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Slainte to alternative St Patrick’s Day tipples
2015-03-12
By John H. Isacs

As a fourth generation American of Northern European decent who’s spent most of his life in China, you may forgive me for getting confused about all the holidays and national days of significance around the world. But one holiday that I never miss is St Patrick’s Day and its not just because my favorite color is green.

Half of my ancestors were Irish and my grandmother was born on St Patrick’s Day. So come Tuesday, I’ll have many good reasons to drink. My only problem is that I don’t favor stout or other styles of beer. So in this week’s column I’ll suggest alternative beverages closely linked to the Emerald Isle.

Bordeaux

The wine connection between Bordeaux and Ireland may seem nebulous but there are good reasons to drink top Bordeaux wines on St Partick’s Day.

The Irish may not grow grapes but they certainly enjoy the fruit’s magic in a glass. According to a professor friend at Montesquie University in Bordeaux, there are 14 major chateaux, 10 streets and even a public monument in Bordeaux that feature Irish names.

Some of the best known chateaux with intimate Irish connections are Leoville-Barton, Langua-Barton, Lynch-Bages, Clarke, Boyd-Cantenac, Kirwan and Phelan Segur.

Chateaux Leoville-Barton and Langua-Barton are both located in St-Julien, the smallest Medoc sub-appellation that’s known for high-quality, harmonious and elegant wines. The Irish Barton family was one of the most important traders in Bordeaux in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the early 19th century they purchased a part of the large Leoville estate as well as Chateau Langoa and renamed them Leoville-Barton and Langoa-Barton. Both predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon wines offer abundant black fruit aromas and flavors with nicely structured tannins. Second growth Leoville-Barton is more weighty and complex than third growth Langoa-Barton but both wines offer a powerful yet quintessentially stylish St-Julien drinking experience.

One of the most sought after Bordeaux wines is Chateau Lynch-Bages. Owned by Irish Lynch family in the 17th and 18th centuries this full-bodied wine fifth growth is generally considered to be of second growth quality with remarkably rich fruity flavors and soft tannins. Admirers of Lynch-Bages are known to be fanatically devoted to this Pauillac wine.

Two third growth Margaux reds also sport Irish ties. Chateau Cantenac was purchased by the Belfast Boyd family in 1754 and renamed Boyd-Cantenac while a nearby property purchased by Edward Kirwan of Galway at the end of the same century become Chateau Kirwan. To be truthful both these properties underperform their 1855 Classification third growth status but they’re affordable and offer Margaux’s typical subtle elegance.

All the aforementioned wines will provide St Patrick’s Day revelers with a refined Bordeaux drinking experience. But the greatest of all Irish-related wines, albeit with a more tenuous connection to the Emerald Isle, is the legendary first growth Chateau Haut-Brion. In 1935, Irish-American banker Clarence purchased the esteemed chateau for 2,300,000 French Francs. Legend has it that he drove up to the chateau on a rainy day and unwilling to get wet he agreed to purchase the chateau while in his car enjoying a bottle of the great 1928 vintage. The illustrious chateau is still owned by the Dillon family.

My reverence for history and fine wines means I’ll be enjoying one or more bottles of Bordeaux wines with Irish pedigree next Tuesday night. For readers who favor something a bit stronger, there’s another great option.

Irish whiskey

If you believe that the Scots first made whisky, you’re wrong. The Irish made the original whiskey. First a little orthography, the Scots spell the word “whisky” while the Irish and Northern Americans use the term “whiskey.” Most historians credit Irish monks who traveled to the Mediterranean around AD 1,000 with bringing the skill of distillation back to Ireland. The first historical reference to Irish whiskey dates to 1404, compared to 1494 for Scotch whisky, and the world’s oldest licensed whiskey distillery Bushmills received a license from King James I in 1608.

When phylloxera devastated the vineyards of Cognac in France in the 1880s Irish whiskey became the world’s most popular spirit with over 12 million cases produced annually. This era of fortune was short. The triple whammy of Ireland’s War of Independence from 1919-21 that led to total embargo of the English market, the Prohibition Era from 1920-33 the United States and World War II devastated the Irish whiskey industry. The industry reached its nadir in the mid-1970s with only one company, Irish Distillers Ltd, and two distilleries in operation producing only about 400,000 cases annually.

Fast forward to the 21st century and Irish whiskey is experiencing a golden age of growth and popularity. There are now over 10 distilleries in operation or under construction with many more being planned. This can be attributed to often smaller distilleries making premium brand single malt or single pot still whiskeys.

Excellent examples are made by the distilleries Old Bushmills, New Midleton, Cooley and Kilbeggan.

While my favorite color is green, this St Partick’s day the only colors in my glass will be red and gold.

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