As fragrant and ripe as Sicilian bergamot in March, Ernie Whalley returns from his annual winter sun trip to Spain with musings on a variety of drinks that have crossed his palate in the past month.  

A passion for Pacharan 

Three weeks in Spain recently reunited me with one of my favourite tipples. Patxaran (Basque) or pacharán (in Spanish) is a popular liqueur made from blackthorn or sloe berries.

Called ‘endrinas’, the berries grow wild in Navarra, the Basque region in the north. Blue-black in colour, sloes are harvested in autumn, usually after the first few days of frost. Pacharán has intense, fruity aromas and flavours with herb and spice notes. Reddish or sometimes orange colour, most clock in at 20 to 30% alcohol by volume.

Though pacharán’s 'Denomination of Origin' was only achieved in 1988, the drink has a long history. Hailed for its medicinal and digestive properties by a queen of Navarra in the Middle Ages and was served at royal weddings as early as the 14th century.

Pacharán is best kept in the fridge and served cold, without ice, and works well at either end of a meal – like a mellower version of Campari. Alternatively, you could spritz it with sparkling mineral water and a slice of lime.

The oldest commercial brand, Zoco, is made by steeping sloes, coffee and vanilla in an aniseed-flavoured liqueur. Other brands are Etxeko, Kantxa, Barañano Atxa, Las Endrinas, Basarana, Berezko, Usua, La Navarra, and Baines. Pacharán is widely available in Spanish supermarkets and liquor stores and can be had for around €10 at airport duty-free shops. Alas, I haven’t seen it here. If anyone knows of an Irish supplier I’d love to know as my stock is rapidly diminishing!

It's a knockout. NOT.

Somewhat behind the main posse of spirit writers, I finally got to taste Conor McGregor’s 'Proper Twelve', named as a tribute to his Dublin 12 home patch. It is what you might call “a modest whiskey", priced to compete with the Irish Distillers’ triumvirate, Jameson, Powers and Paddy.

The bottle bears no age statement and nothing, in a couple of drams tasted on successive nights, would convince me that the blend contained any whiskeys, malt or grain, older than the statutory minimum age. Given Proper Twelve’s provenance, I expected the spirit to come bounding out of the bottle to an accompanying roar and deliver a straight left to the jugular. Alas, no. Up against Powers Gold Label, my benchmark for whiskeys at this price point, it threw in the towel early.

The ‘floral’ notes promised by the press release were there alright, but marred by something slightly grassy, as though someone neglected to put a hoe between the flowers. Mouthfeel was insubstantial, crudely slicked up with caramel and over-sweet honey and the ‘memory’ (which some call aftertaste) revealed slight bitter undertones. Okay as a mixer, I suppose, but a much better buy to drink on its own would be the balanced, characterful Tipperary ‘The Watershed’, also a sourced whiskey, but bearing the imprimatur of vastly experienced blender Stuart Nickerson, and which I found in South Dublin Aldi branches selling for €25.95 last month.

Put on the red light? 

Whilst in Spain, I had a curious encounter with a group of French students, male and female, in an otherwise deserted old feller’s bar. Sat flanking a long table, they were playing, what I recognised from my own largely misspent youth as, a drinking game. In the centre of the table was an iPad, looping, on Spotify, The Police song, ‘Roxanne’, through its tinny speakers. On hearing the titular name, the girls in the company stood up and swigged their drink. Cue for the males to do likewise was the words “Put on the red light”.

I lost count, but there was a fair amount of “jump-up-and-drink-down” going on. The episode caused me, afterwards, to reflect on customs that encourage binge drinking. Been there, done that. Wikipedia lists 74 drinking games and I’ve essayed a fair few as, I’m sure, have my daughters, in days when they saw consumption of alcohol as the Holy Grail. Luckily my eldest grandchildren seem to have more sense. While I’d have no desire to see Shane Ross and the Fun Police banning such right-of-passage pursuits, it would be good if the culture changed.

Belgian bevvy in the shadow of Croagh Patrick

Mescan Brewery produces artisan beers brewed in small batches on the slopes of Croagh Patrick near Westport. The eight beers currently available are: Seven Virtues Lager, Mescan Blond, Mescan White, Mescan Red Tripel, Mescan Saison, Mescan Extra, Westporter Stout and Mescan Special Reserve.

When I heard they were producing a Belgian Tripel, I got that distinctly queasy feeling as in, “Oh God. More cultural appropriation.” That is until I remembered that one of the partners, Bart Adons hails from Genk. Darker-tinged than the gold-hued Westmalle and Leffe I’m better acquainted with, Mescan’s Red Tripel, in which treacle toffee colludes with dried fig and date fruit to make a cracking contemplative beer for March’s chilly evenings.

€4.39 for 330 ml from outlets including Redmond's of Ranelagh, Martin's of Fairview, SuperValu Westport, Centra Westport, SuperValu Castlebar and through the website nationwide.

If you have any questions or suggestions for Ernie, please leave them below and he'll get back to you next month. 

Author: Ernie Whalley

Ernie Whalley, Restaurant Critic for The Sunday Times and former editor of Food & Wine Magazine, grew up working in his aunts’ hotel kitchens. He wrote on food, wine and travel in the UK before settling in Ireland in 1987. In the 1990s, he ran his own Dublin café before joining Food & Wine in 1999. In 2002, he launched, Ireland’s first food and drink website.

In a long career, Ernie has given cookery lessons as “One Man & his Hob”; written for innumerable publications worldwide and appeared on radio and TV food & drink programmes. Judging stints include The Cordon Bleu World Food and Drink Media Awards, the Bocuse d’Or and wine competitions in five countries. In 2018, he was inducted into the Food & Wine Magazine Hall of Fame.

When not writing on food and drink Ernie cooks, makes sausages, roasts coffee and, in another life, is the singer/songwriter 'Spike Lancaster'.