In the fifth century, Ireland suffered from a reptile dysfunction. It happens to the best of us. Pesky pagan snakes all over the place, slippery anti-Christian evangelists making a nuisance of themselves, shedding their skin, swallowing hamsters whole, hypnotising Mowgli, sticking their tongue out at everyone. That kind of thing.
But then St Patrick came along. With a grinning pig under one arm and waving a knobbly stick with the other, he chased all the snakes into the sea, scaring them away with his novelty green felt hat, punting them off cliffs with his gold buckled shoes… and numerous other tired Irish clichés that lazy writers use to pad out the opening paragraphs of a St Patrick’s Day feature. There, that should do it.
Oh not quite. Just one more… to be sure. Like a daft leprechaun who can’t remember where he hid his crock of gold, ignoring the profit possibilities of St Patrick’s Day is neither big nor clever.
For a start, it falls on a Thursday, which means it can legitimately be stretched over the weekend, and it coincides with the end of the Cheltenham Festival – where Irish race-goers flock in their thousands – and the final round of the Six Nations rugby, with Ireland taking on Scotland in the prime tea-time kick-off.
What’s more, beyond the enduring global classics Jameson and Guinness, Ireland boasts a thriving microbrewing sector and a rejuvenated distilling scene. The Irish, of course, invented whiskey but its industry has struggled to recover from the events of the 1830s, when the Scots embraced the continuous still, ironically invented by Irishman Aeneus Coffey.
Even though it enabled distillers to make more whiskey for less money, it was initially rejected by the Irish. As anyone who has sat through Riverdance will know, it’s a decision the Irish have been kicking themselves about ever since.
But Irish whiskey is rediscovering its mojo. Jameson has released Caskmates, a whiskey rested in barrels originally loaned to the brewer Franciscan Well for its stout, resulting in a wonderfully rounded drop with a palpable hint of dark chocolate. From the same distillery in Midleton, County Cork, comes Red Breast Single Cask, a limited release of 500 matured in sherry cask. Our favourite, from Cooley, is Greenore 8 Year Old, a single grain with some light citrus touches and a hint of banana on the nose.
Irish gin is on the up, too. Ireland’s first cask-aged gin is Blackwater Juniper Cask, rested for a month in barrels carved from juniper wood and sipped long with elderflower tonic and a sprig of rosemary.
For Irish beer, the go-to guys are obviously Guinness but, lest we forget, long before Arthur Guinness started brewing stout, he was producing porters and the two versions released as part of the Guinness Brewers Project are really rather good – especially the fuller-bodied, coffee-coated and tobacco-tinged West Indies edition.
The cool kid on the craft brewing block is Boundary Brewing from Belfast, which refuses to be held ransom to the fluctuation of the hop trade by rotating different varieties in its clean, deftly-defined pale ales and IPAs.
The American-accented ales of Eight Degrees Brewing are also well worth exploring, while White Hag Brewing is home to some out-there ales including the smoky Meabh Rua Irish Bog beer and Beann Gulban, a heather sour ale aged in French red wine barrels.
Ssssssssssssssssslainte, as those Irish snakes never said.