermentable sugars.

It then is dried in in closed kilns, a method that gives Irish whiskey a clean, barley taste unlike the smokey flavor that results when malted barley is dried over open peat fires, as it is in making Scotch whiskey. A mixture of fresh and malted barley is combined with liquid yeast and allowed to ferment.

Irish whiskey requires a triple distillation process in a series of stills to refine and strengthen the flavors. It is then placed in oak casks and kept in dark, cool warehouses for at least three, and possibly as long as 12, years while the whiskey matures.

Each oak cask has its own character and adds a different flavor to the maturing whiskey. Ultimately the contents of the casks are blended in huge vats from which bottles of whiskey are drawn.

In the past, Ireland had dozens of small, independent whiskey-making distilleries but there has been considerable consolidation in the industry.

Today there are about a dozen brands of Irish whiskey, each of which produces several grades, from low-priced to super-premium in quality. And all of it is made at just two locations.

Bushmills, the oldest licensed whiskey distillery in the world, with a license dating back to 1608, is still in operation in Northern Ireland in County Antrim.

The other brands are made at Midleton, a modern distillery opened in 1975 in County Cork in the Republic of Ireland. All are associates of the Irish Distillers Group, which owns and runs Irish Whiskey Corner.

Few of the 12 kinds of Irish whiskey are available in the United States. Those that are include high-priced premiums (Jameson and Bushmills), super-premium (Black Bush and Jameson 1780) and super-super-premium (Midleton Very Rare, available in only limited supply).

Other Irish whiskeys, including Paddy, Power, Dunphy and Murphy, were distributed in the U.S. and some stock still remains on liquor store shelves, until about two years ago when exportation was discontinued.

That makes all the more reason for sampling the real thing at Irish Whiskey Corner. In addition, Irish whiskey is sold there at very good prices.

Numbered bottles of Midleton Very Rare, considered to be best in quality among the Irish whiskeys, costs about $60 at Irish Whiskey Corner. Dublin high street prices for Midleton Very Rare--if it can be found--are about $75 to $83, while it costs $90 to $100 in the United States.

Irish Whiskey Corner sells Jamesons 1780 and Bushmills single malt for $26 per liter, Black Bush for about $22 per liter (compared with a U.S.-price of about $25 for a smaller fifth) and Paddy, Power, Tullamore Dew and Jameson for about $20 per liter.

Those more interested in the history than the drinking of Irish whiskey can drop by the Irish Whiskey Corner shop to buy T-shirts ($10), sweatshirts ($18), ice buckets ($10) and jugs ($10), as well as handsome crystal decanters and sets of drinking glasses (up to $300).

Shannon Airport Duty Free Shop sells a variety of Irish whiskeys at prices similar to those at Irish Whiskey Corner, but the selection isn't as complete, nor are there any free tastings.

For those who wait until the very last minute to stock up on uisce beatha, Aer Lingus offers half-liter bottles of Paddys and Jameson for about $7 in its in-flight shop.

To make reservations, contact the Irish Whiskey Corner at Bow Street, Dublin 7.

Prices quoted in this article reflect currency exchange rates at the time of writing.

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