Irish whiskey: going with the grain this Christmas

The Irish whiskey awards underline the expansion of the sector as new distilleries come on stream and brands develop products for even the most expensive tastes

If you leave your Christmas shopping to the very last minute, you may still be looking for a little liquid inspiration. Below are a few ideas, mainly Irish, that could help solve those difficult problems.

A bottle of whiskey is a very traditional Irish gift but until recently the choice was limited largely to Paddy, Powers or Jameson. If you wanted to make a statement, you bought a bottle of Midleton Rare. How times have changed. The Celtic Whiskey Shop in Dublin recently held the second Irish whiskey awards competition, with 17 categories, including best whiskey bar in each province, presumably to encourage our publicans to offer a good range of their native produce.

The competition, held in Kilbeggan distillery, was very competitive in some sectors. See for full details. It is only recently that Ireland has produced a wide enough range of whiskey to justify a competition, so this is a welcome event.

We can expect it to become a major competition, as all the new distilleries currently being constructed come into production.

I tasted my way through some of the award-winning whiskies and include four of them below. Whiskey lovers around the world are happy to part with large sums of money for the very best examples of the art: some are collectors/investors, others drinkers. As with wine, you are frequently paying for rarity as much as quality, and at times the end price is dictated by market demand and the necessity of hitting certain inflated price points.

The advantage whiskey has over wine, I suppose, is that an opened bottle lasts much longer. While I may be cynical about the high prices charged for both whiskey and wine, there is no doubt that the best Irish (and Scotch) whiskies are among the most complex drinks known to man, on a par with the finest cognac and Armagnac.

It deserves to be consumed with a drop of water on its own, preferably in a tulip-shaped whiskey glass that will allow you to enjoy the complex aromas.

The Redbreast 21 Year Old was not only voted both best single-pot whiskey but also won the overall whiskey of the year award. Many whiskey lovers rate Redbreast 12 Year Old as one of the finest in the world, so it is hardly surprising that the 21-year-old has received even greater praise, or that it has been winning awards since its release earlier this year. Given it sells for an eye-watering €180, we should expect a few fireworks. The Power’s 12-Year-Old Reserve includes some 20-year-old whiskey and has the body of the well-known “three swallows” combined with a smooth spiciness. It is also a lot less expensive. I was also very taken with Teeling’s Single Grain Whiskey, very different in style, and affordable too.

On things liquid and Irish, David Llewellyn’s Lusca Cabernet Merlot 2013, Dublin and Ireland’s only wine (as far as I know) has been released. Llewellyn says this is the best wine he has made yet. It is available (for about €45) from Bradley’s in Cork, and Terroirs, Wines on the Green and Drinkstore in Dublin.

There are two wine books written by Irish authors this Christmas: my own modest effort and Raymond Blake's Breakfast in Burgundy, a very entertaining book that will be of interest to both gourmet and gourmand.

Isabelle Legeron is a passionate proponent of natural wine, wine made from organically grown grapes, with minimal use of chemical treatments. Her book Natural Wine (Cico Books) is a consumer-friendly guide to the processes involved in making organic, biodynamic and natural wines, with a guide to the best available.

If you want to please the wine lover in your life, Jus de Vine in Portmarnock, Mitchell & Son and Terroirs in Donnybrook all have an excellent range of quality glassware including some very eye-catching decanters. Terroirs also have corkers, little pins to attach to your used corks; great fun and priced from €6.50-€9.50 – the perfect stocking filler which will give lots of fun for all the family.

However, for many wine lovers, the ideal gift is – wine! I recommend buying one or two really good bottles instead of a larger quantity of less expensive wine. If you find the process intimidating, most supermarkets have a good range at the upper price range, or throw yourself at the mercy of a good local independent off-licence or wine shop – they should be able to give you the story behind that special bottle.