I’m not really an Irish whiskey drinker, nor am I a bargain shopper. Yet on a recent Tuesday afternoon, I found myself in the booze aisle of my local Costco staring down a pallet of large whiskey bottles and wondering, Do I need this?
This was a 1.75-liter bottle of Kirkland four-year-old Irish whiskey, Costco’s latest foray into the custom spirits space. The price? A cool $27.99, or less than 50 cents per fluid ounce. With St. Patrick’s Day around the corner, this felt like one of those deals you should pounce on immediately.
Or was it? Rivers of ink have been spilled lately on the virtues of Costco’s house spirits. The wholesale chain unloads some $4 billion of booze annually, and it does so at a profit margin well below the industry standard.
The result is a vast constellation of bulky bottles at dirt cheap prices—everything from small-batch bourbon to London-style gin to a 25-year-old Speyside scotch for under 90 bucks. Though Costco is notoriously tight-lipped about the provenance of its products, credible theories abound. Kirkland’s vodka, for instance, is said to come from the same French hands and water source that make Grey Goose, while its bourbon is believed to share a birthplace with Jim Beam.
As to the origin of Costco’s Irish whiskey, your guess is as good as mine. I emailed the importer listed on the back of the bottle hoping to glean some intel, but every response I received was some version of “Sorry, we can’t help you.”
Not that it matters. Reciting the birth certificate of your booze is fodder for good conversation come cocktail hour, but it hardly amounts to a drop of difference if the liquid in the glass doesn’t do what you want it to. And the only way to know that is to trythe stuff. So it was with a giddy mix of pride and curiosity that I lugged my mystery handle of Irish whiskey to Liquor.com headquarters and put it through the drinking paces.
(image: Tim Nusog)
1. Sip It
Some quick trivia: Irish whiskey is one of the fastest growing spirits in the world, though as recently as six years ago, there were only three working distilleries on the island. That number has since spiked to more than 20, making way for an explosion of new products, many of which are damn good. But when you get straight down to it, the average person knows one or two Irish whiskeys. And those tend to be friendly, familiar, easy-drinking drams: smooth, slammable and, most important, inexpensive.
But not this inexpensive. I poured an ounce of Kirkland Irish whiskey into a Glencairn glass and held it up to the light. It looked shockingly Irish whiskey–like, gold in color with a slight cloudiness around the edges. I brought it to my nose and was surprised by the faintness of the aromas. Besides an initial blast of alcohol, there was nothing to distinguish this as an aged spirit.
Things got better when I sipped it: notes of dry fruit, cedar and honeysuckle, plus a steady hint of peat. But then there was that alcohol again, this time in the form of a harsh afterburn. At 40 percent ABV, I expected my bargain juice to be smoother, softer. Instead, I found myself wanting to pinch a drop of water into it, which I did. That helped coax some baking spice flavors from the whiskey (vanilla, caramel), but it also flattened what little depth it had to begin with. The takeaway: not a sipping whiskey.
Irish Jack Rose, Whiskey Sour and Irish Coffee, from left (image: Tim Nusog)
2. Mix It
There’s a sentiment shared by most drinkers that your cheapest booze belongs in cocktails while the high-dollar hooch in your cupboard deserves a more thoughtful fate. I tend to disagree with this premise on principle. In practice, I’m the first to pawn my screw-cap spirits off on blender and shaker drinks—ice being, after all, the great equalizer.
My day was beginning to drag, so I started with the Irish Coffee—not my favorite drink but one I’ve grown to appreciate, especially during the cold months. It was neither better nor worse than other versions I’ve made. Except there was a mild astringency in the finish, which I chalked up to the whiskey’s alcohol burn but could just as easily have come from the coffee. I moved on.
The Whiskey Sour, on the other hand,is one of my favorite drinks. I prepare mine with egg white to thicken the texture and bitters to add depth. The peat from the Costco whiskey introduced a new dimension, one that rested nicely between the bitter and spicy notes. Same with the Irish Jack Rose: I liked the way the whiskey stood at the center, directing traffic between the tartness of the lime juice and the earthy spice of the calvados. A mellower spirit might have disappeared, sending the drink too far in one direction. The takeaway: Costco Irish whiskey can more than handle your shaken cocktails.
Drinking alone, even in this job, can be corrosive to the psyche. I still had a fish tank worth of Irish whiskey and wanted to know what others thought of it. So I staged a little Pepsi Challenge–style taste test with half a dozen colleagues. The mission: blind-taste Kirkland’s finest side-by-side with Jameson, the most popular Irish whiskey in the world. The irony that both pours could potentially come from the same source was not lost on me.
The results were split down the middle: Half the group preferred the Costco whiskey for its “subtle, smoky character” and “lengthy finish.” The other half found it “brutally harsh” and “unapproachable,” choosing instead the gentle honey tones of Jameson.
(image: Tim Nusog)
When I unveiled the bottles, everyone seemed surprised. Surprised that Costco makes a decent Irish whiskey; that it costs a fraction of other decent Irish whiskeys; that even at the lowest rung of the price point ladder, a single spirit category can encompass such a wide range of flavors and characteristics.
In the end, that’s a good thing for a drinker to be: surprised. It doesn’t matter if you like Irish whiskey or French vodka or single-village mezcal. What’s important is that every so often you dip your toes into the other side of the pool. Because it’s a great big pool, and it’s growing bigger and better every day. The takeaway: St. Patrick’s day or not, we’re all a little lucky.