My introduction to Irish whiskey was in college in the form of an Irish car bomb -- a pint of Guinness into which the bartender drops a shot of Irish whiskey and some Bailey's Irish Cream'but queens have been drinking it in far more refined ways since the 16th century, when Queen Elizabeth I was said to have had casks shipped to London on a regular basis.
When I reintroduced myself to the spirit years later, after having become well-acquainted with its Scottish counterpart, I was delighted to discover that Irish whiskey has a comparatively lighter, smoother taste -- flavor nuances I'd missed as I scraped myself off the floor of the bar the first time around. Unlike Scotch, which is usually distilled twice, and American whiskey or bourbon, which is distilled just once, Irish whiskey undergoes three distillations (usually in copper-pot stills), so that much of the smoky and oaky elements associated with its cousins are removed. To celebrate the 400th anniversary of its license to distill -- the first issued in Ireland -- the venerable brand Bushmills has released a limited-edition Bushmills 1608, which will be available in February through the end of 2008 for $100. In March, the distillery's chief competitor to the south, Jameson, is releasing its own limited edition, the Jameson Rarest Vintage Reserve, a creamy, fruity concoction of which only 1,300 cases were produced. If you can get your hands on a bottle, it'll set you back $250.
At prices like that, it's a shame to mix the whiskey with anything but a little water to release complex flavors, but with less expensive Irish whiskeys, when I'm not warming up with an unbeatable Irish coffee, I've been combining it with ginger ale or even cranberry juice on ice to refreshing success.
On the next page, Out proceeds with caution outside Ireland and Scotland and picks four international whiskeys worth trying.
Suntory Yamazaki Single Malt 18-year-old Whisky, Japan. The nations's oldest whiskey distillery, Suntory was made famous as the product Bill Murray's character was shilling in 2003's Lost in Translation.
Mackmyra Preludium, Sweden. Started by eight alumni of Stockholm's Royal Institute of Technology. Mackmyra's first bottles of malt whiskey sold out in an hour in 2006.
Mekhong, Thailand. Made at the Bangyikhan Distillery since 1941, some 19 million cases of Mekhong are sold in Thailand every year. Renowned both for ubiquity and potency.
Bagpiper Whisky, India. India's best-selling whiskey -- with sales of 10 million cases in 2006 -- Bagpiper boasts endorsements from several of Bollywood's finest.
Penderyn Single Malt Welsh Whisky, Wales. After a 100-year absence from the world whiskey scene, the Welsh Whisky Company introduced Penderyn in 2000.
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