Come Thursday it's St Patrick's Day and the whole world celebrates all things Irish, raising a glass in honour of the country's rich cultural heritage. A wonderful notion and not actually one that needs to be played out with Guinness, as I discovered to my delight this week. Bord Bia - the Irish agency that so brilliantly promotes the fine food and drink of Ireland held Spirit of Sharing at the beautiful Irish Embassy in London. As guests of the Ambassador of Ireland, Daniel Mulhall and his wife Greta we were greeted by around twenty drinks producers offering the chance to sample some of the high end spirits and craft beers being produced with a great deal of skill and passion across the country - he really was spoiling us!
The world is full of Irish pubs, even in Vietnam we came across Finnegan's and Paddy's and The Dublin Gate, and as Ambassador Mulhall pointed out in his welcome they spread a cheerful warmth, making people feel they know the Irish as a delightfully charming and sociable race. As cultural stereotypes go it's a positive winner. The world of Irish drinks extends far beyond Guinness and Baileys, evidenced that night by the fascinating range of craft beers, whiskey - spelt like Irish way - and premium gin. Award winning writer and whiskey aficionado Dominic Roskrow spoke with admiration for the drinks on offer, identifying the skill with which the Irish producers are positioning their wares as a high quality mid market offering, cleverly slotting into the gap between mass market blends for general consumption and high end single malts that can reach into a pricing stratosphere beloved of collectors and show offs. They specialise in classic whiskeys like that produced by Hyde, a single malt named after the 1st President of Ireland, Douglas Hyde, which has a rich peppery finish after sweet honey and caramel notes upfront.
The range of craft beers available was fascinating, a myriad of styles expertly produced and all with a story attached. Boyne Brewhouse make the bitter and fruity Born in a Day, an APA using Australian hops brought over by Aine O'Hara, Head Distiller and Brewer. Aine, a Galway native, honed her craft for seven years as Brewer with Matilda Bay, Australia's most awarded craft brewery - her first beer for Boyne is a nod to her time in Oz. The White Hag Brewing Company use local heather and peat from the bogs along with Irish oatmeal to create their range of beers, named for the mythical creature that is perhaps mother nature herself. Chameleon or spirit of Ireland she's well honoured with their delicate IPA and their toasty award winning Oatmeal Stout. One of my favourites on the night was O'Hara's Irish stout, a rich, complex beer that would be a brilliant match for smoked salmon or a dozen spanking fresh oysters.
Most surprising for me was the number of gins being made, all of them premium quality. The first one I tried was an apple based gin, Kilkenny Crystal Gin made at Highbank Orchards using the organic apples and botanicals grown on their own estate, which produces a smooth and delicate gin that is so fine it can be drunk without necessarily the addition of tonic. They also produce a superbly flavoured rich apple syrup that is like the very taste of autumn, and would no doubt be lovely over ice-cream or drizzled onto warm slices of pie.
Cocktail maestro Charlie McCarthy and his brilliant assistant were on hand to whip a few specials using this great range of drinks as their starting point. Intrigued by the gins on offer, it had to be the starting point. The gin used is Bertha's Revenge, a milk based gin - yea, really, milk! It uses whey alcohol as its base from Irish dairy farms, natural spring water and foraged botanicals and is a lovely soft fragrant thing with a little spice in the middle. Its makers, Ballyvolane, are championing grass-to-glass - something we should all get behind if it is as good as this.
Irish Gin Cocktail
Not sure what it's called but do try this at home
Put 25ml of sugar syrup, 50ml of the brilliantly named Bertha's Revenge, 10ml of Pedro Ximenez sherry and a couple of drops of Jameson's Sloe Gin into a cocktail shaker and shake, shake, shake. Pour out over ice and decorate with a black cherry and a curl of orange rind.
However you celebrate, have a happy St Patrick's Day