Ireland's theory of evolution

Ireland's theory of evolution

Susy Atkins examines Irish drinking culture and discovers that drinkers tastes have gradually changed and moved beyond Guinness, whiskey and liqueurs.

History | 16 Apr 2001 | Issue 15 | By Susy Atkins

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The Irish appetite for spirits is down to the marshy and watery terrain of the country, which causes them to fall ill from colds and flu. Well, that's what Edmund Campion put it down to in his book, History of Ireland, written in 1569. “For remedy thereof, they use an ordinary drink of aqua vitae, so qualified in the making that it drieth more and inflameth less than other hot confections,” he wrote. He was, of course, referring to whiskey.Fast forward nearly 500 years and hot Irish whiskey is as effective in fighting the accursed common cold as it ever was in Campion’s day – Irish publicans must make millions of hot whiskeys every winter. A shot of Irish whiskey (usually Power’s), brown sugar, cloves and perhaps a slice of lemon, topped up with freshly boiled water (or variations on that recipe
depending on exactly where you pitch up) is all it takes to rid yourself of the sniffles. It’s something that the ghastliest Irish theme pub would do well to attempt – maybe there’s even a marketing opportunity here. Anyone for a bottle of premixed Old Mother Reilly’s Cold Cure &
Stiffener? Maybe not. Irish theme pubs will try to sell you anything. From Prague to Penang and even in Peterborough, they peddle the dream that whiskey, Guinness and gloopy cream liqueurs are the only drinks consumed in Ireland. In reality, Irish and Irish-born drinkers are not so narrow minded and easily pigeon-holed – to expel one myth, Guinness doesn’t accompany every meal nor do Irish men pour it on their cereal every morning. Peter McAlindon, whose family runs Direct Wine Shipments in Belfast, says: “The type of drinks consumed in Ireland changed
dramatically at the end of the 20th century. My father’s generation were heavily into stout with whiskey chasers. We started importing wine in the ‘50s, it was more unusual then, and we sold mainly fortified wine. People rarely drank the stuff unless they were landed gentry or perhaps sitting in a club or boardroom. The general population was way behind Southern England in learning to love wine. It probably took until the 1990s and by then people were holidaying in France, Italy and Spain and discovering it there.”Bearing in mind that in the 1970s Belfast city centre effectively closed down at 9pm and on Sunday all the pubs in Northern Ireland were closed, there’s now a remarkable, thriving restaurant culture in many of the main cities and towns, north and south of the border – wine drinking has now taken off big-time. “In Northern Ireland, people from my age group always drink wine at dinner parties these days, maybe with a fine whiskey or Cognac at the end of the meal,” adds the 36-year-old McAlindon. “And in the north-east in particular you’ll find many of the whiskey connoisseurs consuming top malts as well as fine wine.” The proximity of Scotland to north-east Ulster and the strength of its influence is interesting to note in this case.Mervyn McBrien, a fifty-something retired bank manager from Northern Ireland, agrees with much of what McAlindon says: “It was always bottles of stout in the past and my father would drink whiskey or gin, never vodka. I remember Harp lager arriving in the ‘60s, then wine brands like Hirondelle, Black Tower and Blue Nun. Everything started to change gradually. We went for draught lagers and wine in a big way, it was something completely different.

“The notion that everyone in Ireland still drinks only Irish whiskey and stout hasn’t been true for years. We drink a much wider range than that. Hot whiskey still remains very popular in winter and Bushmills has a very high profile, with Jameson the big name down south. The brand of whiskey you drink makes a political statement, it's not so much a matter of individual taste.”Eily Kilgannon, the Dublin-based international press manager for Irish Distillers, doesn’t concur with that last point. She says the Bushmills/
Jameson divide is “all about geography”. But she agrees with “the impression that quite an evolution is going on in Irish drinking habits”. And, she says, this is borne out by the figures and research she has seen. “There’s a much larger repertoire than in the past,” she insists pointing out that 30% of Irish citizens don’t drink at all – another cliché-busting fact.“Still, whiskey is still very important,” she adds. As she is responsible for, among others, the Jameson brand one might expect her to say that. However, she justifies her remarks with figures that show double-digit increases year on year for Jameson over a ten year period. “It’s very good – whiskey is on the crest of a wave,” she says. Perhaps ‘mixability’ is one key factor here: whiskey is being drunk over ice, in cocktails and after dinner by younger drinkers, while the older men in old-fashioned country bars continue to knock back a few chasers.According to Kilgannon, the favourite mix for whiskey is red lemonade (an Irish speciality and, incidentally, another one you rarely see in faux Irish theme bars). It sounds awful but not as bad as the blend of Red Bull and Paddy’s which is a popular order among the young, Irish,
student drinkers. Ireland has a relatively youthful population, especially in the South, so these trends are important for the whiskey industry to note and follow – especially if they are to keep up with other spirits trying to secure vital market share. White spirits are being consumed in increasing volume (vodka was up by 10% in volume in 2000 and by a colossal 31% in 1999), as are premixed ‘hooches’, by Ireland’s twenty-somethings who have greater spending power thanks to an increase in their disposable income.The burgeoning tourist trade is important too. Visitor centres have been set up to show off the heritage and success of the traditional stout and distilling industries, attracting hundreds of thousands of tourists each year. Poitin (potcheen), although still made illegally in rural outposts and urban dens across the country, is now made legally under licence in one or two spots and these products are mainly aimed at tourists, as is mead. And goodness knows how many shots of Irish cream liqueur are consumed in Irish bars and restaurants by visitors under the (poor) impression that the stuff is a staple of Irish drinking culture.And then there is the ultra-trendy Dublin bar scene where young locals, wealthy overseas businessmen and tourists mingle freely. Michael Conrad-Pickles is food and beverage manager of the Clarence Hotel, site of the fashionable Octagon Bar: “Cocktails are extremely popular today, around 25% of our customers order one,” he reports. “We don’t sell too much wine at present, although the pints of Guinness are going strong – but cocktails are definitely the thing.”If you want to drink an authentically trendy Irish drink, something the most style-conscious Dubliner would order in the 21st century, you had better order a Clarence Cosmopolitan: a very untraditional combination of vodka, Cointreau and cranberry juice. Edmund Campion would certainly be amazed. Z Thanks to 'Drink, an Informal Social History' by Andrew Barr (Bantam Press) for this information and more on the history of drinking in Ireland.
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