Some reckon that Irish red ale is currently more popular in America than it is in Ireland, but despite this, its distinctive colour and taste are steeped in Irish history. Plus, the quality of red ale casks’ rich toffee and sweet vanilla contributions to Irish whiskey cannot be understated.
After taking a deep dive into all things Oloroso sherry, this week we explore the history and profile of Irish red ale, one of the three casks that are so instrumental to the aging process of Malones Triple Cask Irish Whiskey, giving our amber liquid its smooth complexity.
Read on for fascinating history, characteristics and an exploration of the relationship between whiskey and Irish red ale.
History of Irish Red Ale
Though by many accounts red ale didn’t actually surface until the 18th Century (more on this below) we did manage to find an account of “red ales” getting a mention in a 8th or 9th century Irish poem. According to Kegerator.com’s learning centre the poem sings of the people of “Dorind” in Kerry drinking red ale as well as “about the land of the Cruithni” (Cruithni relates to the Pictish tribes, natives of the North of Scotland who allied with Ireland during multiple Roman invasions). In other words, Irish in the 8th century enjoyed red ale so much that they introduced it to their Scottish friends – although this version of red ale was almost certainly very different to the stuff we drink today.
Is Red Ale Irish?
“Irish Red Ale” isn’t a term one hears often in Ireland, where it is known simply as red ale. In the same way whiskey is Irish Whiskey to the rest of the world, but to us it’s just whiskey! Because of red ale’s popularity in America, some may find themselves wondering, “is red ale Irish, or is the term Irish red ale just a marketing ploy to appeal to America’s love of all things Emerald Isle?”
Well you’ll be glad to hear that Irish Red Ale is in fact Irish: it originated in Kilkenny, where the Smithwick family started brewing at St. Francis Abbey, a venue which had enjoyed a rich brewing history since the 1400s. The Smithwick’s Red Ale recipe was a secret known only to the family and Smithwick’s ran successfully as an independent brewery from 1710 to 1965. Their red ale was only available in Ireland, until it was bought by Guinness in ‘65 - who distributed it to the rest of the world.
Smithwick’s Red Ale is known to be the most popular ale in Ireland, and throughout its 300 year history it has inspired many more red ale brands around the world. If you're in Scotland, you can find Smithwick's Red Ale at Malones Irish Bar Glasgow and Malones Irish Bar Edinburgh, alongside Malones Irish Whiskey.
Characteristics of Irish Red Ale
The most prominent feature of Irish red ale is its colour, which is – unsurprisingly – red. From a rusty copper to a deep ruby colour, red ale must feature on a specific range of hues in order to be categorised as “red”. This signature red colour is created by the kilned malts and roasted barley used in the brewing process. Strength-wise, Irish red ale typically ranges from 3.8% to 4.8% ABV, and some craft beers can be as high as 6%.
What Does Red Ale Taste Like?
Another characterisation of red ale is its malt profile, which results in a sweet caramel or toffee like taste. Caramel and roasted malt are often featured in Irish red ale to enhance the flavours.
Red ales are typically sweeter than other beers, with their gentle bitterness balanced by a creamy butterscotch quality. Smithwick’s Red Ale is a great example of a great-tasting traditional Irish red ale.
So, what is the relationship between Irish Red Ale and Irish Whiskey?
Casks that have previously held red ale are not as commonly used in the maturation of whiskey as Bourbon or Sherry casks, but they contribute some delightful flavours to the liquid and are well worth using alongside other casks to age a blended whiskey.
Malones Triple Cask Irish Whiskey is a prime example of this - the red ale Casks used in the maturation process contribute luxurious toffee and caramel flavours as well as oaky vanilla. These flavours beautifully compliment the aromatic fruitcake, apple and cinnamon flavours and aromas that come from the ex-Kentucky bourbon and Oloroso sherry casks.
If you'd like to know more about Oloroso sherry's history, character and its contributions to Malones Triple Cask Whiskey, read our previous blog post - all about Oloroso sherry.
Can You Mix Red Ale and Whiskey?
We’ve heard this question asked many times in relation to red ale and whiskey, and the answer? Of course! The relationship between red ale and whiskey goes much further than just using the casks for aging, drinking the two together can be a highly refreshing, enjoyable experience. A glass of beer and a shot of whiskey together, or even better, a glass of Smithwick’s Irish Red Ale and a shot of Malones Triple Cask Irish Whiskey, make the perfect combo.
Try them together at Malones Irish Bars.
Malones Irish Whiskey: Can You Taste The Red Ale?
Using red ale casks to mature Malones Irish Whiskey is key to the whiskey’s sweet toffee and caramel notes. They help to make it a smooth, easy drink which is effortlessly complimented in cocktails, and just as sumptuous and luxurious drunk neat or over ice. Try a bottle of Malones Triple Cask to taste the delicious contributions of the red ale casks.