LONDON, Ont. - There are three things you should know if you want an authentic Irish experience on St. Patrick's Day: Real Irish beer has nothing to do with green food colouring; real Irish whiskey is always spelled with an "e"; and Irish-themed cocktails are a perfectly acceptable, though not well-known, way to toast the "auld sod."
Although there are umpteen Irish cocktails out there, they are not a big draw at many Irish pubs in Canada, especially on St. Patrick's Day.
Here, St. Patrick's Day is mainly a beer event, say Brandon Whyte, bartender at Shannon's Irish Pub and Eatery in Winnipeg, and Joe McGuinness, manager of Durty Nelly's Irish pub in Halifax.
Whyte says if he was asked for an Irish cocktail, he'd probably start to pour a Guinness stout. But this is from a man with a tattoo of a pint of Guinness on his leg, so he may not be exactly impartial.
More seriously, he says Irish beer is used in a number of cocktails. He mentions a Crown Float (Guinness atop a layer of apple cider) and an Irish version of a boilermaker, combining Baileys Irish Cream, Jameson Irish Whiskey and Guinness.
"And of course you can substitute Irish whiskey in any whiskey cocktail," says Whyte, who also runs a bartending school. "You can make a great Manhattan with Irish whiskey. It has a really nice distinct flavour."
At Durty Nelly's, the drinks menu does include sections on Guinness Creations and Celtic Cocktails with names such as Limerick Lemonade and Peppermint Paddy, although McGuinness admits they're not in as great demand as straight-up beer or whiskey.
Both men agree the most popular mixed Irish drink is Irish coffee, combining Irish whiskey and coffee. Whyte also adds Baileys to his recipe.
According to DiscoverIreland.com, "the pub lies at the heart of cultural, social and musical life in Ireland," a place to philosophize, ruminate, hear a poetry reading, tap your feet, have a bite and, naturally, a drink. It seems clear from the abundance of Irish pubs in Canada that Irish immigrants brought this tradition and a pride in their long and storied history of distilling and brewing with them and successfully disseminated it throughout the land.
It's believed missionary monks first carried the art of distilling back to the island around 1000 AD and used it to make medicinal potions that came to be known as "uisce beatha, or water of life. The practice caught on and it's estimated that at one time, there were well over 1,000 operating stills in Ireland. Today there are only four distilleries.
Bushmills in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, still operating, is generally recognized as the oldest legal distillery in the world due to a licence issued by King James I of England in 1608 to an Englishman with large land holdings in Ireland.
What distinguishes Irish whiskey is that it is traditionally distilled three times (as compared to Scotch whisky, which is distilled twice). Also, peat is rarely used in the malting process, so Irish whiskey has a smoother finish.
Guinness, arguably the best-known Irish beer in Canada, was first brewed in 1756 and is the largest producer of stout in the world. But lagers such as Harp (also brewed by Guinness) are the biggest-selling beer in Ireland and Irish red ales are also popular.
If you want to figuratively kiss the Blarney Stone on March 17 with an Irish cocktail, you may have to make it at home. But whatever the libation of choice, you will be carrying on centuries of Irish tradition.
To contact Susan Greer, email her at susan.greer(at)rogers.com.