A good Irish pub, no matter where on earth it’s situated, is a thing of beauty. My favorite time to visit is late afternoon, with an Irish coffee sipped in a snug wooden nook that gets dimmer and more comfortable as you linger.
All the better if it’s nasty outside, the wet weather highlighting the coziness and sense of slowed time that exist in the best of these spaces. I love them. And here in the U.S., on St. Patrick’s Day, I’ll be doing my damnedest not to enter one.
American Irish pubs become different beasts on the holiday heralding the holy snake charmer of the Emerald Isle, and the relaxation of COVID-19 restrictions may make this year’s celebrations particularly boisterous.
While it’s nice to see other humans again, my post-quarantine brain is not yet up for the onslaught of Beverages That Ought Not Be Green, in the hands of shamrock- and leprechaun-festooned people, all pounding drinks and faking brogues and occasionally expelling excess Guinness from their mouths.
I’m a good chunk Irish myself, but celebrating anything – a saint, heritage or the return of the lower halves of people’s faces – with bad drinks in large quantities just doesn’t appeal to me.
My head is still spinning from a pitch I got this month, one that declared St. Patrick’s Day is “not just an excuse to drink, it is an excuse to drink a lot!” before suggesting a drink made of tequila and matcha – neither of which, for y’all keeping score at home, is Irish. (Of course, for the record, neither was St. Patrick.)
I’ll be toasting at home with “Paddy Drinks: The World of Modern Irish Whiskey Cocktails,” the new book from the team at the Dead Rabbit Grocery and Grog in New York. If you haven’t had the pleasure of visiting, the Dead Rabbit is a top-notch Irish bar on the first floor, with an outstanding craft cocktail parlor hidden above.
The bar’s latest book is the antithesis of the sloppy green boozing that dominates this time of year. Instead, it’s loaded with whiskey drinks that are elegant, precise, often complex and keyed to the qualities of the particular spirits used to make them – drinks that could show dyed-green-lager drinkers the Erin of their ways.
The name of the book is a bit tongue-in-cheeky, as Dead Rabbit founders Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry explain in their preface. Some years back, Muldoon and McGarry stopped in at Death & Co., another well-known craft cocktail bar in New York, to check out the menu from its new head bartender. They were surprised to find a specific section dedicated to Irish whiskey drinks.
In New York, the two Irishmen had felt somewhat alone in their appreciation of Irish whiskey, whose reputation hadn’t yet rebounded. So, they were delighted to encounter the “extraordinarily well-considered and well-executed cocktails” centered on some of Ireland’s best bottles.
They were less delighted by the name of that menu section: “Paddy Drinks.” “Paddy” is an old slang term for Irish people, sometimes used affectionately but often pejoratively. And Muldoon and McGarry feared the term “was reflective of an attitude that saw no real quality or refinement within the drinks.”
But clearly, drinks this good weren’t meant to be easily dismissed. The bartender who had put that menu together, Jillian Vose, had gone through her own realization about Irish whiskey. When she took over as head bartender at Death & Co., she’d been seeing a number of new Irish whiskeys available but was encountering some resistance to using and stocking them.
This was in the “We don’t like vodka” era, Vose notes: “You have to admit, especially in New York, people were snobs about certain spirits. That was the case with Irish whiskey. It’s just the way it was.”
Based on some of those attitudes in her mentors, she had assumed that the category must not be good. But as she tasted more of them, especially long-standing brands that had stood the test of time, and learned to trust her palate and judgments, she realized that some of the bottles – and the drinks that could be made with them – were too good not to talk about.
Muldoon and McGarry ended up getting to know Vose (who is half Irish) and eventually hired her as head bartender at the Dead Rabbit. All three are authors with Conor Kelly of “Paddy Drinks.”
The title, Muldoon and McGarry write, was their way of getting even for those earlier attitudes about Irish whiskey, “reclaiming Paddy Drinks as a category that deserves – no, demands – respect on its own merits. The whiskey we know is gloriously subtle and distinctive, offering a vast panorama of flavors and aromas.”
