First, there are some strong contenders elsewhere. The American craft distilling industry is on fire at the moment and there is a constant flow of worthy and exciting new releases. But the brewing revolution has peaked and is a tad passé now, and for every very good new drink, there are four that… aren’t.
So where else? Japan, with the greatest selection and diversity, perhaps. But it’s not an innovative hub beyond a limited number of spirits products? The UK, with its beers, gins, wines and whiskies? Arguably. You could take a bet on the dark horse that is the Alpine regions, with genevers, gins, whiskies, brandies, aquavits, beers and wines.
All strong contenders. But in my view they don’t match Ireland right now. In February Bord Bia, the Irish food agency, opened the Irish Embassy doors in London to some 200 food and drinks writers, and invited them to sample some of the country’s best drinks. (And food, actually – the sausages were sensational).
Three rooms were divided between whiskey and cream liqueurs; white spirits; and craft beer, cider and wine. I was meant to be in charge of the whiskey room but more than once found myself drifting elsewhere.
What struck me about the products was their consistently outstanding quality. Not one drink I tasted wasn’t superbly made.
In the whiskey room established producers such as Teeling and Walsh were lined up with new kids on the block, such as Hyde, Liberties and Gortinore, all who have yet to distill and mature their own whiskey but have bought in stock from other suppliers.
And that’s the other thing that stands out about Ireland: the willingness of producers, even the giants such as Irish Distillers, to work together.
So great whiskey – check out Hyde 6 Year Old Burgundy Cask Finish – but the real surprises came in the beer, wine and cider room.
Three stars of the night? Wicklow Way Wines, which make a blackcurrant wine so fresh and clean you’re transported to autumn meadows and picking berries in the warmth; Kinnegar Brewing for its utterly superb Yannaroddy Porter; and Finnbarra Irish Craft Cider, which is pushing the apple bar outwards with a sweet, complex and more-ish barrel-aged cider called Tawny, and an amazing dry and fizzy cider best described as apple prosecco.
There was so much more – I never made it to the White Spirits room but noted that it contained distillers such as Dingle and Glendalough currently focusing on gin and vodka, but laying down spirit for whiskey in the future.
It all adds up to exciting times for Ireland – there are plenty of others who weren’t at the Embassy but have a story to tell. In early March even Irish Distillers joined in the fun with the launch of four quirky and groundbreaking whiskeys.
The most dynamic and exciting drinks producing country in the world? You got a problem with that?
No, thought not.