Spirits of the Celtic Regions
by Ray Pearson
It’s difficult not to fall in love with the food and spirits of Celtic regions. Spanning 1200 miles from Scotland to Spain and hugging the Atlantic coast of Western Europe, today’s Celtic regions offer an impressive array of gastronomic wonders and diverse drink. Bottom line: the Celtic regions have a rich, pervasive history; names that sound like they are from Middle Earth; and take great pride in their spirits. Let’s take a quick tour.
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. There are miles of coastline on the Cantabric Sea, which means an abundance of seafood as well. Some of the more popular dishes include Caldereta (fish stew), made with fish, lobster and crab, seasoned with onion, parsley, fresh tomato and some white wine. When paired with the perky sidra its just heavenly. Another fave is Merluza a la Sidra (Hake fish in cider). A regional mainstay, this dish is a blend of hake, clams, onion, garlic, tomato, potatoes, apples and cider, cooked in a ceramic casserole, and then baked.
The wettest area of Spain is Galicia in the extreme Northwest corner of the country adjacent to Asturias. This is the home of the most well-known of the Galician wine regions, Rias Baixas. 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.
Brittany produces fine beer, cider, wine, and even a single malt whisky. An apple brandy called Calvados is 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, 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.
Cornwall, United Kingdom
Mead is a fermented drink made with honey and water, is arguably one of the oldest alcoholic beverages in existence, and is 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.
Hmmm... Where to start? How about 1759 when Arthur Guinness began combining roasted Irish barley, hops, brewer’s yeast and pure spring water to make his namesake beer, referred to as stout. Today, 10 million glasses of “the black stuff” are consumed each day. Of course, 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 not peated. Irish beers and whiskies go well with the hearty fare of the island nation – robust meats, cheeses, and potato dishes.
Isle of Man, United Kingdom
Perhaps the most unusual spirit of the Celtic regions is ManX Manx Spirit, described by its creators as “contemporary technology with a classic taste”. ManX Spirit is a redistillation of existing Scotch whiskies, in a process that removes the color from the liquid, leaving a crystal clear product. It comes in two variations: the red label is a redistillation of existing blended whiskies, and aged at least five years; the blue label is a redistillation of existing “pure malt” whisky, also aged at least five years. Why do this? According to the description on the website, “A lot of us want the taste of whisky without the color of whisky getting in the way of our favourite cocktail.”
Wales, United Kingdom
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.
Scotland, United Kingdom
Scotland has brewed beer for over 3,000 years and (legally) distilled spirits for a little over 500 year, 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 a single malt, meaning it is the product of one single distillery, or as a blend, meaning it consists of small amounts of three to four dozen single malts and 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.
So that is our brief history of Spirits in the Celtic regions. I can’t say that this even touches the surface of what is the complex history of the Celts and their brews. To learn more, short of going visiting the regions in Europe, I suggest the Arizona Highland Celtic Festival in Flagstaff, July 17 & 18 as part of your summer get away.
Ray is a nationally recognized single malt Scotch expert. He recently retired after 16 years within the spirits industry, including four as Glenfiddich U.S. Ambassador. Ray currently presents educational whisky seminars and tastings for corporate events, destination management companies, and national whisky shows. He is a photographer and member of the International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Association.