Mike Mason, a 40-something real estate attorney, walked into Seppi's bar at Le Parker-Meridien in Manhattan last week a loyal fan of single-malt scotch.
He emerged enchanted by Irish whiskey. But don't hold the leprechauns responsible.
Mason's epiphany, rather, had everything to do with the new face of Irish whiskey. Bartender Patrick O'Sullivan steered Mason toward Redbreast, a 12-year-old, uniquely Irish pure pot still whiskey, the current darling of Irish whiskey circles.
"It really opened my eyes to Irish whiskey," said Mason, a Macallan man. "It never occurred to me to try Irish whiskey. But this one was so vibrant and so smooth."
O'Sullivan, who dropped a spoonful of cold water in Mason's pour--a trick that made the spirit's notes of caramel and spice come alive--says both Redbreast, an assertive, authentic pot still whiskey made with malted and unmalted barley, and Midleton Very Rare, a floral, velvety blend of luxe whiskeys aged in bourbon casks, are current favorites at the midtown restaurant bar, which stocks 13 top-shelf Irish whiskeys.
Such a selection would have been unheard of 15 years ago. And, a scotch drinker would not have not been so easily swayed.
That's because, for decades, serious whiskey drinkers drank scotch. Irish "blended" whiskey was for drowning sorrows — or coffee.
But, John Hansell, editor and publisher of Malt Advocate magazine, says that's changing.
"The line between Irish whiskey and Scotch whisky has become blurred," says Hansell, since Irish whiskey companies like Bushmills and Jameson have expanded their range to include deluxe whiskies from aged blends to pure pot stills and their own brand of single malts. "The top Irish whiskeys are just as good as many single-malt scotches. It's too bad more people aren't aware of how complex some of these whiskeys have become."
Hansell says Irish distillers are simply--and astutely--responding to consumer demand.
"People are drinking less, but smarter," he says. "They don't just want whiskey, they want the best whiskey. And they'll pay for it."
Indeed, a rare bottle of Knappogue Castle 1951, a beguiling whiskey aged 36 years in sherry casks and believed to be the oldest Irish whiskey around, will set you back $1000. Whiskey connoisseurs— both men and women — routinely order $51 shots of "K51" at D.B.A., a bar in Manhattan known for its "drink good stuff" motto, says owner Ray Deter.
Colum Egan, the master distiller at Bushmills, which currently boasts a 12-, 16- and even a 21-year-old single malt that's finished in Madeira casks, agrees that making more distinctive whiskey was a natural evolution for the centuries-old distillery.
"People started wanting nicer houses and nicer cars," he says. "With that better lifestyle, they wanted a better whiskey — one for every occasion."
It was also a matter of survival for the industry.
In the 19th century it was the Irish "water of life" that dominated the world market and was the drink of choice in polite society. But famine, the war of independence, high taxes, and, finally, our Prohibition, led to the industry's demise and to the shuttering of hundreds of small, independent distilleries.
Today, only three remain: Midleton and Bushmills, which were acquired, respectively, by Pernod-Ricard in 1988 and Diageo in 2005, and Cooley, a feisty, family upstart on the Cooley Peninsula on Ireland's eastern coast, about 60 miles north of Dublin.
Riding the tailwind of Ireland's new "hip nation" status, Pernod-Ricard and Diageo have been targeting a younger generation of whiskey drinkers who don't want to sip their father's scotch. By advertising on MTV, in Maxim and GQ magazines and by sponsoring film festivals and comedy tours, they are hoping to entice young people to their entry-level whiskeys, hoping these newfound whiskey drinkers will stay brand loyal when its ready to drink "up" a notch or two.
By its very nature, Irish whiskey has always been more approachable to the brown spirits ingenue.
The barley used for Scotch whisky is dried over open peat fires which gives it that sultry smokiness. The malt in Irish whiskey is dried in sealed ovens, locking in at pure malt flavor instead. Irish whiskey is distilled three times as opposed to only twice for scotch, for a rounder mouthfeel and a smoother, friendlier finish.
The campaign's working: sales of Jameson, which has upgraded its whiskey blends rather than go the single-malt route like Bushmills, has soared 20 percent in the last three years.
Jeff Isaacson, director of operations for Midnight Oil, Rande Gerber's national chain of uber-trendy bars and lounges, says that after a recent successful trial run at their New York venues, Midnight Oil is set to stock up on deluxe Irish whiskeys in Los Angeles such as Jameson's top-tier blends and Bushmills single malts.
Meanwhile, the smaller Cooley distillery is creating its own buzz for its "boutique"--and slightly renegade--style of whiskey making.
"As the only independent Irish distillery, it really is up to us innovate," says marketing director Jack Teeling, whose father, John, got the idea for Cooley while at Harvard, after writing a paper on Irish whiskey's decline.
The distillery has been reviving some of the old distillation techniques that died over the last century. Their line of Connemara peated single malts is turning heads. (Apparently, some Irish distillers also experimented with peat long ago).
Interestingly, Irish whiskey's future success seems inextricably tied to its traditions.
"The exciting thing about Irish whiskey in the last few years is how they've gone back to pure pot still and small batch distillation with great results" says Monique Huston. No small praise coming from the manager of The Dundee Dell, the Omaha, NE bar famous for its 500 plus single-malt scotches.
Long ago, all Irish whiskey was pure pot still: 100 percent barley, both malted and unmalted, distilled in a long-necked copper alembic. Unique to Irish whiskey, this expensive, labor intensive process fell out of favor. Distillers switched to a blend of pot still and column distillation.
Bushmills distiller Colum Egan says he sees himself as "a gatekeeper to the past'' responsible for adapting to modern tastes while honoring and preserving traditional methods of production.
He knew he was on the right track when he stumbled across a bottle of 1882 Bushmills from a private collector in Scotland last year. He ponied up $2,600 for the embossed bottle and when he pierced the lead cap and extracted a few precious drops with a syringe, he was stunned at how eerily similar it was both in nose and in taste to Bushmills' current 10-year-old single malt.
"That," says Egan, "was one of the happiest days of my life."
© 2012 Forbes.com