Columba

By

So since it was Saint Patrick’s day, I picked up three bottles of Irish whiskey, one of which is immensely unique and pleasing: the Connemara peated single malt.  On account of this, I decided to whip up a little something, and decided to do a bit more complex variation on an Old Fashioned.  As such, I give you the Columba.
 


Connemara is an excellent single malt, and rather unique among Irish whiskeys for being the only one that uses peat in the production process currently.  According to Connemara’s website, peat was utilized in order to dry the malted barley by the ancient Irish in the production of “uisce beatha,” id est “the water of life” (Cooley Distillery).  The process they utilize to produce the whiskey is the same, and imbues the malted grain before it will be distilled twice with a smoky character (Ibid).  Yet, Connemara is even more unique, considering the fact that it uses a double distillation, whilst most Irish whiskey features a triple distillation (Wikipedia, “Irish whiskey”).  Thus this makes it similar to Scotch, which is distilled twice (with the exception of Auchentoshan) (Ibid).  Normally, this helps to produce a smoother flavor when compared to that of Scotch, and helps remove the earth-tones; however, Connemara is rather similar to a Scotch, but retains a lighter, sweeter flavor which is not necessarily found in Laphroaig, Lagavulin or other Islay Scotch.

Besides being a great malt, the word derives from Conmhaicne Mara, meaning “descendents of the sea,” and is a region in western Ireland (Wikipedia, “Connemara”).  The region features five Catholic districts, and is well known in the area surrounding the city of Clifden for megalithic tombs (Ibid).  Oscar Wilde once said that “Connemara is a savage beauty,” and this phrase applies to the peat whiskey as much as it applies to the geographic region (Connemara Tourism).

Irish whiskey features the term pure pot still whiskey, which is unique to the Irish form.  While all single malt Scotch is made via pot still methods, in Ireland a pure pot still is a whiskey that refers to product completely composed of barley, a mix of malted and unmalted barley, distilled in a pot still (Ibid).  Unmalted barley provides a spicier, richer flavor that is characteristic of certain Irish whiskeys: examples of pure pot still are Redbreast, Green Spot, and Jameson 15 year old, which are all distilled in Midleton (Ibid).  As when I discussed scotch, pot still whiskey is considered higher end when compared to the stuff that is produced by means of the continuous column method; most proprietary brands of whiskey utilize the pot still method (Biggs 5-6).

Taking an Old Fashioned cocktail as the base, or rather the “old fashioned” method of producing cocktails, id est bitters, spirit, sugar and water, I decided to work with this wonderful peaty, full bodied, single malt. I wanted to retain the peat flavor, and the light sweet flavor that was prevalent on the mid palate, but make it a little more complex.  So I tried a few things, and so far I’m partially satisfied with the result.  I used absinthe to provide an anise flavor and an aroma to the drink, which seemed to work well with the peat-like flavor, and moved the peat to the finish, rather than being prevalent on the tongue.  To add a little more complexity, I added in a bit of green Chartreuse, which because of its’ potent body adds a lot of variety and depth, both on the finish, helping alternate and blend with the peat, as well as on the tongue.  Sugar was used to provide a little sweetness, and help balance the drink a bit, as is the case with an Old Fashioned cocktail, and the choice of using lemon rather than orange was easy, considering that to me, the lemon blends better with absinthe, as is the case in a Sazerac cocktail.  However, the lemon also went well with the light fruit notes found in the whiskey, and seems to help in cutting back on the peat on the tongue.  I used flamed lemon peel to give it a little bit more depth and complexity in the aroma and to capture that unique scent of caramelized lemon oils.  I think the cocktail can be improved, and will experiment with it some more, but it works well as an aperitif, and helped stimulate appetites for my St. Patrick’s day meal.

I have not discussed absinthe in depth, but I will do that when I get around to writing about the Monkey Gland.  To mention the absinthe I used, and what absinthe is in a brief statement: absinthe is an anise (think black licorice) flavored spirit that features herbs including wormwood, and usually has a natural green hue (DeGroff 12-13).  The absinthe which I chose to use was Emile Pernot‘s “Vieux Pontarlier” Absinthe Francais Superiéure

Vieux Pontarlier is a small batch produced absinthe which uses historic protocols, methods and equipment form the 19th century, and features locally grown Pontarlier wormwood, as well as Spanish anise seed, Provencal fennel, and several other herbs and spices (Tempus Fugit Spirits). The drink has no sugar added, and yet still has a slightly sweet character thanks to the ingredients and process (Ibid). It is a verte, or green absinthe, and has a slight peridot color tone. At sixty five percent alcohol by volume, it is rather strong, but that is what is expected of absinthe, and since the flavors are robust it works well as bitters.