Take the Precision Pilot, for example, where Vose was shooting for a light Negroni variation. She opted for Tullamore Dew, a blended whiskey, because she thought it “wouldn’t have too much tannin or too much spice that would be too dominant. It has a lot more fruity notes,” she says. “But the pot still and single malt in the blend also give it the body to support the other ingredients.”
The Dead Rabbit’s upgrade of a classic called Cameron’s Kick is another example of putting the right whiskey in place. Redbreast 12, a rich pot-still whiskey, has the heft to stand up to the peaty Islay Scotch whisky it shares the glass with, and its time in sherry casks makes the bar’s addition of oloroso (not part of the 1920s-era recipe) an inspired touch.
The book is loaded not only with drink recipes, but also explanations for the production processes that make various types of Irish whiskey what they are and flavor profiles that provide budding mixologists thoughtful tips for pairing and mixing.
Thanks to a foreword by drinks historian David Wondrich, there’s also a glimpse into the history of the Irish pub in America and the way that Irish immigrants have shaped how America drinks. Wondrich notes that German immigrants were quicker to pick up on American fancy cocktail culture, noting that by the late 19th century, “a large proportion of America’s most celebrated mixologists were first- or second-generation German immigrants.”
But he argues that some of the Irish bartenders who ended up behind the bar at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York, a highly influential spot, had a hand in shaping American cocktail traditions by exercising a restraint needed to weed out some of the more baroque drinks of the era.
“In thus trimming back some of the more exuberant branches of the cocktail’s family tree, (these Irish American bartenders) might have made it less ornamental,” Wondrich writes. “But they also made it stronger and better adapted to last through the rough winter that, as far as the great American tradition of the bar was concerned, began in 1920 and only ended with the cocktail renaissance of the 21st century.”
“The whole idea of the Dead Rabbit was to bring the Irish pub to the 21st century but also pay homage to the true pubs of Ireland,” Vose says. Here, there’s not a green beer in sight.
Cameron’s Kick Cocktail
A 1920s-era cocktail upgraded with bitters and nutty oloroso sherry, this concoction by McGarry and Greg Buda of the Dead Rabbit Grocery and Grog balances rich Irish pot-still whiskey against a peaty single malt (the bar uses Redbreast 12 and Bowmore 12, respectively).
Where to buy: Orgeat is available at some liquor stores and online. The bar recommends the orgeat from orgeatworks.com. We used one from Small Hand Foods.
Yield: 1 serving
Ice (cubes for shaking, one large shard for serving)
3 dashes Angostura bitters
¾ ounce fresh lemon juice
¾ ounce orgeat
¾ ounce oloroso sherry
1 ounce peated single-malt Scotch whisky, such as Bowmore 12
1 ounce Irish pot-still whiskey, such as Redbreast 12
Freshly grated nutmeg, for garnish
Place a chunk of ice in a large cocktail coupe and transfer to the freezer to chill.
Fill a shaker with ice, then add the bitters, lemon juice, orgeat, sherry, Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey and shake hard. Double-strain into the chilled glass, grate a little nutmeg over the top and serve.
Precision Pilot Cocktail
Here’s a bright and bittersweet Irish whiskey drink from Vose. The bitter Campari and aromatic grapefruit play off each other. The bar uses Tullamore Dew, a blend of pot-still, malt and grain whiskies.
Yield: 1 serving
Ice cubes for stirring, one large cube or sphere for the drink
2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
½ ounce grapefruit liqueur, such as Combier Liqueur de Pamplemousse Rose
¾ ounce Campari
1 ounce Lillet Rose
1 ounce blended Irish whiskey, such as Tullamore Dew Original
Strip of grapefruit peel, for squeezing
Add a large ice cube or sphere to an Old Fashioned glass and set aside.
Fill a mixing glass with ice, then add the bitters, grapefruit liqueur, Campari, Lillet Rose and whiskey and stir to chill and dilute.
Strain into the glass, then twist the strip of the grapefruit peel over the surface of the drink to express the aromatic oils. Discard the peel and serve.
Recipes adapted from “Paddy Drinks: Modern Irish Whiskey Cocktails” by Jillian Vose, Jack McGarry, Sean Muldoon and Conor Kelly (Harvest, 2022).
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