You didn’t think I could go to Ireland and not drink beer did you?
Ireland is synonymous with three drinks: Guinness, Bailey’s, and Jameson. Yes, I am aware that there are many other Irish drinks, including coffee and several varieties of tea, but these three are the Holy Trinity of Irish branding. I had all but Jameson on my trip (I’m honestly not a hard liquor guy, save the rare rum and lime) just to say I had, but the real treasures where in the local brews that I found in off-license stores.
Ireland has two types of purveyors of spirits: on-license (which is often unlabeled) and off-license (which is very clearly labeled). The names are self-descriptive; on-license places can sell and serve liquor on-site, like a bar or a pub. Off-license places can sell alcohol for people to take away, but not consume on the premises. In short; off-license is what we in the US know as a good old fashioned liquor store.
Most of the on-license places have the typical fare: Guinness, Smithwicks, Bulmers, Beamish, Carlsberg, Heineken, and more surprisingly, Budweiser and Coors light (which are marketed as ice cold). This is a nice selection, and better than most dive bars in the US, in which you’d be lucky to find anything even remotely like an ale, never mind a physical, tangible, drinkable, real ale. But the above selection is in literally every pub. You can’t escape it. You’d better like Smithwicks, because that’s the only pale ale you’re likely to get straight from the tap.
The US, in it’s current beer renaissance, seems like a land of varied flavor in comparison. At least I have a few options for where and what I can find on tap, as even our local chains have Maryland brews like Heavy Seas and Flying Dog.
But don’t get me wrong. I’m not scoffing fresh Guinness, on tap, in Ireland. Far from it.
I’m just surprised at the lack of diversity.
The off-license stores (often named Wine Cellar, or Booze Basement, or something similar) make up for any short falls of the local pub scene. They’re stacked from floor to ceiling with precious hop-hovels; brown glass and colorful labels and far as the a drunken eye can wander. They even carry an impressive array of international beers; I found Flying Dog Gonzo Imperial Porter and Goose Island IPA in the refrigerated section of two stores in completely different towns.
Enter Kilkenny Irish Cream Ale. I found this in downtown Kilkenny (shocker!) and it came highly recommend from the gentleman manning the store. It seemed appropriate to drink the most popular non-Smithwicks ale from Kilkenny, while I was in Kilkenny, being all Kilkennian.
This smooth-ass beer comes in a widget can (which curiously was patented in Ireland, by Guinness Brewing), making it a second cousin to Boddingtons, Tetley’s, John Smith’s, Young’s, and any good beer than comes in a pint can. It pours just like any of those do: lots of noise and foam, a thick head, and a ridiculously smooth finish.
This is a pale ale through and through, with subtle bitterness and a lot of flavor mid-sip. The finish is a tad acidic, and reminds me a lot of Smithwicks on tap, just a lot smoother.
Did I mention how smooth this beer was?
If you mixed Bass Pale, milk, and a sweet alto-saxophone lick ala Kenny G circa 1992, then carbonated it, you’d have this beer.
Nothing truly sets it apart from any other Irish/British cream ale, but it’s still damn good. If you find yourself in Kilkenny, skip the Smithwick’s Brewery, and head to the closest off-license. Get your self a couple of the widget-packed bad boys, and enjoy a night blending in like a real local.
9 out of 10.