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The 'Cognac' of Ireland : From the World's Oldest Distillery Comes an Aged, Respected Brew


IT WAS THE IRISH, some say, who invented whiskey. As early as the 6th and 7th centuries, Irish monks in search of an alchemical cure for disease were producing an elixir vitae with choice barley and pure water from springs that flowed through earthy peat and basalt rock. By 1608, the first license to distill alcohol had been granted to Old Bushmills in a small village on Ireland's North Atlantic coast. It is the oldest licensed distillery in the world.

Other scholarly reports indicate that in the 13th Century, far to the north in the Caledonian highlands, Malcolm, the Vicar of Keith, was producing a "heather ale" as a monkish prerogative. In any case, we owe the word whisky to Gaelic antecedents of a Celtic word that arose from the Latin aqua vitae , "water of life." Through the centuries, the Scots spelled it whisky , but--for reasons known only to ghosts of the Emerald Isles--from the beginning, the Irish called the arts of their distillation whiskey , and spelled it with an e . A closer study of the origins of these beverages made from grains of the field give credit for their invention to the much more ancient Egyptians.

Nevertheless, during the crisis-racked weeks of August, 1939, I toured Scotland, researching the origins of barley malt liquors. Ultimately, I arrived at Kilmarnock House, the home of Johnny Walker. After treating me to a tour of the distilleries, the chairman of the board took me into the quiet of a paneled tasting room.

"And now, Mr. Balzer," he asked, "what would you like to drink?"

"It would seem to me that I have a choice of two," I replied, "Red Label or Black. Which do you drink?"

Kindly, but directly, he answered: "You Americans seem to think that if it is older, or more expensive, it's better. We drink the Red Label. We think the Black Label is too old; it's lost its 'swang' on the palate."

Though that was almost 50 years ago, I've neither forgotten nor ignored that insight. It resurfaced recently when I took my first taste of Black Bush, the "Cognac of Ireland" from the Old Bushmills distillery. According to spokeswoman Joanne Adamko, it's best to pour a measure into a tall glass filled with ice and then "stir it six times to the right, six times to the left, five times up and down; then strain it into a snifter, the frequency of stirring determining the tasting proof."

Following this recipe to the letter, I found this triple-distilled whiskey beguiling. It tasted like a fine Cognac, possibly because it was aged to its smooth and mellow finish in select oak casks from Spain that are used for storing sherry in classical s oleras .

Conceived as "Old Bushmills Special Old Liqueur Quality Whiskey," it bore a distinctive black label. Regular customers would ask for "Black Bush," a moniker that stuck. Tourists began bringing bottles home from Ireland, but many, when they could not replenish their stock, began writing to the distillery. Fan mail inspired the diversion of a small quantity from the home market to the United States.

In blind tasting against a famed Grande Fine Cognac, it was difficult but possible to tell the difference. After a clearing of the palate, four tasters flunked a second testing--this one of two Black Bush and a single Cognac. It's that close. As a new finish to a meal, this aged brew from gleaming copper-pot stills may not be the end-goal of the ancient alchemist, but as an elixir vitae , it has little competition.

Photographed by Dale Berman / Location: Clancy's Crab Broiler, Glendale

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