Irish Coffee: Protestant or Catholic?

Several years ago, it was late afternoon and we had some time to kill before seeing Vicci Martinez play at The Showbox in Seattle. A sunlit, comfortable autumn afternoon involving a walk through the downtown area is a great adventure in sight-seeing, even for us locals, but that’s a different tale. As might be expected, I ended up in a local bar to pass the time, although I can’t remember which one.

Moseying down to the end of the bar (yes, people still mosey) because the place was fairly crowded, the bartender came over to take our order. Knowing I’d be up later that night, I opted for one of my favorites, an Irish Coffee (sans the whip cream). Obviously an experienced barkeep, he was around 30 years old, give or take a few years, and had an amicable nature. With a grin, he shot back at me “Protestant or Catholic?”

“Protestant, of course” was my quick reply.

Honestly, I didn’t have a clue what it meant, but I wasn’t too worried, knowing that I’d get some sort of whiskey in my coffee (this was before I started trying various types of whiskey).

When he returned with my drink, I fessed up and told him I didn’t know what Protestant or Catholic meant with regard to Irish Coffee. He gave a short laugh and shook his head, “well, you fooled me,” going on to explain what it meant.

It was a choice between Bushmills and Jameson, both Irish whiskey. Apparently it’s Ireland’s whiskey representation of a religious and political battle between the Protestants (the English aggressors) and Catholics (Republic of Ireland’s native sons and daughters) in Ireland. Bushmills represents the Protestants because it’s made in Northern Ireland, a predominantly Protestant region, and Jameson is from Cork, a Catholic area.

According to Jeffrey Morgenthaler, a bartender and author in Portland, OR, it’s an urban myth and, specifically, perpetuated in bars across the U.S.

“Jameson was pretty much founded in 1780 when John Jameson — a Scottish guy — purchased the Bow Street Distillery, which at the time was one of the biggest distilleries in Ireland. Now, it’s important to note that the Scottish Reformation occurred in 1560, so odds are in favor of the founder of the Jameson distillery, being Scottish, was a damn Protestant.
Bushmills, on the other hand, was officially licensed in 1608 by King James I (of Bible fame) and despite of its location deep in the heart of Protestant country (and this next bit is straight from my local Bushmills rep, so take it or leave it) has a Catholic as a master distiller.
According to everyone I’ve spoken with on the subject, you only really find this debate in the States, where Irish-American support of the Republic can sometimes be blind and often fueled by the very product we’re speaking of. But none of it means much, anyway: both distilleries are owned by huge international entities: Jameson by French liquor conglomerate Pernod-Ricard, and Bushmills by the English firm Diageo.”

Since that time, I’ve sipped a lot of different whiskeys and it’s become my favorite spirit. If I had to choose Protestant (Bushmills) or Catholic (Jameson) today, my money is still with Bushmills. Honestly though, they’re both decent tasting whiskeys, so you’re probably good either way. Just enjoy it!


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