Wrote this for the Examiner:
Our little nation may not have the respect for its food culture, but when it comes to drink, few nations do it better. The last two decades have seen us spread our wings, with an explosion of craft breweries, distilleries, even wineries. With all that we have to offer, this season of feasting is as good an excuse as any to celebrate our remarkable skill at making excellent booze.
- Craft beer – The biggest obstacle to getting into craft beer is the sheer variety – it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the array of brands, styles and increasingly unusual labels. Once you figure out the difference between an IPA, sour, saison or just what a lager is, you then have to try figure out which brand is an actual craft beer and which is brewed by a massive multinational and dressed up to look like a craft beer. The easiest thing to do is to find out where your nearest craft brewery is, and buy their produce. This way you get to call yourself a localvore, which makes you cool. Why not dip your toe into the delicious world of craft beer with one of the grandaddies of them all – the Franciscan Well Brewery on Cork’s North Mall. Their Rebel Red, Chieftain IPA and Friar Weisse are available almost everywhere (thanks to the market penetration of parent company Molson Coors, who bought the Well four years ago). Beyond that, Whiplash make some incredibly striking brews, both aesthetically and in their flavour profile – try their Drone Logic or Body Riddle. Dungarvan Brewing Company have the Helvick Gold Irish Blonde Ale, or Blacks of Kinsale’s IPA.
- Porter/stout – Technically a subsection of craft beers, but since our national drink is the black stuff, it deserves a mention of its own. This is the time of year for porter (made with malted barley) and stouts (unmalted roasted barley), so there are many craft brewers releasing their own variations. One perennial that is always worth a punt is the West Kerry Brewey’s Carraig Dubh Porter, the closest you will get to dark matter on earth. A dense, heavy porter, there is eating and drinking in this absolute monster of a brew. Since this is the season of darkness, there are plenty of one-off seasonal porter and stouts from the craft breweries – 12 Acres have Winter Is Coming oatmeal porter, Boyne Brewhouse have a barrel aged imperial stout, Eight Degrees have Holly King imperial stout, and Western Herd offer Night Pod vanilla porter.
- Vodka – Once seen as the drink of those who didn’t know what to drink, vodka is becoming more of a stand-alone drink in recent times, as we consumer more spirits on their own to savour their flavour, rather than drowned in an unpleasant energy drink. The old line about selling ice to the eskimos springs to mind when you discover that Blackwater Distillery in west Waterford make vodka for the Finnish government – but their output isn’t all shipped over to the Nordic lands. Blackwater also have their Woulfe’s Vodka in Aldi (24.99) while they also have their own Copper Pot Distilled Vodka (34.99). Then there is the Hughes Distillery’s Ruby Blue range, a potato distilled vodka, for around 38.99, or they have a whiskey-cask finished vodka for c 55. If you’re looking for an Irish Grey Goose, Kalak is a quadruple distilled vodka from West Cork – incredibly smooth, this retails for 40 – 45.
- Whiskey – What can we say about Irish whiskey – the fastest growing spirits category in the world, it is selling like hotcakes. Distilleries are springing up everywhere, and there are brands popping up like mushrooms. But beyond the holy trinity of Midleton, Bushmills and Cooley there aren’t that many distilleries with mature stock. So we will start with them – Midleton has Redbreast (65), an oldschool single pot still that is Christmas in a glass, with lots of notes of stewed fruits, spices and a creamy mouthfeel. Bushmills has the old reliable, Black Bush, an oft overlooked but core expression in their range, which retails for about 34, but can usually be found for less at this time of year. Cooley have the Tyrconnell 10-year-old Madeira Finish (70), a classic example of just how on-point John Teeling’s former operation could be. But hark – a challenger approaches – Dingle is the first distillery to release an independent single pot still whiskey in decades. It is a rich succulent whiskey, with notes of leather, tobacco and that heavy sherry influence, but it is more than that – it is a piece of liquid history (70). A limited release, it will sell fast. West Cork Distillers have their own stock, and a wild spirit of experimentation – try their Glengarriff series peat smoked and bog oak smoked casked whiskey.
