Eat, Drink, and be Celtic
It’s practically impossible not to fall in love with the impressive array of fine wine and spirits of today’s Celtic regions. Spanning about 1200 miles from Scotland to Spain along the Atlantic coast of Western Europe, Asturias, Brittany, Cornwall, Galicia, Ireland, Isle of Man, Scotland, and Wales offer whiskies, wines, beers, and spirits as different and unique as each region. My brief overview of drinks from these areas recently appeared in Celtic Life International magazine.
The annual Arizona Highland Celtic Festival, presented in Flagstaff by the Northern Arizona Celtic Heritage Society offers the opportunity to sample and learn about spirits of the Celtic regions. Only products from the various regions that are available in the U.S. are presented. Sampling is done at two locations on the field, aptly named Celtic Tavern and Blarney Pub. The 2014 festival runs July 19 and 20. http://nachs.info/festival.shtml
Asturias and Apples
Asturias is in “Green Spain” – in the Northwest part of the country. Lots of rain and temperate climate throughout the year means lots of apples, which means lots of cider, or sidra, most with the alcohol content of beer. In many restaurants, the escanciador, or cider pourer, entertains guests with a bit of theater as he pours the cider from a bottle held above his head to the glass held in the other hand behind his back. Scheduled to be served at the festival: El Gaitero Sidra.
Galicia, “The Rain in Spain”, and Wine
The wettest area of Spain is Galicia, in the extreme Northwest corner of the country, adjacent to Asturias. This is home to the Rias Baixas, the most well-known of the Galician wine regions. Albarino grapes thrive in this cold, damp, drizzly climate. The white wines of the region are crisp and zesty, with various citrus tones. Local terroir adds a gentle sea influence which makes these wines pair so well with wavy-shelled oysters, cockles, clams, langoustines, mushrooms and potatoes. Other wine producing provinces of Galicia include Ourense, Lugo, A Coruña, and Pontevedra. An alcoholic spirit distilled from wine and flavored with herbs, coffee, sugar, lemon peel and cinnamon is a punch, called Queimada. Scheduled to be served at the festival: Martin Codax Albarino wine.
Brittany, Apple Brandy
Brittany produces fine beer, cider, wine, and even a single malt whisky. An apple brandy called Calvados is also closely linked to the region, although technically its origin is in adjacent Normandy. Affectionately knows as “the drink of the Celts”, Calvados is made using dozens of varieties of apples from the abundant orchards of Northwestern France. To ancient Celts, especially the Gauls, the apple was thought to be a magical fruit and was fiercely protected. Calvados is matured in dark caves and cellars and is enjoyed as an aperitif, liqueur, or as an accompaniment to coffee, cigars, and cheeses. Scheduled to be served at the festival: Christian Drouin Calvados.
Cornwall, Mead, and Honeymoon
Mead is a fermented drink made with honey and water, and is arguably the oldest alcoholic beverage in existence, sometimes referred to as honey wine. Local lore tells us that it was tradition to supply a newly married couple with enough mead for a month, to insure happiness and fertility. This period became known as the honeymoon. Mead is mentioned in Beowulf, Arthurian literature, and throughout much of English history, with the Cornwall area of England being the locale of much of King Arthur’s realm. The honey-sweet drink goes well with dried fruit and nuts, blue or aged cheeses, and with dessert tarts. Scheduled to be served at the festival: Chaucer’s Mead.
Ireland, Irish Beer and Whiskey
Ah, Ireland and drink! Where to start? For beer, how about 1759 when Arthur Guinness began combining roasted Irish barley, hops, brewer’s yeast and pure spring water to make his namesake beer. Today, 10 million glasses of “the black stuff” are consumed each day. And, it’s not really black, but a deep ruby red, due to the roasted barley used in the recipe. Guinness is also known as a “meal in a glass” and the joke is that Guinness is one of the major food groups in Ireland. Today, Irish whiskey is made at four distilleries – Bushmill’s, Cooley, Jameson, and Midleton. The aroma and flavor profiles are light and smooth, because the whiskies are triple distilled and most are not peated. Irish beers and whiskies go well with the hearty fare of the island nation – robust meats, cheeses, and potato dishes. Scheduled to be served at the festival: Guinness, Harp and Smithwick’s beers and Bushmill’s whiskey.
Isle of Man, and its Unique, Clear Spirit
Perhaps the most unusual spirit of today’s Celtic regions is ManX Spirit, described by its creators as “an intense spirit drink distilled from oak-aged single malt whiskey. Our unique distillation technique captures the essence of whiskey whilst removing those tars and oils acquired in the ageing process. The result: a clear, flavorsome spirit”. It comes in two variations: the red label is a redistillation of existing blended whiskies, aged at least five years, and the blue label, which is a redistillation of existing “pure malt” whisky, also aged at least five years. Scheduled to be served at the festival: ManX Red.
Wales, Beer, Wine and Whisky
As with most Celtic regions, Wales is well-suited to produce wines, beers and distilled spirits because of the abundance of water and grain. There are dozens of Welsh breweries, with S. A. Brain in Cardiff being the largest. Penarth Vineyards produce fine Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. But it is Penderyn Distillery that plays the trump card. Located in the foothills of the magnificent Brecon Beacons National Park, the distillery offers a complete portfolio of spirits, including vodka, gin, Welsh Cream Liqueur, and a single malt whisky, which has been aged in used Bourbon barrels from Kentucky. Scheduled to be served at the festival: Penderyn Single Malt Whisky.
Scotland, Beer and Scotch Whisky
Scotland has brewed beer for over 3,000 years and (legally) distilled spirits for a little over 500, although much longer in reality. More popular brands of beer include Belhaven, McEwan’s and Tennent’s. Scotch whisky is bottled primarily in two ways – as single malt, meaning it is the product of one single distillery, or as a blend, meaning it consists of small amounts of dozens of single malts and a larger proportion of grain whisky, blended together. The name “whisky” is derived from the Gaelic word for water of life: usige beatha (“ooskie bah”). Over time, ooskie became whisky. Scheduled to be served at the festival: Glenmorangie single malt.