The Irish have been stereotyped, since the last century at least, for their reputed fondness for alcohol. In this there is, in fact, some truth. But, while drinking has long been, and remains today, an important social pastime among the Irish and their cousins abroad, Ireland also boasts one of the highest percentage of teetotalers in the world.
Those irish who do indulge have two world-class native drinks for which their enthusiasm may be excused -- Guinness stout and Irish whiskey. According to one survey, these and other drinks account for as much as 14 percent of the average drinker's desposable income. That figure, however accurate, is still misleading, in that a good share of what the Irish pay to drink goes to the government in taxes.
Stout, a strong, dark beer with an extremely malty taste, is Ireland's most popular drink. And Guinness, a brand name virtually synonymous with stout, is by far the most popular. Traditionally considered a man's drink, Guinness has been brewed along the banks of Dublin's Liffey River since 1759, when the Guinness family first launched its business.
Today the Guinness Brewery in St. James's Gate sprawls over a one-square-mile area, and even boasts its own railroad. Guinness accounts for about 60 percent of the beer sold in Ireland, and the drink is exported to more than 100 countries, having been popularized by Irish soldiers, sailors and merchants since the 1800s. Indeed, in Africa, Guinness is often prescribed by doctors.
Some Guinness fanciers insist that the drink at its best can only be had in Ireland. It doesn't travel well, they claim. Furthermore, a pint drawn in a pub is far surperior to the bottled version. And it takes an expert bartender to "pull a pint" just right, so that it finishes off with a head of creamy foam so thick you can carve your initials in it.
Irish whiskey has traditionally come in several brands, each with a distinct "personality" and taste. If you're a regular whiskey drinker, you're probably loyal to a particular brand: Jameson's, Paddy, Dunphy's, Power's, Murphy's, Tullamore Dew or Old Bushmill's. The last is distilled in the North, at the world's oldest licensed distillery (1609), and tastes rather closer to Scotch.
All are (or were) made by the Irish Distillers Group, which brought virtually all production of distilled spirits in Ireland under its umbrella in the 1930s. (Within the last year, Irish Distillers has stopped making Paddy, Dunphy's Murphy's, Tullamore Dew, and Power's.)
An English historian and scribe who visited Ireland in the 16th century came home praising the virtues of Irish whiskey:
It sloweth age; it strengtheneth youth; it helpeth digestion; it cutteth fleume; it abandoneth melancholie; it relisheth the harte; it lighteneth the mind; it quickeneth the spirites; it cureth the hydropsie; it puffeth away ventrositie.....and trulie it is a soveraign liquor if it be orderlie taken.....
Unlike its American and Canadian cousins, "Irish" starts with barley rather than corn or rye. The barley is malted (permitted to sprout) and then dried and mashed with water. The malt mixture is then distilled -- not once, as Scotch normally is, but three times. Triple distillation gives Irish whiskey (note that it's spelled with an "e") a taste that's smoother and milder than Scotch.
Scotch whisky is distilled only once -- and takes on a smoky taste from the peat that fuels the open malting ovens. The grain is "Irish" is cured in a closed oven heated by smokeless anthracite coal. Once distilled, the liquor is still clear, but after at least seven years in an oaken cask -- the required period for maturing "Irish" -- it takes on an amber shade from the wood in the casks.
Irish whiskey is 86 proof -- that is, 43 percent alcohol by volume. Some drink it neat (straight or undiluted), others add some water. Experts, however, frown on adding soda or ice.
There are three other drinks, all based on Irish whiskey, that have popular followings, even if their origins are fairly recent. Irish cream liqueur can be a particularly habit-forming aperitif, blending whiskey, cream and chocolate. Irish Mist liqueur, a proprietary brand, weds the sweetness of honey with the smooth "punch" of Irish whiskey.
Best known of all, perhaps, is Irish coffee, which may have been invented in the United States, or in Ireland, depending on whom you listen to. In any case, it seems to be more popular among wisitors to Ireland than amony the natives. This internationally known brew is made as follows:
First, warm an 8-ounce goblet or an Irish coffee glass in very hot or boiling water. Next, pour in a measure of whiskey. Then add 5 or 6 ounces of fresh, hot black coffee, followed by a teaspoon of sugar. After you stir the contents until the sugar is dissolved, a generous dollop of sweetened whipped cream is floated on top. The Resulting concoction is usually irresistible, especially on a cold or rainy day.
Poteen or poitin (pronounced "pot-cheen"), named for the "little pot" in which it is normally made, is Ireland's version of "moonshine" -- an illegal, home-brewed liquor. Poteen is more a vodka than a whiskey. In the past, it was usually distilled from potato mash, but grain, a less expensive substitute, is the rule nowadays.
Poteen is not easily come by today. For one thing, many expert poteen-makers, disliking the attention of the gardai (Irish police), emigrated to America during Prohibition, where many used their know-how to make enormous fortunes. Still, when economic times are bad in the rural districts of the West and South, there's usually an upsurge in Poteen distilling. In any event, even when poteen is available, it is a well-kept secret to outsiders. That's probably all for the best, since -- as the initiated know from experience -- it produces some of the worst hangovers imaginable!