Pop music has been good to beverage alcohol. Cognac, champagne and even trendy moscato wine almost deserve to be invoiced for their myriad plugs in rap lyrics. Now it's Irish whiskey's turn.
The light-bodied brown spirit has the cheerful disposition of a St. Paddy's Day reveller on the move from pub to club. Usually unencumbered by the smoky peat of most Scotch and completely absent the heavily charred wood character of full-bodied American bourbon, it's as easy-drinking as whisky gets, tailor-made for younger drinkers.
And now it's officially hip, thanks to two lucky charms in the form of music's most sensational stars, Lady Gaga and Rihanna.
Rarely far from a bottle of her beloved Jameson, 25-year-old American singer Lady Gaga has been flaunting her brand preference as conspicuously as her overexposed underwear. "My long-time boyfriend," she said of Jameson while dedicating a song to the whisky at a concert in Dublin two years ago, he's "always there for me when I need him." Her peer at the top of the charts, 24-year-old Barbados-born Rihanna, offered this rousing tribute in Cheers (Drink to That), a catchy party-drinking song released two years ago: "Cheers to the freakin' weekend/ I drink to that, yeah, yeah/ Oh, let the Jameson sink in/ I drink to that, yeah, yeah."
Jameson distiller and brand ambassador Brian Nation has been drinking to that freakin' good fortune, no doubt, reportedly referring to the publicity windfall as something "you can't pay for."
Coming off a decade of double-digit annual growth, Irish whiskey recently surpassed fashionable single-malt Scotch in U.S. sales volume. In this country, annual consumption doubled to 92,000 cases between 2005 and 2011, according to trade association Spirits Canada.
With annual sales exceeding three million nine-litre cases, Jameson, owned by French giant Pernod Ricard's Irish Distillers, has enjoyed the biggest surge and accounts for roughly three-quarters of Ireland's sales. (However, the category still accounts only for a fraction of Scotch's 89 million cases when blended Scottish brands are lumped in with the smaller but trendier single-malt segment.)
In fairness, the once-sleepy spirit began its ascent while Gaga and Rihanna were still anonymous teens. It was trending upward when England-based beverage giant Diageo jumped on the growth spurt by snapping up Bushmills in 2005. That move was followed by Scottish company William Grant & Sons' purchase of Tullamore Dew in 2010. Two months ago, American company Beam finalized its takeover of Cooley, closing the chapter on domestic ownership of all major Irish brands.
"The whole category is expanding, small brands as well as big," said Michael Cockram, Beam's senior global brand director for Scotch and Irish whiskies, a portfolio that now includes such fine Irish names as Kilbeggan and Connemara. His first gambit was to ship 15,000 cases of Kilbeggan, one-fifth of Cooley's annual production, to the United States for this Saturday's St. Patrick's Day celebrations.
Irish has become the "whisky of choice" among drinkers in their 20s and early 30s, Mr. Cockram said. Typically distilled three times for that delicate body, as opposed to two for almost all Scotch, Irish only rarely gets the smoked-peat treatment associated with the traditional malted-barley drying process, another point of difference with Scotch. Just like Scotch, though, it's aged in used barrels, so the woody essence is much subtler than that of bourbon, always matured in new, heavily charred oak.
Millennials and their tender palates notwithstanding, Irish distillers have been chasing mature connoisseurs, too, with premium offerings that rely more heavily on malted barley (the principal flavouring in Scotch) as well as on single-malt-style pot stills that yield richer flavour. A few brands, notably Connemara, have even returned to the centuries-old practice (upheld in Scotland but largely abandoned in Ireland) of infusing spirits with burned peat.
I'm partial to smoky Connemara Peated Single Malt, juicy-spicy Locke's 8-year-old, velvety Bushmills Malt 16, luxuriously fruity Jameson 12-Year-Old and subtly earthy Inishowen. But my new favourite is the honeyed, pot-still nectar nostalgically named Writers Tears. Released this month in Ontario, it's based on an old-school style popular among the literary lions of James Joyce's Dublin. When an Irish writer cried, it was said, he shed tears of whiskey.
And now when female pop stars cry, their mascara streaks with Jameson.
Writers Tears (Score 93; $47.95)
Honey, ripe melon, spice and farmhouse cheddar dusted with spice.
Connemara Peated Single Malt (Score 91; $55.95)
Oily yet light, with a peated quality more akin to dried leaves, seaweed and salt than the chimney-iodine of an Islay Scotch.
Tullamore Dew (Score 89; $28.95)
Smooth and surprisingly malty for an entry-level Irish whisky, with light spice, creamy vanilla and toasted wood.
Bushmills Malt 16 (Score 94; $79.95)
Aged partly in former sherry casks for a lusciously fruity flavour, it's beautifully balanced with spice.
Locke's Aged 8 Years Single Malt (Score 94; $54.95)
A robust pot-still barley spirit, tangy and malty, with a hint of smoky peat. This is manly stuff.
Jameson 12-Year-Old Special Reserve (Score 92; $49.95)
A blend of mostly pot-still whiskies, nutty and Cognac-like in its fruity richness thanks to oloroso sherry casks in which most of the spirit is matured.