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John Lamb, Published March 11 2013

Irish whiskeys deliver St. Patrick’s Day spirit(s)

WEST FARGO – With St. Patrick’s Day creeping up on Sunday, folks will be looking for a way to get a taste of the Emerald Isle, even in the land-locked Midwest.

Sure, you can sample some Irish stew or grab a pint of Guinness or Harp, but if you want to really get into the spirit(s), try something a wee bit smaller, but stronger.

On Saturday afternoon more than 30 people took their first shots at celebrating the holiday with an Irish whiskey tasting at Maxwells in West Fargo.

(The restaurant also features an Irish-themed menu this Friday through Sunday.)

Two years ago the Distilled Spirits Council noted that Irish whiskey was the fastest growing sales category in the United States. The launch of a popular ad campaign by Jameson only increased momentum. (The Local, a Minneapolis pub, reportedly averaged going through 25 bottles a day in 2010, making it the largest server of the sweet stuff in the world.)

The tasting provided a good opportunity for curious drinkers to learn about the foreign flavor.

Ryan Straabe, Maxwells’ bar manager, and Sean Dunnigan, a sous chef and Irish whiskey enthusiast led the introductions to five varieties.

First things first were some definitions on just what Irish whiskey is.

Of course, Dunnigan noted that the product must be distilled and aged in Ireland. Also, the drink must be aged at least three years in barrels.

The tasting started with Jameson as a baseline as it is readily available in bars and liquor stores.

A small shot was poured neat (no ice) in a small snifter. Before you could even put the glass to your lips, the pungent aroma of the malted and un-malted barley burst into your nostrils.

“This isn’t a smoky whiskey, so the malt really stands out,” Dunnigan said.

The most bracing of the samples, it was the sharpest, strongest taste of the afternoon.

Next up was Kilbeggan, the only one of the five offerings on Saturday not produced by the New Midleton Distillery. Kilbeggan started in 1757 and boasts of being the world’s oldest distillery. That may be, but operations there ended in 1954 and didn’t start again until 2007.

“This is a peaty whiskey which is very untraditional,” Dunnigan said. “It has a strong smoke flavor that you don’t find in Jameson and a bit of a spice.”

Indeed, Kilbeggan uses tropical and citrus fruits and vanilla, making it smooth at 40 percent alcohol by volume. For my taste, it was too smooth and lacked the edge I like in whiskey.

Not the case with Redbreast 15. Aged for 15 years in both sherry casks and American bourbon whiskey barrels, the unblended whiskey had a rich flavor without being over powering.

Our next pour was another Jameson, this time the Limited Reserve. Aged 18 years, it is considered “the elder statesman” of the family. Older and mellower, it was nowhere near as robust as the standard Jameson.

When it comes to mellow, nothing beat the last pour of the day, a Midleton Very Rare, the name brand of the distillery.

How rare is it? Only about 50 casks are released a year and each is aged between 12 and 25 years.

At 40 percent a.b.v., it was easy-going and had the smoothest, richest taste of them all, with a faint bite at first sip.

Ringing in around $170 for retail, you’ll pay for those finer characteristics.

But it wasn’t necessarily a case of saving the best for last for Saturday’s tasting.

Straabe polled the room and found that Redbreast was the crowd favorite.

“Personally, I thought the Midleton would come in and clean up,” the bar manager said, with Midleton and Jameson Limited Reserve 18 getting equal votes for second place.

But what would any good Irish gathering be without a debate.

“I didn’t like it at all,” Andrew Marry, a native Irishman, said of Redbreast. “It was too fruity, more like a bad white wine than a whiskey and that’s a horrible thing to say about a whiskey.”

A regular Jameson drinker, he was also not too impressed with Midleton either.

“There was almost nothing to it,” Marry said.

But opinions on Irish whiskey aren’t just held by the Irish.

Ola Andersson, a native of Sweden, was one of the many impressed by the Redbreast.

“It was a little bolder than I expected and that surprised me in a positive way,” he said after the event. “I’m going to the liquor store now to see if I can find it.”

Take a tour of Ireland

Irish whiskeys served at Maxwells, as described by the restaurant:

• Jameson Irish Whiskey: Triple distilled with a perfect balance of malted and un-malted barley to give natural barley flavor. Balances sweet nutty flavor from Sherry casks with toasted wood and vanilla tastes from bourbon casks.

• Kilbeggan Irish Whiskey: Features a soft, silky smooth texture. Made from tropical and citrus fruits together with vanilla and wood aromas, it first tastes sweet, followed by the vanilla and toasted wood finish.

• Jameson 18-year-old Limited Reserve: Has a mellow, complex taste with lingering finale of wood, spice and toffee. Matured no less than 18 years in a combination of bourbon and oloroso sherry casks and finished in bourbon barrels.

• Midleton Very Rare Irish Whiskey: Aged between 12 and 25 years in bourbon-seasoned oak casks. Features a unique taste of fruits, honey and floral nuances. Only a small number of casks are picked each year, and each bottle is personally signed by the master distiller.

• Red Breast 15: Single unblended, triple distilled in old copper pot stills. Aged for at least 12 years in oloroso sherry casks and bourbon whiskey barrels, it has a smooth and mellow character.

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533