Drinking the “Irish way” in the U.S. often just means... drinking. A lot. From the insensitively named Irish Car Bomb beer-and-shot combo to stumbling St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, Ireland has earned a stateside reputation as a country of hard drinking party animals. But while the Irish certainly appreciate their booze, they also know how to integrate it into their everyday lives and culture so that it brings happiness rather than destruction. One of my favorite drinking memories will always be downing a shot of whiskey and nursing a Guinness in rural Slane, Ireland, inside a packed pub where a local acoustic band performed and the patrons sang along to every word of every song.
I spoke with Alex Conyngham, co-founder and director of the new Slane Irish Whiskey—whose distillery is located on the grounds of his family’s castle that dates back three centuries—about what it means to truly imbibe as an Irishman or Irishwoman. Turns out, it’s pretty easy to do anywhere, once you get the Guinness right. Here’s how to really drink the Irish way.
Know a Good Pint of Guinness from a Bad One
Guinness is the go-to Irish stout (and at 125 calories per 12 ounces, lighter than you probably realize). But Guinness on draft from one bar to another can taste wildly different. The trick is to get that frothy head and luxurious mouthfeel. It requires a couple conditions. “Guinness will always have to be poured in two stages and served at the right temperature,” Conyngham says (per the brewery, not too cold at 42.8 degrees Fahrenheit). “Irish people always travel for the perfect pint.” In Ireland, even airports have strict standards for their Guinness pours. Luckily, American bars have gotten much better at treating the beer with proper respect. But skip the bottles at home. Instead, grab the 16-ounce can with the little plastic ball in it (it’s called a widget), which does a much better job of maintaining the beer’s texture.
Drink More Beer Than Guinness
Ireland has a “really active craft brewing scene happening at the moment,” Conyngham says. Boyne Brewhouse, for example, has everything from an imperial stout and a saison to an American-style pale ale. These are hard to find in America, so for something different but still just as Irish, opt for O'Hara's Irish Red or Smithwick's, both red ales that are more widely available.
Find Your Own Brand of Irish Whiskey
“If you had to sum up Irish whiskey in terms of flavor profile, I would say smooth, but then behind that, you’ve got loads of variation,” Conyngham says. Slane, available in the U.S. for around $30, aims to be easy-drinking yet “flavor-forward,” in his words. The whiskey (currently a blend from other distillers, as its own production is just beginning) gets nice vanilla notes from ex-bourbon barrels used for aging while remaining approachable. It’s the kind of whiskey even non-whiskey fans can get behind, especially when sipping it on the rocks. Irish whiskey is experiencing a renaissance of sorts, so go out and find what you like. It’s also hard to go wrong with classics like Jameson, Redbreast, Tullamore D.E.W., or that dive-bar standby, Powers.
Talk to Strangers
The truest mark of Irish drinking actually has nothing to do with what’s in your glass. “It’s more about the experience of what it means to be in an Irish pub,” Conyngham says. “It’s about the atmosphere, the conviviality, the friendliness—that’s what drinking like you’re Irish is about.” Particularly in rural areas of Ireland, the pub is historically the center of conversation for a community. It’s where you go to exchange ideas and news, or catch up with friends and family. And it’s a place where, contrary to many American bars, it’s actually very easy and acceptable to talk to anyone, even if you’re not picking them up.
Keep St. Patrick’s Day Family Friendly
St. Paddy’s Day in American cities like Chicago and Boston conjures up images of a river running green and manic revelers chugging dyed beer in the streets. It’s nearly the exact opposite in Ireland, where the holiday tends to be a time spent with your closest loved ones. “My 8-year-old son loves it because it’s actually the only day of the year he gets to go to the pub,” Conyngham says. In other words, maybe skip that sixth drink.
Don’t Make an Irish Exit
The Irish drink in packs. That means if you know someone at the bar, you stick with them, and everyone buys in rounds—so don’t leave before it’s your turn to pick up another one. So the origin of the phrase “Irish goodbye” remains something of a mystery, particularly to people like Conyngham who live across the Atlantic. “It makes us laugh because it’s the complete opposite here,” he says. “An Irish goodbye means you say goodbye to absolutely everyone in the pub. It takes three times as long to leave.”