Since the early 17th century, St. Patrick’s Day has been a famed celebration of the life of Saint Patrick, the most well-known patron saint of Ireland. And while St. Patrick’s Day, observed every March 17th, originated as a way to commemorate the arrival of Christianity in Ireland, it’s also all about honoring Irish culture and traditions, complete with lively parades, traditional Irish dancing and, of course, lots of green and shamrocks.
And as St. Patrick’s Day – aka the Feast of Saint Patrick – approaches, it’s time to talk about Irish Whiskey. With distilleries in Ireland dating back to the 1600s, people have been distilling, pouring and sipping Irish Whiskey (spelled with an -ey, unlike its Scottish and Japanese relatives which take the -y only moniker) for hundreds of years. And while most people are more familiar with the Scottish varieties, Irish Whiskey is one to check out now.
Made in Ireland, Irish Whiskey is made from fermented grain mash (often malted and unmalted barley), is aged for a minimum of 3 years in wood casks – they can be new or previously used – and has an alcohol by volume (ABV) of 40%. Amber-hued, Irish whiskey is often tripled distilled (although this isn’t a requirement), and while the majority are blended, there are also single malt expressions.
Having existed for generations, Irish Whiskey has often taken a backseat to other spirits, and sat as a staple on back bars, often for old-time fans. But now there’s something new in the category to get excited about: Slane Irish Whiskey.
Slane Castle in Ireland
To say that Slane Irish Whiskey has an epic backstory, steeped in history, is an understatement. It all started over 300 years ago at Slane Castle in County Meath, Ireland, about 45 minutes north of Dublin. Located in the village of Slane in the idyllic Boyne River Valley, Slane Castle has been home base for the Conyngham family since the late 18th century. In 1981, present owner Henry Conyngham aka the 8th Marquess Conyngham launched Slane Concerts at the castle, featuring high profile musical acts.
Now, Slane Castle is home to a state-of-the-art distillery, led by US-based spirits company Brown-Forman in partnership with Henry and his son Alex.
Alex Conyngham, co-founder of Slane Irish Whiskey
“There is no doubt that Irish whiskey is enjoying a renaissance,” says Slane Irish Whiskey founder Alex Conyngham. “Although we are still well below its peak in the mid-19th Century when there were 88 licensed distilleries producing the equivalent of 12 million cases/year, there’s still plenty of scope for further growth and Slane Irish Whiskey will hopefully help to drive that.”
The History of Irish Whiskey
There’s no doubt that Irish whiskey has had a long – and sometimes difficult – history.
“What sets Irish whiskey apart from other regions is its smooth and fruity characteristics and the typical use of a single pot still, as well as the use of both malted and unmalted barley,” explains Luke Nevin-Gattle, Bar Manager at the Old Chicago Inn. “By the 18th century, there were over 1,200 Irish whiskey distilleries alone. That number dropped significantly as all the non-tax paying distilleries were shut down by the government. By 1882, only 20 remained.”
Add in the Temperance Movement and then US Prohibition and by 1960, says Nevin-Gattle, “the export of Irish whiskey almost came to end.”
Brendan Burke of the Kerryman in Chicago adds: “Irish whiskey has a long rich history, with Ireland being the first place to open a licensed distillery back in 1608. The word whiskey can be derived from the Gaelic phrase uisce beatha which means “water of life.”
In the late-1980s, Ireland got their hands back on the production of Irish whiskey when Cooley Distillery opened, Nevin-Gattle says. “Since then, a handful of Irish-owned distilleries have opened with most Irish whiskey brands being owned by other companies outside of Ireland. In the past few years, Irish whiskey has seen a huge growth – often by 15-20% more each year.”
We will certainly drink to that.
The Irish Whiskey Distillation Process
One thing that makes Irish whiskey so special and unique is the triple distillation method by which most are produced (unlike other spirits, the rules aren’t quite as strict with Irish whiskey, which can be made using double or triple distillation). Produced in Ireland or Northern Ireland, Irish whiskey must be distilled for a minimum of three years to no more than 94.8% ABV to pass on the natural aromas and flavors from the aging barrels.
