Sunday March 11, 2012
Luck o’ the Irish
By MICHAEL CHEANG
Our columnist goes green as he looks ahead to St Patrick’s Day.
AH, Ireland. The land of leprechauns, pots of gold at the end of rainbows, shamrocks, and Robbie Keane. Every March 17 on St Patrick’s Day, people around the world celebrate the country’s culture through its favourite holiday with parties, parades and lots of drinking, regardless of whether they are Irish or not.
It may seem that way these days, but St Patrick’s Day was not always a day for people to wear green and get drunk. It is actually a Christian holiday that celebrates the feast day of St Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, who was credited with converting the former Irish Celtic pagans to Christianity. For those who practise its intended meaning, it is a day for spiritual renewal and offering prayers.
These days however, St Patrick’s Day has become so much more than that – it is one of the most celebrated national holidays in the world, and has been transformed into a day of revelry, with parades and parties full of people wearing green, displaying shamrocks, drinking green beer, and generally pretending to be Irish for a day.
According to an article on About.com (homecooking.about.com), the tradition of drinking alcoholic drinks during St Patrick’s Day traces its roots back to an old Irish legend, which started with St Patrick going to an inn and was served a measure of whiskey that was considerably less than a measure. Because they take their whiskey seriously in Ireland, St Patrick decided to teach the bartender the lesson of generosity by claiming there was a demon in the inn cellar that fed on the innkeeper’s stinginess, and that in order to banish it, he had to change his ways. St Patrick came back to the inn sometime later to find the innkeeper filling everyone’s glasses to almost overflowing, and proceeded to banish the demon in the basement. After that, St Patrick proclaimed that everyone should have a bit of the “hard stuff” during his feast day.
No matter how you celebrate it, if you’re going to drink something Irish during St Patrick’s Day, you’ll be glad to know that you won’t be spoilt for choice, as the Irish definitely have some of the most interesting and popular beers and spirits in the world. Chief amongst them, of course, is Guinness.
Iconic black stuff
First brewed in Dublin way back in 1759, Guinness is now available in 151 countries, and is brewed locally in 51 countries, including Malaysia. Made from a combination of water, barley, malt, hops, brewer’s yeast and a “secret ingredient”, the iconic black brew (it is actually very dark ruby red) gets its colour from the roasted unmalted barley used in the brewing process.
Guinness has an almost legendary, iconic status amongst drinkers in Malaysia. It is one of the brewery’s largest markets globally, and the Guinness Draught brewed in Malaysia by Guinness Anchor Berhad was actually voted the best Guinness brewed outside of Ireland last year.
There are currently two forms of Guinness being sold here – Guinness Draught on tap, and Guinness Foreign Extra Stout (FES) by the bottle – and they are distinctly different beers.
The FES is a powerful, heady, and strong concoction, containing 6.8% ABV (which may not seem like much, but can still pack a punch). It has an intense aroma of somewhat sour burnt malt with hints of caramel-ly sweetness, and a full-bodied, rich malty flavour, with a malty bitter finish that lingers long after you’ve finished it.
If you’ve been drinking your Guinness at pubs by the pint, then chances are you’ve been drinking Guinness Draught. While the recipes for both beers are largely similar according to the official Guinness Storehouse website, the difference between the two is that the Draught is dispensed using a mixture of nitrogen and carbon dioxide, which produces the tight, creamy head it is famous for. The FES, on the other hand, has no nitrogen, but has more carbonation for “increased refreshment”.
At 4.8% ABV, Guinness Draught is a lot easier to drink and more refreshing than the FES in terms of taste, making it an ideal starting point for Guinness beginners. While it is slightly less full-bodied than the FES, it is still wonderfully creamy and rich, with balanced flavours of malted barley, slightly bitter yet sweet caramel notes, and a refreshing, almost soothing finish.
Oh, by the way, when ordering a Guinness Draught, make sure the bartender follows the unique two-part pour specified by the brewers to get the best possible pint of the black stuff.
Another Irish beer brewed by GAB is Kilkenny. This pale Irish ale is arguably the most popular ale in Malaysia right now, and is widely available both in bottles and on tap. Pouring a beautiful ruby-red, It is an easy-drinking ale that has just the right balance of refreshing sweetness and rich maltiness, making it my go-to beer whenever I want something that is not too light (like a lager), but not too heavy (like a Guinness) either.
Whiskey vs. Whisky
There is a long-standing dispute between Scotland and Ireland over who made whisky (or rather, whiskey with the extra “e”, as they call it in Ireland) first. The Irish claim that they were the ones who first started distilling the spirit, and exported it to the Scots, who went and made it the “wrong way”.
These days, Irish whiskey may not be as globally renowned as Scotch whisky, but that doesn’t mean it is inferior. In fact, some people actually prefer Irish whiskey over Scotch, claiming it to be smoother and more well-balanced.
Unlike the 80-odd distilleries littered around Scotland, Ireland currently has only three major distilleries producing its 30 brands or so of different whiskies – Bushmills, Cooley and Midleton (which produces one of the country’s best-selling brands, Jameson).
Like Scotland, Ireland also produces single malt and single grain whiskies. However, one type of whiskey that truly sets Irish whiskey apart from Scotch is pure pot still whiskey such as Green Spot and Redbreast, which are only made in Ireland.
Distilled in traditional copper pot stills, these whiskies are made using both malted and unmalted barley, making it seem oilier than most Scotch whiskies. It is also usually tripled-distilled, which somehow makes it seem more balance and fruitier than Scotch.
Unfortunately, pure pot still whiskey tends to be a little hard to come by, especially in Malaysia. But if you are looking for a taste of Irish whiskey, you can always try some of the blended ones that are quite common here such as Jameson or Bushmills.
One of the better ones I have tried is the Jameson Gold Reserve, a full-bodied, almost syrupy powerhouse of a whiskey that makes its more popular flagship Jameson Irish Whiskey seem like a leprechaun in comparison. I also found the few Bushmills whiskies I’ve tried (including the exceptional Bushmills Black Bush) to be quite unique and smooth, putting even some of Scotland’s finest to shame.
Whiskey is not the only famous Irish spirit export though. There’s also Bailey’s Irish Cream, one of the most popular cream liqueurs in the world. While you could always drink it neat over ice or with some milk, the best ways to drink Bailey’s is usually in cocktails such as the Mudslide (equal parts vodka, Bailey’s and coffee liqueur, shaken with ice or served on the rocks); or the Baby Guinness (three parts coffee liqueur in a shot glass, and one part Bailey’s layered carefully on top of it so it looks like a tiny glass of Guinness).
> Michael Cheang reckons that even if there is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, there had better be a pint of Guinness.