In my family, one of the favorite carols is "Christmas in Killarney." This is due to Irish heritage on both sides, and also to the fact that Bing Crosby, who made the song famous, is a distant cousin.
So in the Irish spirit of the season - and because it's never too early for a Savannahian to look ahead to St. Patrick's Day - I thought I'd stuff my stocking with several Irish whiskeys.
Ireland is the birthplace of whiskey, with distillation first occurring there by the 14th century, if not earlier. This was crude stuff, served un-aged straight from the still. It would be centuries yet before whiskey came to resemble what we're familiar with today.
And today is a great time to be drinking Irish whiskey. Long a favorite for its smooth, simple flavor, the world's first whiskey has lately seen a renaissance of sorts, with new brands and new versions of old favorites upping the complexity to rival the more robust taste of single malt Scotch.
I start my evening whiskey adventures at Six Pence Pub. In addition to their iconic British phone booth, the establishment is done up for Christmas with garlands over the bar and massive ornaments dangling in the window. It's always a good stop for a tipple, and it seems especially warm during the holidays.
Behind the bar, resting in front of a novelty mug in the shape of Prince Charles' face, Six Pence stocks one of my standard Irish whiskeys: Black Bush.
I consider Black Bush to be the crowning achievement from Bushmills, one of the major Irish brands. While their normal whiskey, simply called Bushmills, has a high burn to flavor ratio, they pull out all the stops for Black Bush, aging it in used sherry casks for the malt component, and then used bourbon barrels for aging the final malt/grain mixture.
At 80 percent, the high malt content lays the foundation of the robust flavor, and that is fortified by hints of sherry from the initial aging process. The American oak staves in the bourbon barrels round out the flavor, imparting a final touch of honey.
You'll also taste a good bit of fruit, but not enough to overpower the true essence of this whiskey. Best yet, a bottle is pretty affordable at most liquor stores. If you have to bring something to a New Year's party, you won't go wrong with Black Bush.
While I'm finishing the drink, my friend Billy Robyn comes in for a drink of his own. You'll find Billy working behind the bar at The Mansion on Forsyth Park, and he's been around the Savannah scene for as long as I can remember. I buy Billy a glass of one of my other favorite Irish whiskeys, Redbreast, and ask him to give me his thoughts.
Redbreast, aged 12 years, was the first of a new surge of single pot still whiskies. All "single pot still" means is that the whiskey has not been blended with other batches, similar to single malt Scotch. Irish whiskies are not true single malt, however, because both malted and unmalted barley are used in the mash bill.
Billy takes several slow sips as we catch up on other topics, and then he offers his verdict.
"Drinks like something in my granddad's liquor closet," he says. "I'm trying to think of what it was. Something expensive. My grandfather's a Scotch drinker, and it almost drinks like a Scotch."
I agree. The new single pot still whiskies have a lot more happening on the palate, full of fruit and spice flavors, even hints of char and smoke like their Scottish counterparts.
I say goodnight to Billy and walk the short distance down Liberty Street back to my apartment. It's been warm this winter, but there's enough nip in the air this evening to make me want to warm up with a final drink.
Despite all the fancy new Irish whiskies, I'll always return to my old standby, John Powers and Son Irish Whiskey, usually just called Powers for short. Yes, that's my family name on the bottle, and it's the best-selling whiskey in Ireland.
The bottle, despite going through several iterations over the years, still sports the same golden crest label. The liquor itself is a gorgeous golden color to match. Each sniff smells sweet, and while the taste has a bit of burn around the edges, at the heart there's a warm wash of vanilla.
People drink more Powers than anything else in Ireland for a reason. It's a really good whiskey. And during the holidays, it's nice to drink something that reminds me where I came from. Cheers!
Zach Powers is a writer and novelist. When he's not busy imbibing, he helps run the literary arts nonprofit Seersucker Live. Get to know him at www.ZachPowers.com.