Every time I mentioned to someone that I was going to attend a whiskey-tasting dinner, I got one of two reactions; either people wrinkled their noses and said, “REALLY???” in an incredulous tone or they said, “You mean Scotch?”
No, actually. I mean whiskey. Irish whiskey, to be exact, and it is entirely different from Scotch. I learned this, see?
Once a year, for St. Patrick’s Day, Bushmills distillery sends their master distiller, Colm Eagan, on a tour of the states. “You do St. Patrick’s Day a lot bigger over here,” he told us with a playful smile. Colm was everything an Irish host ought to be: generous with his time, generous with his stories and generous with his drinks.
Our tasting dinner was held at Beatrice & Woodsley, an unusual—but beautiful—venue tucked into a nondescript space on South Broadway in Denver. We were greeted at the bar with a Blackbush and ginger ale, and I took my first taste of Bushmills whiskey: smooth, a little sweet, and more complex than I had anticipated. I had been afraid that I’d be fighting down a grimace all night if the liquor was too strong, but I needn’t have worried. Turned out, I could get to like whiskey.
People have been making whiskey in the tiny village of Bushmill, Ireland since the 1100s, and the first license to distill was granted in 1608, so a lot of history goes into this drink. Colm himself told us that he was destined to be at Bushmills, especially because he met and fell in love with a beautiful girl who’d grown up there. He described his first visit to the distillery, when he paid his two pounds to take a tour, painting a picture for us of whitewashed walls and black slate roofs nestled amid the green Irish hills, shining copper stills warm with their work, and a little crystal stream running through it all. “As my nose was being drawn to the smell of the whiskey,” he told us, “I was being drawn to the distillery.”
Enchanted by this vision, we entered the tasting. Colm explained how they malt the barley, allowing it to just sprout before air drying it to halt the growth (and here is the biggest difference from Scotch, which is smoked to halt the growth, giving it its distinctive flavor). From there, the barley is fermented in much the same way beer is, only without the hops. After it is distilled three times (no more, no less), the alcohol is decanted into oak barrels where it ages for at least five years.
The barrels are what give the different whiskeys their different flavors. A fresh oak barrel is too strong for the fine alcohol Colm spends so long distilling, so he chooses to use barrels that have already been used by another liquor that has stripped away much of the strong oakiness. Most of the Bushmills whiskeys start in bourbon barrels, giving them their lovely color and some of their complex aromas. From there, some are finished in sherry barrels, some in the casks used to age Madeira wine.
When asked the best way to enjoy whiskey, Colm smiles. “Any way you like it,” is his answer, whether you enjoy it with a mixer or without. He does, however, suggest adding a little water, which opens the whiskey up, allowing the aromas to better flow. “More aromas, more taste,” he told us, tipping his glass to one side in the light so we could see the subtle mixing of the alcohol and water.
The food was delicious, the company a delight and the drinks more fascinating and enjoyable than I could have imagined. The highlight of the evening, however, came with the dessert course, when we were treated to a taste of Bushmill’s 1608 whiskey. Colm created this one specifically to celebrate the country’s 400th anniversary, and only a very limited quantity was produced. The whiskey, made with crystal malt, won Colm and Bushmills whiskey of the year and innovator of the year in 2008. It was a delight, with distinctive vanilla and milk chocolate notes that lingered pleasantly on the back of the tongue for a long finish. If you happen to see the 1608 on a menu, indulge yourself, because when it’s gone, it’s gone.
I couldn’t have expected to have such a marvelous time tasting and learning about Irish whiskey, but now I plan to buy a bottle and keep it around for those occasions when I want to ensure the conversation flows freely. Because, as Colm told us in his final toast:
There are good ships,
and there are wood ships,
The ships that sail the sea.
But the best ships, are friendships,
And may they always be.