The Emile Pernot Distillery, which produces Vieux Pontarlier, was a small family business created in Pontarlier, which was an ancient trade-route near the Swiss frontier (Ibid). During the Belle Époque, or the period of fin de siècle France, that being the end of the 19th century and early part of the 20th century up until about the Great War, Pontarlier was considered one of the best absinthe producing regions in the world (Ibid).
So why did I name this cocktail Columba of all things? Because I’m a sucker for history, and because the things that went into my head were the following: we have a monastic liqueur (Chartreuse); we have an Irish theme with the Irish whiskey; we have a peat whiskey which is strong, wild and unbridled. All of these things point to Irish monasticism, and who better, than Saint Columba (d.597), who helped proselytize the Picts of Scotland from his island off the coast of Scotland and northern Britain which was known as Iona (Hollister 42).

Christian monasticism can be summed up in two ways: eremitic or cenobitic. In the eremitic form, monks reside alone, while in the cenobitic form, they reside in groups. Irish monasticism was an extreme form of hermetic monasticism, and was quite different than that of the continental monasticism, or Benedictine monasticism (Ibid 39-45). Christianity had been spread throughout Europe thanks to the Roman Empire, after it was adopted by Emperor Constantine I and allowed privileges through the Edict of Milan in 313 at the end of the Diocletian persecutions of the Christians. However, after the Anglo-Saxon conquest, in England, Christianity all but vanished in the historical record: it flourished in regions near Ireland and Brittany however, as well as Wales, but was under a specific format (Ibid 40). As such, Saint Patrick, who was a missionary to Ireland from Briton, was attempting to establish a diocesan structure in Ireland as was the case on the Continent, which never ended up taking hold (Ibid 39-40).

Many times historians will write of a “Celtic church,” to differentiate the customs from the Roman “church” (Ibid).  The problem with this is that there is no single church, and that there were a multitude of various groups with different customs and practices, which would explain why Saint Patrick had such a difficult time proselytizing people to adopt a more uniform system (Ibid).  One major monastery was founded by Saint Columba at Iona, and was a monastery that continued holding unto the old ways of calculating Easter (which was one of the major differences between the “Celtic” churches and the “Roman” church) until the 8th century.  A major force to be reckoned with during the early medieval period, Irish monasticism helped establish and create cultural and religious syncretism throughout France, England, and even places in Gaul and Italy (Ibid 41-42).  Irish monks were known for doing crazy stunts, much like monks of other traditions, but quite often would have practices that bordered on the heretical thanks to the adoption of cultural models found in the native Celtic religions.  Furthermore, monks like Columba were quite often warrior monks.  Columba is revered historically as a warrior saint, and his name was invoked during battle: legend states that Columba’s relics were taken from Iona to the battle of Bannockburn (1314), at which the outnumbered Scottish defeated a sizable English army (Wikipedia, “Columba”).  For this reason, Columba has been called spes Scotorum, or the hope of the Scottish people (Ibid).

In such a way, Columba helped bridge cultural differences on a minor level between the English, the Scottish, and the Irish.  This cocktail attempts to do that as well, by taking a peat-like whiskey and bridging the gap between Scottish and Irish flavors.  Furthermore, the use of a monastic liqueur brings me to think of the monastic structure.  And absinthe, just like the Irish monks, is unbridled and full of flavor. 

As I write this, I have the sudden craving to try this with Benedictine…

The Columba:

2 ounces Connemara Irish whiskey
1/4 ounce green Chartreuse
Absinthe (Vieux Pontarlier)
1 Sugar cube
Lemon peel

In an old fashioned glass, soak a sugar cube in the Absinthe.  Muddle the sugar cube at the bottom of the glass, and add ice.  Add in the Irish whiskey and the green Chartreuse, stirring to mix.  Add another dash of absinthe over the ice, and garnish with flamed lemon peel.

—–

Biggs, David. 2004. Whisky and Bourbon Cocktails.   London: New Holland Publishers.

Connemara Tourism. “Welcome to Connemara.”  Connemara.ie.  http://www.connemara.ie/ (accessed March 17, 2010).

Cooley Distillery.   “Connemara Whiskey.”  ConnemaraWhiskey.com.  http://www.connemarawhiskey.com/ (accessed March 17, 2010).

DeGroff, Dale. 2008. The Essential Cocktail: The Art of Mixing Perfect Drinks. New York: Clarkson Potter/Publishers.

Hollister, C. Warren.  Also written by Robert C. Stacey, and Robin Chapman Stacey.  2001.  The Making of England: To 1399.”  Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.  

Tempus Fugit Spirits.  “Vieux Pontarlier.”  TempusFugitSpirits.com.  http://www.tempusfugitspirits.com/ (accessed March 17, 2010).

Wikipedia contributors. “Christian monasticism.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_monasticism(accessed March 17, 2010).
–.  “Christianity in the 6th century.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christianity_in_the_6th_century (accessed March 17, 2010).
–.  “Columba.”  Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Columba (accessed March 17, 2010).
–.  “Connemara.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Connemara (accessed March 17, 2010).