The signs are everywhere: from the daffodils and crocuses thrusting (like “gilded phaloi,” as Ezra Pound once described them) through the re-emerging, thawing ooze, to the shamrock on the mask of Olympic goalie Ryan Miller, painted on in honor of Jim Craig’s miracle on ice contribution 30 years ago.
In other words, spring, the start of the green season, is just around the corner. And St. Patrick’s Day, the last hurrah of winter or, depending on your outlook, the first unofficial holiday of springtime (the first official being, of course, this one), is upon us.
Originally a simple religious feast held on March 17 in honor of Saint Patrick, the most famous of Ireland’s patron saints, St. Patrick’s Day evolved into a day-long celebration that offered a brief reprieve from weeks of fasting during Lent. Thus, ever since the Middle Ages, Christians on that island nation have attended church in the morning and caroused in the afternoon and evening, indulging in such forbidden luxuries as bacon and beer.
Now a five-day national festival in Ireland, St. Patrick’s also is celebrated, in various ways, all over the world, from Argentina to the United States. And you don’t have to be Irish, or know who St. Paddy was (heck, few true Irishmen know that), to join in the festivities. Luckily, though, as a sign in the Guinness Storehouse reads, “Everyone is Irish on March 17.”
And speaking of Guinness, if you are hosting an authentic St. Patrick’s Day party, the famous Dublin-based brewery offers a trio of beers as distinctive as the leaves on a clover: Harp Lager, Smithwick’s, and Guinness Stout. Each provides an option for the differing tastes of drinkers in your crowd, satisfying their craving for something light, medium-bodied, and bold, respectively.
Harp, similar to many European pale lagers, is bright and crisp. Smithwick’s, an Irish red ale, pours out in a ruddy, amber hue, with lots of sweet, toasted-malt flavors, like toffee and vanilla. As for Guinness Stout? Well, to the Irish, it’s “mother’s milk” and the true belle of any St. Paddy’s Day bar. However, to many lighter-beer-drinking Americans, stout’s midnight-dark complexion can seem heavy and formidable. It’s surprisingly neither — in fact, Guinness Stout is actually very light in texture and refreshing, with hints of roasty, coffee-like aromas.
Nonetheless, experience has shown me that few people are fond of stout (if last year’s middle-March tasting of American-made stouts was any indication). So this year I thought I’d investigate the other Eire-beerian choices, lagers and reds. And since St. Patrick has become one of the best-known Irish immigrants to reach these shores (his first official parade was held in New York City in 1762), I thought it only fitting to seek American-made variants similar to (and maybe better than) the traditional islanders mentioned above.
The ideal Irish red ale achieves a balance between the slightly sweet, like an amber lager (think Sam Adams), and the lightly hoppy, like a pale ale along the lines of a Sierra Nevada. A good European pale lager, meanwhile, is malty-sweet but significantly hoppier and slightly more bitter. Both varieties, though, are fairly versatile and should pair well with a range of Paddy Day party foods, from the sturdy standard, corned beef and cabbage, to light fare, such as seafood or even Cheddar cheese and fresh soda bread. And, as merrymakers, they should also taste great on their own.
So then, here’s a mix-a-six of Yankee-brewed spirits, assembled to ensure that every Irish eye (original or ersatz) is smiling at the end of the night. Enjoy!
- Kells Irish Style Lager, Rogue Ales Brewery. This straw-colored microbrew leads with a noticeable fruity aroma (the label calls it “apple crisp”) that gives way to a smooth, though slightly bitter, candy-sweetness. Not as dry as Harp, but more complex, and it’s sweet on a slice of Dubliner Cheddar cheese.
- Celtic Ale, Harpoon Brewery. Lighter in color than what I’d call “red,” this beer also behaves more like a lager, offering an arid and slightly grassy, rather than the expected treacly, flavor. But its balanced, medium body and delicate bitterness made it an ideal complement to a hearty beef pie.
- Saranac Irish Red Ale, Matt Brewing Company. This seasonal, with its deep garnet shade and initial cherry-like aroma, is the closest of the bunch to find its Irish roots. Although not overwhelming to the palate — it’s modestly caramel-sweet and nutty — there’s no distracting bitterness, either.
- Tipperary Pale Ale, Moylan’s Brewery. Not technically an Irish red, this fruity, honeyed pale ale has a coppery character and is no less temperamental. Slightly hoppy and yeasty, with hints of lemon and orange zest, it made a suitable mate for a plate of feisty soda bread.
- Jamaica Red Ale, Mad River Brewing Co. It may not hail from Ireland (or the island named on the label), but this mahogany-colored red ale, from the land of the Redwoods, is chockful of toffee-like flavor, a slight hops bitterness, and hints of spices. A lucky find for slices of corned beef and mild mustard.
- Ubu Ale, Lake Placid Pub & Brewery. According to the label, this dark ruddy concoction is named for an over-sized chocolate lab that had a nose for good beer. But even the saltiest Irish sea dog would enjoy sipping this rich, warming, raisiny after-dinner brew.
Now, if you like malt-based beverages but want an alternative to beer on March 17 (especially if your only option “is not that easy”), then you might enjoy cocktails made with an Irish whiskey. Although I prefer single malts (of either Celtic origin) over blends, I received a bottle of Michael Collins and gave it a try. On the rocks, it tasted slightly syrupy and earthy, like a Scotch. But when I shook things up, its inner leprechaun showed his true whiskers. So far I’ve enjoyed the orangey-sour “Frisky Whisky” but haven’t been brave enough to stir a “Corned Beef Collins”:
1.5 oz Michael Collins blended whiskey
2 oz fresh sour mix
2 oz club soda
1 eye droplet of corned beef drippings
1 splash of cabbage water
Corned beef spices and cabbage oak, aroma
Shake whiskey, corned beef drippings, and sour mix with ice. Pour into Collins glass and top with soda.
Other St. Paddy’s Day-themed cocktail ideas I’ve come across include a delicious-sounding “Sparkling Shamrock,” made with Grey Goose La Poire flavored Vodka and St. Germain liqueur, and the “Lucky-tini,” made with Three-O Grape Vodka, melon liqueur, and pineapple juice. (Apparently, every thing can be Irish, too.)
So, there you have it, an array of beverages, both bona fide and bogus, that are sure to make any newly naturalized lad or and lass shout, “Slainte!” (Even if they don’t know what it means.)
As always, tell us what you think. Do you prefer Irish-style ales to stouts? Is there another beer-and-food combo or cocktail that you enjoy on St. Patrick’s Day? Let us know by leaving a comment below.
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