The Irish economy, until recently dubbed the Celtic Tiger because of its fearsome growth, is a wasteland. The construction boom has collapsed, manufacturing has imploded and government bonds aren't worth their weight in stale Yukon golds.
But verdant patches are sprouting amid the rubble. There's U2's new CD, No Line on the Horizon, released this month at the band's usual Billboard debut, No. 1. More remarkable, there's the Celtic Whisky Tiger.
Defying a general malaise in the global spirits sector, Irish whisky is roaring. There will be boatloads consumed on March 17 by people in green sweaters, of course. But for brands such as Jameson, Bushmills, Redbreast, Connemara, Tullamore Dew and Tyrconnell, it has been St. Patrick's Day all year long and, in some cases, all decade long.
Pernod-Ricard, the French giant that controls Jameson, the dominant brand with more than half of the global Irish-whisky market, reported in February that worldwide sales rose 14 per cent in dollar terms (7 per cent in volume) in the second half of 2008.
In the United States, Ireland's biggest spirits market, Jameson fans appear to be sipping their way through layoffs and car repossessions. Stateside sales of the brand, which accounts for two-thirds of that country's market, rose a formidable 21 per cent.
In Canada, overall sales of Irish whisky (Celtic culture buffs insist on spelling it "whiskey") rose 11 per cent in volume last year, the highest of any hard-liquor category, according to Spirits Canada, a trade association. That was well ahead of 1.1 per cent for the overall spirits sector, which lagged behind the population increase of 1.2 per cent. In comparison, Scotch and Canadian whisky both were slightly down.
All of which may tempt one to ask: Could it be the McNulty effect?
Fans of the HBO detective series The Wire will recognize Jameson as the preferred guzzle of Jimmy McNulty, the hard-boiled detective who eschews competing brand Bushmills because it's "Protestant whisky." The partisan reference is to the latter's origins in the Loyalist North, while Jameson is from Catholic-dominated Dublin.
Prime-time exposure has no doubt helped, but Jameson's ascension began long before The Wire. By 1996, the brand had already grown to 1 million cases annually and was the fastest-growing whisky in the world. Sales last year reached 2.73-million nine-litre cases, according to Pernod-Ricard, although that's still just one quarter the size of Tennessee-based Jack Daniel's, the world's No. 1 whisky.
My own theory, for what it's worth, goes like this. A new wave of drinkers is discovering that Irish whisky is light relative to other brown spirits and yet enjoys the cachet of Old World sophistication. Flavour-wise, it's generally not peated and so lacks the smoky note of most Scotches. It's also triple distilled in contrast to double-distilled Scotch to eradicate additional harsh notes, trading a smidgeon of complexity for added smoothness.
Jameson in particular happens to be popular with 25- to 35-year-olds, many of whom might have started with flavourless vodka but who now crave the connoisseur cred of a brown spirit matured in wood. Irish whisky is also easy to drink year-round and can be mixed into, say, a Manhattan. Don't try that at home with a robust, smoky Scotch.
And the clincher: To discerning, cost-conscious palates, Irish whisky represents value. With many luxury Scotches shattering the $100 barrier, the Irish stuff is a steal at roughly $50 to $60 for many top brands. Regular Jameson runs about $30 across Canada and is one of the best buys in the whisky aisle. I suspect many new Jameson drinkers are refugees from the Single Malt Scotch aisle.
But Jameson isn't the only whisky making its mark. Most of my other favourites come from a relatively new distillery, Cooley, which was established in 1987 by Harvard-educated Irish entrepreneur John Teeling. Teeling shrewdly set out to upset what was then a monopoly by Irish Distillers, which at the time owned both Jameson and Bushmills. The latter is now owned by British giant Diageo, which last year extended its portfolio with the super-premium and toasty Bushmills 1608 Anniversary Edition.
The Cooley Distillery sparked a renaissance in the Irish industry by reviving old brands such as The Tyrconnell and Kilbeggan and introducing new ones such as Greenore single-grain and Tyrconnel's range of aged-wood finishes imbued with port, sherry and Madeira notes. Cooley's line of Connemara whiskies are particularly distinctive for their smoky quality, the result of Scotch-style drying of the grain over peat fire. They're sublime if expensive at about $65 to $160.
And the Cooley whiskies now compete against an expanded variety of impressive brands available in Canada from Irish Distillers, including not just Jameson and its high-end spinoffs, such as 1780 12-Year-Old, but also the excellent Green Spot and Redbreast. The latter, a chestnut-hued 12-year-old, was the top seller in Ontario during the past 11 months, jumping 13.7 per cent.
At this rate, brown could turn out to be the new green on St. Patrick's Day.
KNOW YOUR WHISKY
Bushmills Black Bush, $35
- Big step up from regular white-label Bushmills, more malt and sherry flavour, dry and spicy.
Connemara Peated Single Malt, $63.95, Ontario
- Seaweed and salt with an underpinning of smoke on a delicate body. Faintest hint of sweetness. Complex yet very easy to sip.
Connemara 12-Year-Old Single Malt, $154
- Superb peated whisky. A sea-side bonfire of a spirit, round, sweet, salty and very smoky. The "Emerald Islay."
- Aged 12 years in old sherry and bourbon casks for a rich flavour hinting at honey, sherry, malt and apple. Substantial.
The Tyrconnell Single Malt, $53
- The quintessence of Irish whisky. Super-dry and big on grain flavour morning cereal in a bottle. Three sips will make you Irish if you aren't already.
Tyrconnell Madeira Cask, $89, Ontario Vintages
ONLINE EXCLUSIVE (www.vintagesshoponline.com)
One of several super-premium Tyrconnels, aged for a final stretch in barrels previously containing Madeira. Intense and dry, with notes of old church wood, candied orange, spice and smoke.