Move over, vodka. The fastest-growing spirit in the United States speaks with a jaunty brogue.
Author Jolyon Helterman
SEAN FREDERICK GETS a weary look on his face when I bring up the pickle back, and frankly it’s hard to blame the guy. We’re at Citizen Public House, Boston’s top brown-booze bar, where Frederick and crew make their bones on breathless paeans to flavor profiles and custom-crafted ice spheres, not indelicate double whammies of Irish whiskey and pickle juice. But wait: It turns out that he likes the drink; he’s simply vexed by the recipe.
“A pickleback at its best is a perfect yin and yang of sweetness and saltiness,” he says. “After that one-two punch fades, though, you’re mostly left with a lingering pickle flavor, so the brine can’t be an afterthought.” The staff auditioned upward of a dozen juices for the supporting role, and Frederick says he’s reasonably content—not thrilled—with the winner. “It’s much easier to find an easy-to-shoot Irish whiskey than a good off-the-shelf pickle brine,” he sighs.
The numbers would seem to bear out that claim. According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, American imports of Irish whiskey reached 1.7 million cases in 2011, a 27 percent increase from the year before (and more than double the 2006 volume), making it the fastest-growing liquor category in the U.S. Across the pond, distilleries report shifting production into overdrive to meet the demand. “It’s been exhilarating to keep up with,” says Colum Egan, master distiller at Bushmills, adding that it’s certainly “a good challenge to have.”
While traditional shamrock-plastered pubs have expanded their already Irish-dominated offerings, it’s really the new breed of spirit-specific craft bars that has fueled the category’s explosion. By and large, the best selections can be found at venues that specialize in Scottish and American bottlings but round out their sprawling lists with gems from the Emerald Isle. Citizen Public House offers 16 Irish varieties (out of a menu of 150-plus whiskeys); Fountainhead, in Chicago’s Ravenswood neighborhood, boasts 18.
Regardless of where regulars learn to love Irish, however, bartenders are key to the transition. “Typically, guests come here looking for our help to guide them to something new,” says Brad Danler, general manager of whiskey mecca Char No. 4 in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill neighborhood. “Irish whiskeys can be great gateway spirits—for example, for bourbon drinkers who are expanding their horizons but aren’t quite ready for scotch.” Indeed, Irish whiskeys run the flavor profile gamut, from light, gently raisin-y, vanilla-scented blends like Michael Collins and Jameson to full-throttle, ultra complex single malts like Redbreast (the favorite of every bartender I interviewed), a spirit redolent of tobacco, licorice, sherry, spice and honey.
As for Irish whiskey’s future, one can only speculate. But given that the category has grown by double-digit percentages every year for the past seven years, the future seems bright. Pickle companies might want to get a move on.