With Slane, tried-and-true methods are being used alongside newer, exciting innovations, including the brand’s signature Triple Casked maturation process. Using virgin casks with medium char and seasoned casks – Slane Irish Whiskey is the only brand that uses Tennessee whiskey and bourbon casks raised by hand at the Brown-Forman Cooperage – as well as Oloroso sherry casks from Jerez, Spain.
The tasting room at the Slane Castle distillery
“Our distillery is located right next to our ancestral home since 1703, Slane Castle, the setting for huge outdoor rock concerts and is surrounded by my family’s farmlands and the River Boyne which provide barley and soft water for the distillery,” says Alex Conyngham. “Our whiskey production respects the great traditions of Irish whiskey making but brings in innovation through a sustainable approach to distillery design and an ambition to achieve zero waste production, combined with our triple cask maturation method using virgin, seasoned and sherry casks to create a fuller bodied flavor profile.”
The industry is certainly taking note of Slane’s unique distillation process. “Slane uses the River Boyne for water and all of the grains and barley are grown in the fertile soil of the Valley and a triple casked process in which they age the whiskey in three varieties of casks,” adds Burke. “Each cask imparts a different unique flavor during the aging process before it is blended together to create a finished product.”
First barrel filling at Slane Irish Whiskey distillery with Assistant Distillery Manager Alan Buckley (center), and co-founders Henry (left) and Alex (right) Conyngham
The Flavors of Irish Whiskey
Many Irish whiskeys are blended, as blending tends to yield the most delicious and complex juice. By law, Irish whiskey can be made using two or more of the 3 different types of Irish whiskey – single malt, single pot still or grain whiskeys – and are by far the most common.
With Slane, the Triple Casked maturation system lends to its bold and decidedly smooth, complex and robust flavor, with a rich toffee color and notes of caramel, toasted oats, vanilla, butterscotch, raisin and spice.
“Irish Whiskeys as a whole are often smooth and fruity, many being pot stilled,” says Burke. “In the beautiful Boyne Valley in Ireland, you can find the Village of Slane where Slane Whiskey is made. Through this process, you can find notes of vanilla, clove, banana, and a little bit of spice. It’s very flavorful whiskey.”
Warns Nevin-Gattle: “Don’t let Slane’s 80 proof fool you. This Irish whiskey is full of flavor. From the flavors of the vanilla in the new-charred American oak to the stone fruit notes in the seasoned casks, it is rounded out with raisin and spice in the Oloroso sherry casks.”
How to Drink Irish Whiskey
With Irish whiskey, there is really no wrong way to enjoy it. While some like mixing it into cocktails like an Irish coffee or a whiskey sour, most agree that it’s really fantastic on its own, neat or with an ice cube or two.
“Slane Irish Whiskey is enjoyable on its own or on the rocks but it will also carry into cocktails and long drinks and still hold its own,” says Slane co-founder Conyngham. “For me, on the rocks is the way to go as the mild dilution opens up the complexities lying within the whiskey.”
The Kerryman’s Burke adds: “Slane is so good, it can be enjoyed on the rocks. But if you were looking to get more creative, it goes well in a variety of cocktails. I personally like to mix it with a bit of cinnamon and clove syrup and cold brew coffee to make a delicious twist on the classic Irish Coffee.”
The Artist cocktail
Nevin-Gattle recommends tasting it by itself to start. “Add some water, and see if that opens up anything. A large cube is also great. It works famously in cocktails, my personal favorite is using it in an Up To Date (a classic pre-Prohibition cocktail) substituting the rye for Slane. Slane pairs perfectly with the orange notes of the Grand Marnier and sherry. For another classic, you can’t go wrong with an Irish Coffee. Find a coffee that has notes of stone fruit and you’re set.”
For another Slane Irish whiskey cocktail, check out The Artist, a 1920’s recipe from the Artists’ Club in Paris, with Slane Irish Whiskey, Oloroso sherry, fresh lemon juice and raspberry syrup, served in a chilled coupe glass with a lemon twist.
*Please drink responsibly. Legal drinking age only.
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