An Irish Whiskey Rebel Gives St. Patrick’s Day His Best Shot

‘We are all called to be legend-keepers and custodians of our own storied lives.’

Courtesy of the author.
Dean Karayanis and James Doherty at the Cottage Bar, at Teaneck, New Jersey, 2023. Courtesy of the author.

As St. Patrick’s Day approaches, the big players in Irish whiskey, like Jameson and Bushmills, are preparing for their Black Friday — their Super Bowl — while smaller distillers see the holiday as a chance to tempt revelers to broaden their horizons and experience a wider range of the Emerald Isle’s traditional tastes.

The Sun had the opportunity to get to know one upstart, Silkie Irish Whiskey, in the company of its master blender, James Doherty, at the Cottage Bar at Teaneck, New Jersey — owned by a County Donegal native, Michael “Mickey” Dawson — and to hear the pitch for reborn and reimagined native blends.

Mr. Doherty recounted his journey from growing up in England with Irish parents to farming in Africa to being master blender for Twinings Tea and working to resurrect the past at Sliabh Liag Distillers, starting with his grandfather’s recipe, kept from his bootlegging days.

On several trips to Ireland since 1989, this correspondent has always sought out experiences and tastes off the beaten path. One such place is Donegal, where Gaelic, Ireland’s indigenous language, is still spoken. Even though Donegal occupies the northwest sliver of the island, it’s part of the Republic of Ireland, not the six neighboring counties of Northern Ireland.

Part of Silkie’s mission is to revitalize Donegal, which has no Ring of Kerry, Trinity College, Giant’s Causeway, or Blarney Stone to draw tour buses. That’s another part of what makes Silkie compelling: It’s crafted in small batches by locals, not pumped out by a city factory.

At its peak more than a century ago, Irish whiskey provided a lifeline for rural areas, but independence, American prohibition, tax policy, and World War II — officers drank scotch, making it an “aspirational drink” for foot soldiers — conspired to change consumer preference. Whiskey went into eclipse. 

Mr. Doherty, though, sees an opening for a comeback, a moment to lift Irish whiskey from the bottom shelf where it’s been relegated while scotch and bourbon are given eye-level placement. Whiskey’s polite warmth and the absence of a harsh, alcoholic taste make a strong case that it is due for a reappraisal.  

The first thing you’ll notice about Silkie is the label. No Irish tropes like the harp, shamrock, flag, or — heaven forbid — leprechaun. Instead, it showcases a local mermaid, the appropriately named “silkie.” That choice caused some of Mr. Doherty’s potential backers to balk, but he wanted a symbol of folklore from Donegal’s rocky coast.

The label hasn’t proven a liability in America, which is already the top market for Silkie’s varieties. Beginners are advised to start with the “Original,” which earned the World Whiskeys Award for its category and has a muted smokiness redolent of Ireland’s aromatic peat.

Next, try the “Legendary Dark,” which topped its class in the World Spirits Competition. The Sun has not yet sampled “Midnight and Red.” Inspired by Donegal nobleman “Red Hugh” O’Donnell, it’s finished in Rioja and Ribera de Duero wine casks, a nod to O’Donnell’s 1602 death in Spain while he sought military assistance from its king, Philip III.

While Mr. Doherty spoke and we nibbled on our Cottage Burger fries, your correspondent reminisced on how so much of St. Patrick’s Day has become homogenized, right down to what we drink. We forget the stories of rebellion and triumph over adversity that are central to the Irish experience, turning it into just another excuse for a party.

Even Irish bars have become generic rather than genuine bits of the old country, like Mr. Dawson’s Cottage. The Irish Pub Company, founded in 1991, fabricated and installed more than 1,800 pubs from kits in its first 15 years, in what Slate described as a “the faux Irish pub revolution” in 2006.

Mass production of ersatz Irishness is reducing the country’s heritage to stereotypes and a day of overindulgence — one celebrating a myth to boot. St. Patrick didn’t drive the snakes from Ireland, after all, because the fossil record shows it never had any.

Bland, identical corporate products have their place, but it need not be in our glasses. “We are all called to be seanchaí, storytellers,” Mr. Doherty told me, “legend-keepers and custodians of our own storied lives.” Whiskey is synonymous with sharing old memories and creating new ones. I look forward to Silkie telling me more of Ireland’s tales this St. Patrick’s Day, and on many nights to come.

The New York Sun

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