Beer or whisky. It's one or the other for most St. Patrick's Day revellers, at least until somebody devises a way to dye pinot noir green. I plan to do my part Sunday by hoisting both. And I'm not even Irish. This is the plan: Innis & Gunn Irish Whiskey Cask Oak Aged Beer. It's two drinks in one, a mahogany-coloured stout matured in barrels that once contained 80-proof Irish liquor.
Excellent it is, too. There's a dark-roast barley-malt essence hinting at chocolate and molasses, as might be expected of a stout, joined by hints of raisin and prune. If you can find a quiet moment amid the jollity of St. Paddy's Day, you might also detect traces of caramel, vanilla and whisky from the saturated wood.
Though Irish in spirit, it's made in Scotland by a 10-year-old brewery that specializes in premium wood-aged offerings. This 2013 bottling, at 7.4-per-cent alcohol, is the second run for the Whiskey Cask edition, released this month in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Nova Scotia at $3.45 to $4.49 per 330– millilitre bottle. Billed as the first brew to get the Irish whisky treatment, the inaugural 2012 vintage last year danced a faster jig than Michael Flatley through the distribution chain in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom. Sweden alone sold 40,000 bottles in 10 days, remarkable for an expensive brew.
Beer infused with the essence of Scotch, Bourbon and Canadian-whisky barrels is in vogue among craft-brew enthusiasts today, but 10 years ago oak-finished beers were hard to find. In fact, at Innis & Gunn, oaksoaked beer was a collateral accident that gave birth to the brewery. Owner Dougal Sharp was a production manager at his family's Edinburgh brewery when William Grant & Sons, maker of Glenfiddich Scotch, asked him to create a rich ale that could be used to infuse casks with a beery essence. The brew was then to be discarded and the empty casks shipped to the distillery, where they would be filled with whisky. Down the drain the suds went for months until brewery workers discovered the liquid was pretty tasty. Admirably, they started surreptitiously siphoning it into lemonade bottles – similar to the clear-glass bottles now used by Sharp's Innis & Gunn.
If whisky straight-up is more your thing, I've included a few fine Irish selections below, followed by a few wines released Saturday in Ontario that have nothing to do with Ireland. The whiskies are all aged longer in wood than the minimum three years required by law (typical of some entry-level bottlings). I do like the trademark delicacy of young Irish whisky, but I'm especially fond of how it can develop rounded richness and fruity complexity with 10 or 12 years in wood.
The spirits would make fine companions to a glass of Guinness in a shot-and-chaser combination, assuming you don't intend to drive or fly an airplane. Beer or whisky for St. Paddy's Day? Why not both?
Innis & Gunn Irish Whiskey Cask Oak Aged Beer (Scotland)
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $3.45
Aged in used Irish whisky casks, this is one rich and malty brew, with a sweet core of molasses, chocolate and dried fruit balanced by tangy hops and moderately lively carbonation. Savour it slowly in a stemmed glass.
Locke's Aged 8 Years Pure Pot Still Single Malt (Ireland)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $54.95
Contrary to popular belief, whiskies change in flavour from year to year – despite the best efforts of master blenders to keep to a house style. Locke's 8-year-old is a case in point. I was more fond of last year's batch, though this one is lovely, too. It's robust, with a sweet fruity-malty core and heady essence of campfire wood owing to an uncommonfor– Ireland infusion of peat smoke.
Redbreast Single Pot Still Aged 12 Years (Ireland)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $54.95
"Single pot still" is a term generally reserved for Irish whisky. Rather confusingly, it denotes a spirit made in a pot still using a combination of malted and unmalted barley. There is nothing special about the pot still because singlemalt Scotches and many small-batch whiskies from elsewhere are made in pot stills. The key difference lies in the use of raw, unmalted barley, which – though tougher to ferment than malted barley – lends spicy verve and oily viscosity. Redbreast, until recently a brand scarcely found outside Ireland, has developed a strong following and better distribution. Powerful and luscious, it is aged in former sherry and bourbon casks, with notes of apple and honey, rising to a spicy, astringently oaky finish. If entry-level Jameson is a handshake, this is Jack Dempsey's left hook. $43.50 in Que., $50.98 in N.S.
Jameson 12-Year-Old Special Reserve (Ireland)
SCORE 92 PRICE: $51.95
A big step up from the standard – and excellent – Jameson found in most bars, this long-aged gem is blended largely from robust pot-still whiskies (as opposed to mass-produced column-still spirits). It's nutty and Cognac-like, with a fruity richness imparted by oloroso sherry casks. I hear from Jameson that it is being discontinued in Canada, so quantities are limited. $54.49 in B.C., $50.49 in Sask., $47.95 in Man., $50 in Que., $60.66 in Nfld., $43.45 in PEI.
Bushmills Single Malt Aged 10 Years (Ireland)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $39.95
The Northern Ireland distiller Bushmills has taken to playing the fame game with southern rival Jameson, the latter riding a wave of popularity thanks in part to public mentions by Lady Gaga and Rihanna. Bushmills wants you to know it, too, is a star, with cameos in such movies as Good Will Hunting and The Verdict. Despite a decade in wood, the 10-year-old retains classic Irish delicacy, with a light malty core and toasty, spicy notes rising on the finish. $49.99 in B.C., $47.99 in Sask., $44.99 in Man., $46 in Que., $42.99 in N.S., $42.69 in Nfld.
Connemara Peated Single Malt (Ireland)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $55.95
From a brand that specializes in heavily peated, smoky spirits, this flagship bot– tling is oily yet light, with a smoky quality more akin to dried leaves, seaweed and salt than the heavy chimney-iodine of an Islay Scotch. $69.99 in B.C., $67.98 in Sask., $59.99 in Man., $54 in Que., $59.99 in N.B., $45.95 in PEI.
Pierre Henri Morel Signargues Cotes du Rhone-Villages 2010 (France)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $15.95
A blend of grenache and syrah, this red plays up the Rhône's savoury side, with plummy fruit infused with herbs and Earl Grey tea set against a bracing acid spine.Try it with stewy red-meat dishes.
Torre Quarto Bottaccia Uva di Troia 2009 (Italy)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $14.95
A typically astringent red grape, uva di troia (now more commonly known as nero di troia) grows almost exclusively in the southern Italian region of Puglia. This delicious curiosity is medium-fullbodied, with ripe berry-like fruit and a hint of raisin laced with spices and an aroma of fall foliage. Perfect for roast lamb. Available in Ontario.
Running Duck Fairtrade Organic Chardonnay 2012 (South Africa)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $14.95
A white, not to be confused with Baby Duck, that panders heavily to politically correct thirsts. It's organic. It's fair trade. And, as the label boasts, it's "vegan friendly." That last designation denotes wines that eschew animal-derived clarifying agents, such as fish bladders, milk and eggs. Earnest considerations aside, it's tasty wine, lean for a chardonnay, with juicy tropical fruit and crisp verve. Suitable for light fish or roast poultry. Available in Ontario.