When it comes to celebrating St. Patrick's day, there are a lot of options: Guinness and green beer, shamrock shakes and emerald cupcakes, perhaps even a heaping plate of corned beef and cabbage. But of all the traditions, one of the oldest -- and one of the most enjoyable -- is a nip of classic Irish whiskey. The Emerald Isle, after all, is home to one of the world's oldest distilleries and some of its finest liquors. And, while there isn't any evidence to suggest that the Emerald Isle's most famous saint ever tipped a glass, no celebration of Gaelic heritage is complete without at least a nod to Ireland's rich distilling history.
Unlike bourbon or Scotch, both of which offer dozens of choices for the adventurous consumer, Irish whiskey production is controlled by a small handful of distilleries. On the down side, this limited selection translates into a relatively high price, which can make choosing a bargain tipple a little difficult. Happily, however, most Irish whiskeys have a lower-priced, entry-level offering that shouldn't cost more than $20 to $30. And, given the relatively level playing field, even the cheapest brands tend to be mellow and enjoyable. Put another way, there isn't a truly bad brew in the bunch!
And so, without further ado, here's our brief guide to the flavor and lore of Ireland's best cheap whiskeys.
Making a Splash on St. Paddy's: The Best Bargain Irish Whiskeys
A St. Patrick's Savings Adventure: The Best Bargain Irish Whiskeys
Jameson's is the top-selling Irish whiskey in the world, with annual sales of over 31 million bottles. Little wonder: Its ad campaigns have made it the best-known brand, and its low price places the entry-level blend at the bottom of the Irish whiskey range. The flavor is a little rough, but it mixes well and holds its own in Irish coffee.
Trivia: Jameson's is a truly international affair -- founded by Scotsman John Jameson in 1780, it is now owned by Pernod-Ricard, a French company.
First granted a permit in 1608, Old Bushmills Distillery, in Bushmills, Ireland, is the oldest licensed distillery operating in the world. Some accounts, however, claim that the distillery has been making whiskey since the late 1200's, when one of its earliest landlords used to give his troops "a mighty drop of aqua vitae."
Regardless, Bushmills has had more than enough time to perfect the art of booze making -- a fact borne out by even their cheapest blend, Bushmills Original. Aged in bourbon and sherry casks, it has a sweet flavor, rich with caramel and vanilla. For timid drinkers, it makes a nice intro into the whiskey world.
Trivia: For Irish whiskey fans, Bushmills is right on the money -- literally. In 2008, the Bank of Ireland put the Old Bushmills Distillery on the back of its £5, £10 and £20 banknotes.
Tullamore Dew is a blend of several different whiskeys that are then aged in Scotch whisky casks. The flavor is smoother and more mellow than most Irish whiskeys, and some tasters claim that they can detect a slightly briny flavor that is reminiscent of the ocean. Perhaps that isn't too surprising: The New Midleton Distillery, where it is made, is just a few miles from the shore.
Trivia: Although Tullamore Dew takes its name from the town of Tullamore, Ireland, the distillery there has been closed since 1954. Today, the whiskey is made more than 100 miles away, in County Cork.
Although it is less-known in the United States, Powers' Irish whiskey outsells Jameson's in Ireland. In part, that can be credited to its price, which tends to be slightly lower than Jameson's, but some of its selling power has to be chalked up to its flavor, which is a bit more complex. Tasters often cite hints of cinnamon and nutmeg, as well as a rich bouquet of wheat and oats.
Trivia: In the end, whether you buy Powers or Jameson's, the profits go to the same place. The two whiskeys are both owned by Pernod-Ricard, and both are now made in the same factory in County Cork.
A light, sweet whiskey that's pretty easy on the palate, Clontarf is another whiskey that makes a great intro for timid drinkers. And, as a lesser-known brand, it's sometimes a real bargain. Right now, for example, it is the cheapest whiskey at my local liquor store ... and a pretty sure bet for this St. Patrick's day!
Trivia: One of the most interestingly named Irish whiskeys, Clontarf sounds like a Klingon mating ritual, but actually alludes to a battle that was fought in 1014.