- Gin – A category that has exploded, partly due to the rise of whiskey distilleries looking to generate revenue while their whiskey stocks mature – Dingle Distillery’s award-winning gin is a great example. Blackwater Distillery have released a barrage of gins, often seasonal, like their Boyle’s Gin for Aldi (24.99) and accompanying damson variation. However, they also created a perfect storm for the Irish mammy by distilling a gin using Barry’s Tea – mother’s ruin and mother’s greatest comfort in one, who would have thought of such a thing? Another excellent Irish gin with elements of tea is Patrick Rigney’s Gunpowder gin, one of the most beautiful gins on the shelf and with a liquid that equals the packaging.
- Poitin – Finding it in the wild is a rarity – the tradition of illegal distilling is disappearing fast, so it’s up to the modern distillers to keep the category alive. Aldi have an Irish-distilled Dolmen poitin, while there is also Bán poitín (55) from Echlinville distillery up North, which also comes in the quirky variation of Bán Barrelled and Buried (59) which has been casked and buried for a short period. Perhaps save this one for the goth in your life. Glendalough do a variety of poitins, showing the sheer potential of the category – entry level (38.99), Mountain Strength (48.99), and sherry finish (39.99). The Teeling boys also do a poitin (34.99), while the Straw Boys poitin (49.95) from Connaught Distillery is also worth a shot.
- Wine – Nobody thinks of Ireland when they hear the word wine, yet there are, in fact, Irish-made wines. Wicklow Way Wines is Ireland’s first fruit winery, home to Móinéir Fine Irish Fruit Wine, specifically a strawberry wine (20) – granted, not the best suited to a dank Christmas, but a welcome taste of summer in a bleak midwinter; or why not try their blackberry wine (20)? David Llewellyn creates Lusca wines in Lusk – his Cabernet Merlot (43.99) is more than just a curiosity.
- Cider – the quintessential all-season drink – with ice in summer, or mulled in winter, as advised by the good people at Longueville House, whose dry cider (4) is a beauty. Multi-award winning Stonewell from Nohoval offer some beautiful ciders, but their tawny is perfect for that festive cheese plate – a a rich, opulent and viscous cider, dark in colour and possessing complex bittersweet flavours. Also offering a solid core range is Johnny Fall Down – they’ve created an award winning Bittersweet Cider, a uniquely Irish Rare Apple Port (Pommeau), and the first Ice Cider created mainly from bittersweet varietals.
- Mead – With all the fuss about Game Of Thrones, who doesn’t want to live like a feudal lord and quaff mead? Naturally, being an aristocratic drink, the barony of Kinsale is home to Ireland’s latest entrant into the category. One of the oldest drinks in the world, their variations on this honey-based drink come in dry, with a refreshing citrus orange honey flavour, or their Wild Red, a melomel or fruit mead type, made from a Spanish dark forest honey, tart blackcurrants and sweet cherries to produce a zesty fruity aroma and long finish.
- Brandy – Not the most crowded category, it would appear that there is only one Irish brandy – Longueville House’s beautiful apple brandy. Made in the stately home, it is distilled from their cider and aged for at least four years in French oak barrels. A perfect end to your Christmas feast.
- Irish cream – The Irish cream category got a bad name, thanks to aunties everywhere drinking too much of it and embarrassing you. However, it is a hedonistic festive treat. The festive classic – Baileys over ice, ice-cream or in a coffee – is an oft-overlooked delight. There are of course, other Irish cream drinks – the wonderful Coole Swan, Cremor, Carolans, and Kerrygold. If there;s any left over, there’s always a Toblerone and Baileys cheesecake just crying out to be made.
- Hard coffee – Technically not really a category at all – until this year. Conor Coughlan’s Black Twist is single origin coffee brewed with whiskey. Don’t think Kahlua or Tia Maria – this has none of their cloying sweetness. Black Twist leans far more into coffee territory than whiskey, and is excellent over ice as a digestif, or as the secret weapon in a cocktail. Of course, this is the season to be jolly responsibly – so Black Castle Drinks offer something a little bit special so the designated driver won’t feel like a plum sipping their Red TK and raspberry cordial in the corner. Their craft sodas include Fiery Ginger Beer and Berry Bramble Sting, and are a treat for all ages.
Most of the above are available in SuperValu, your local artisan offie, or online. Almost all of the drinks are made by small, independent firms who are simply trying something new – supporting them, and our food and drink industry, really is the perfect Christmas gift.