Whisky drinkers are a loyal bunch. Loyal to a particular style, that is. There are Scotch aficionados, Bourbon fanatics, Canadian-whisky lovers and Irish tipplers. Most tend to stick with their country of preference, even more so than wine drinkers, I think.
As a fan of all good spirits (and wines), I have no such fixation. It's a question of mood, isn't it? Sometimes you want a rich cabernet, sometimes a pinot noir. It's the same with whisky. And if whisky could be wine, this roughly is how I think it might break down: Scotch would be bold cabernet, Bourbon would be sweet shiraz, Canadian would suggest mellow merlot and Irish would be delicate pinot noir.
But, as with wine, the stylistic lines have started to blur. Some pinot noirs, notably from California, do a pretty good imitation of shiraz, with high alcohol and jammy fruit. Nowhere is whisky's stylistic migration more evident than in the case of Irish whiskey (which, incidentally, is spelled with an "e," just as American whiskey is).
Each year in the lead up to St. Patrick's Day, which falls on March 17, I cheerfully sample an array of premium Irish offerings. It might be offensive to call the most intriguing ones Scotch-like, but - with U2 respectfully spinning on my turntable and a humble request for forgiveness from St. Patrick - I'm tempted. Although more delicate than most single malt Scotches because they are distilled three times as opposed to two and generally contain a higher proportion of lighter grains such as wheat and corn versus robust barley, Irish whiskies are often as complex. In some cases, they even call to mind the peated - or smoky - quality of many single malts.
Yes, they occasionally dry their malted barley (in the case of barley-based whiskies) over fires fuelled with peat, known locally as turf. If you're a Scotch fanatic and have not tried Irish whiskey since the modern distilling resurgence began on the island in the late 1980s, I urge you to do so. The three whiskies listed here are available in Ontario through Vintages stores and some are available in various other provinces. Connemara Peated Single Malt, Ireland SCORE: 94 PRICE: $54.95 I love this spirit. It's like a super-smoky Islay single malt but lighter on its feet, like Jack Dempsey in the ring. Beeswax, iodine, nuts and spice come together under a cloud of fireplace smoke. An eye-opener for Irish whiskey skeptics. It was released in Ontario in 2007 at $66.95. Thank the strength of the loonie against the euro for that.
Locke's 8 Year Old Single Malt, Ireland
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $54.95
Fans of Scottish Speyside whiskies should love the sweet, malty core here. Dried fruit, toasted cereal and vanilla mingle in the mouth, and there's a slightly smoky, earthy, tangy finish thanks to partial drying over peat. When I last wrote about this five years ago, the price was $64.95.
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $34.95
Blended from peated and unpeated malts and grain whisky, this has the essence of a good Scottish single malt, but it's sweeter, fruitier and dances more lightly and smoothly on the tongue.
Domaine de la Colline Saint-jean Vieilles Vignes Vacqueyras 2007, France
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $22.95
Full-bodied and exceptionally ripe with 14.5-per-cent alcohol, this red from a good vintage in the Rhône Valley offers up concentrated dark-skinned fruit with spice and herbs in a juicy, meaty, peppery package. I love the roasted quality. It's like pork jus laced with thyme and espresso coffee. Serve it with lamb. Available through Vintages in Ontario.
Domaine de la Tour Chablis 1er Cru Monts-Mains 2008, France
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $29.95
A creamy, buttery core in this chardonnay creates a nice platform for nuts, pear and a hint of mineral. Very elegant, it would be nice with roast chicken or scallops seared in butter. Available through Vintages in Ontario.
Maison Roche de Bellene Côtes de Nuits-Villages Vieilles Vignes 2008, France
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $24.95
This red Burgundy based on pinot noir could pass for a gamay, the red variety of nearby Beaujolais, but I'm talking good gamay. Light- to medium-bodied, berry-like and floral, it's got just the right amount of juicy acidity and would pair well with fish. Available through Vintages in Ontario.
Meloni Terreforru Cannonau di Sardegna 2007, Italy
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $15.95
Cannonau is the local name for the grenache grape on the Mediterranean island of Sardinia. It may not always rise to the heights for which it's known in Châteauneuf-du-Pape in France, but it's usually a good buy. This red is medium full-bodied and very ripe, with a rounded, silky quality and notes of succulent berry, violet and old church pew. It's like surreptitiously munching on a Lowney's Cherry Blossom during Sunday mass. And it's organic. Consider serving it with lamb or pork. Available through Vintages in Ontario.
Caruso & Minini Timpune Grillo 2009, Italy
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $13.95
The Sicilian grape grillo is a central component in Marsala, the sweet fortified wine. But it makes a nice dry white, too. This soft, light- to medium-bodied example offers up sour lemon, wet stone and a lightly aromatic, floral quality. It would pair well with many vegetarian dishes and shellfish pasta. Available through Vintages in Ontario.
Fattori Runcaris Soave Classico 2009, Italy
SCORE: 85 PRICE: $13.95
This is a good, straightforward Soave, the classic white wine of the Veneto. It's light and lean, shows peach and apple doused with lemon and finishes with a delicate bitterness. It's a decent white for casual sipping or for shellfish. Available through Vintages in Ontario.