The portal is about to open on a season dear to the Gaelic and Celtic folk of Ireland and Scotland and, indeed, their millions of descendants all over the U.S.
March 20 brings in Alban Eiler, known elsewhere as the spring solstice or vernal equinox. Weather be damned, it means spring has arrived and will last until June 20, the longest day of the year, when we will encounter Alban Heruin, the summer solstice.
In between, we have such frolics as St. Patrick's Day on March 17 and Tartan Day on April 6.
St. Patrick's Day honors the patron saint of Ireland who drove the snakes into the sea where they became sharks, politicians and TV reality show producers. Tartan Day celebrates that time in 1320 when King Robert the Bruce and his Scottish parliament sent off a letter called the Declaration of Arbroath to the Pope in Rome asking him to get the English off their backs. That worked so well that England rules Scotland to this day.
Both historic events, as well as the arrival of Easter, spring and a bunch of other traditional religious and secular days, will in this span be marked in many communities with once-a-year church attendance, parades, festivals, dances, silly hats and drink specials at your favorite pub — featuring Scotch and Irish whiskies, in particular.
The line between Scotch and Irish distillations is blurry for some (although the Scots, along with Canadians, spell whiskey without the "e.")
The difference comes primarily in the malting stage.
For Scotch whisky, malted barley is dried over peat fires, which allows the smoke to penetrate the grain and create its signature smoky flavor. For Irish whiskey, malted barley is dried in closed ovens, avoiding contact with smoke.
In addition, Scotch whiskies usually are distilled twice, Irish whiskies three or four times, thus increasing their purity and smoothness. In some instances, further aging in used bourbon or sherry casks or a bit of blending creates a crossover taste between the two categories.
As is the case with most such things, there is no right or wrong, best or worst. There is only personal preference.
Bushmills is an Irish whiskey preferred by many. It is turned out in the town of the same name by the world's oldest whiskey distillery, located in
County Antrim, Northern Ireland. Sir Thomas Phillips founded it in 1608 under license from James I of England.
Bushmills products include 10-, 16- and 21- year-old single malts; Black Bush, aged 8 to 10 years then blended with a small portion of a delicate sweet single grain whiskey; Bushmills Cream, a sweet Irish cream liqueur concoction, and Bushmills Original, aged five years. All are smoothed out by aging in used bourbon or sherry casks, a touch also employed by some other Irish and Scotch distillers.
Bushmills 1608 ($100), recently released as part of the company's 400th anniversary celebration, is a worthy special blend. Its crystal malt — which has a crystallized appearance when moist, germinated barleycorns are lightly toasted — introduces a sweet, toffee note to the final product.
Among other popular Irish brands are Jamesons, Powers, Clontarf, Kilbeggan and Tullamore Dew.
Virtually all offer a range of ages and strengths.
On the Scottish side of the equation, we run into a situation something akin to the vodka market: so many labels you need a directory to keep track.
Scotch export sales keep rising each year, with the U.S. still the leading consumer but places like China, India and the emerging economies of former Soviet Bloc nations increasing demand.
Atop the heap is Glenfiddich, the world's top-selling Scotch. The company made a particular splash last spring when it released its 1972 Vintage Reserve, a mere 519 bottles extracted from just two numbered casks that had been aging nearly 30 years. Such events are treated with great reverence and jubilation in the whisky world.
The No. 2 distiller, The Glenlivet, is the source of one of my favorite Scotches, the 15-Year-Old French Oak Reserve ($49.95). This is a distinctly non-peaty Scotch, instead offering a sherrylike nose from being aged in Limousin French oak casks usually reserved for wine. That smooths the bite, adds a hint of spice, and provides a long, creamy aftertaste.
Whatever your choice, happy holidays.
(William M. Dowd covers the beverage world at BillDowd.com.)
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