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Irish whiskey seeing huge growth – with a little help from Katy Perry

Distiller Bernard Walsh got a surprise lesson from his nine-year-old daughter last month regarding the changing demographics of Irish whiskey consumption. The owner and managing director of Walsh Whiskey Distillery, maker of a brand called Writer's Tears, admits he's not as plugged in to social media as even the youngest of his four girls. "It was Kate who came to me and said, 'Dad, have you checked this out? Katy Perry has been posting up stuff for our whiskey,'" he recalled.

That "stuff" was an Instagram photograph of a bottle of Writer's Tears. Across it, in large blue type, was an entreaty to "drink up."

If Perry, 32, is an Irish-whiskey kind of gal, she's just the latest female superstar to broadcast her thirst for a once-stodgy spirit that continues to post remarkable growth. In a column five years ago, I cited the unsolicited public tributes paid to the dominant brand, Jameson, by three other singers, Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Pink. That hipness factor has helped deliver a 300-per-cent jump in sales for Irish whiskey globally in the past 10 years, according to figures from the Irish agriculture ministry.

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And lately there's been a scramble for a piece of the action. As recently as 2013, Ireland remained home to just four distilleries. As of Jan. 1, 2017, there were 16, according to the Irish Whiskey Association, and there are 15 more in construction or planning.

Most prominent on the horizon is Roe & Co, scheduled to be christened in 2019 on the historic Guinness brewing site at St. James's Gate, Dublin. Behind the brand is the beer company's parent, Diageo, which exited the Irish whiskey sector two years ago by trading Bushmills to Jose Cuervo for Don Julio tequila. Diageo has already commenced selling a premium whiskey by the name Roe & Co, launched earlier this month in select European cities, but that spirit is blended from stocks distilled years ago that had been maturing in existing warehouses.

Long viewed by many as Scotch's lighter, boring cousin, Irish whiskey is distilled three times versus the typical two for Scotch. That process yields a more delicate, easy-sipping character that's said to make the spirit more cocktail-friendly and particularly alluring to younger drinkers looking to graduate beyond vodka.

Yet along with the smooth boom has come, praise be, a renaissance in bolder, richer flavours recalling Irish whiskey's golden age: the 19th century. Writer's Tears is a fine example of a key style that's come to be labelled – none too clearly, I might add – "single-pot still." Created in 1999, Writer's Tears is based entirely on barley, the sole grain of single-malt Scotch. Barley had been the pillar of whiskey in Ireland until the 20th century, when it took a back seat to lighter, sweeter corn in large-scale blends typified by the entry-level offerings of Jameson and Bushmills.

So, think of single-pot-still whiskey as Ireland's single-malt Scotch: made batch-by-batch at a single distillery, solely from barley in copper-pot stills (versus the industrial-output continuous stills used for mass-market whiskies). Got that? Besides nationality, though, there's one key difference. Pot-still Irish whiskey includes unmalted, or "green," barley, often in a roughly 50-50 proportion with malted barley. Unmalted barley, initially an early 1800s tax dodge designed to skirt a punitive levy imposed on malted barley by Britain, was harder to ferment but came with an unexpected bonus. It added creamy texture and spicy bite.

Tapping demand for luxury bottlings, Walsh recently released a spicier, bolder edition of its regular $50-plus pot-still whiskey to select markets. There were just 2,000 bottles of Writers' Tears Cask Strength Irish Whiskey produced for the world, not enough for U.S. distribution but available in small quantities in Ontario ($179.95) and Alberta (various prices), and it's already found a high-profile customer back home. Walsh says four bottles were sold in person at the Celtic Whiskey Shop in Dublin before Christmas to The Edge, U2's guitarist. "We reckon we know where the four bottles were going to," Walsh added.

For most of Ireland's new crop of fledgling distilleries, small-batch, pot-still whiskies are likely to be the bread and butter if for no other reason than that large-scale continuous-still blends require vast capital outlays. But big players, notably Irish Distillers, owned by French giant Pernod-Ricard, which controls Jameson as well as several other brands, have been focusing on exciting smaller-lot offerings, too, and adding line extensions featuring flavours enhanced by a variety of barrel types.

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Jameson Caskmates, for example, was partly matured for six months in barrels that had contained stout from Franciscan Well, a Cork-based craft brewery that initially borrowed used whiskey casks from Jameson. The result: creamier texture and added notes of bitter chocolate and coffee. Caskmates Stout Edition sells for $39.95 in Ontario and $39.99 in British Columbia and is available in several other provinces.

Among the more compelling, if more expensive, offerings in Irish Distillers' lineup, though, are two single-pot-still whiskies from a bygone era that have been enjoying wider distribution in North America: Redbreast and Green Spot.

Whereas most Irish and Scottish whiskies are matured in used bourbon barrels, Redbreast 12-year-old ($79.95 in Ontario, $78.50 in Quebec, $78.79 in New Brunswick, $79.99 in Nova Scotia, $79.35 in Newfoundland) is blended from a mix of bourbon- and sherry-oak casks, with a substantial proportion coming from the latter. Twelve to 14 years of contact with fortified Spanish wine residue gives the marvellous spirit a delectable dried-fruit character of raisin and fig as well as of nuts. I detect a whisper of white chocolate in the succulent mix, too. "A lot of people call it a Christmas-cake-style effect," says Dave McCabe, an apprentice blender with Irish Distillers.

With Green Spot, the distillery relies more on long contact – 10 years, roughly – with ex-bourbon barrels. The spirit is more about fresh orchard fruits, such as green apple, as well as clove-like spice than holiday sweets. Ranging from $85.40 in Ontario to $68.99 in British Columbia, it's not cheap but it's hardly out of line with single-malt Scotch.

And it's a steal next to a whiskey made at Jameson's Midleton distillery in Cork that was launched in Europe last month and is almost as old as Katy Perry. It spent 31 years maturing in cask and is part of a new line called Method and Madness. Price: €1,500, or about $2,140.

Maybe Bono will buy it for The Edge next Christmas.

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