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Hell-Cat Maggie: Irish via NYC

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HellCat Maggie Picmonkey

By Dan Clarke

We rarely review spirits. From time-to-time, however, we enjoy drinking them.

Recently we heard about a whiskey named Hell-Cat Maggie. That’s the sort of identity that either grabs you or sends you running in the other direction. We’re less afraid of Hell Cat Maggie, whoever she may have been, than of products with cute and contrived personalities.

It turns out that there really was someone named Hell Cat Maggie. Apparently, she was a member of the Dead Rabbits, a gang of Irish immigrants given to violence in the New York City of the 1850’s. If the references uncovered via an internet search are to be believed, she was a formidable woman, one who filed her teeth to points that would be useful in the combats of the day. True or not, the Hell Cat Maggie legend is intriguing. And what Irishman doesn’t enjoy a good yarn?

The label on the bottle does indicate Hell-Cat Maggie really is Irish whiskey emanating from County Louth. A little more internet sleuthing reveals that whiskey is indeed produced there at the Cooley Distillery, which has made a reputation for itself in the last 20-30 years. I don’t remember any distilleries when I last was in County Louth. That occasion was on a Rugby tour of Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Our team visited the Harp Brewery in Dundalk and I’m sure the hospitality of our generous hosts would have extended to a distillery visit had such been operating in the area at that time. I do remember drinking whiskey with one of the opposing team the night before our match, though. He was one of the McGee brothers (The McGees of Ardee) and he was thoughtful enough to have brought a bottle of 12-year old Scotch to our assembly in the hotel lounge. McGee was said to have been a very good player in his day, but had retired from the game after a bad auto accident left him without sight in one eye. Some of his friends were concerned that injury to his remaining working eye would leave him using a white cane the rest of his days. McGee returned to the pitch to play in the next day’s match anyway. He survived, but we were both a bit glassy-eyed toward the end of the post-match party.

My first experience with Irish whiskey happened a decade earlier in Lurgan, County Armagh, which is over the border in Northern Ireland, about 30 miles north of Dundalk. I was visiting parents of my friend David Kelly, who was attending Sacramento State College. It was a time of considerable strife in this part of the world. I met his dad in the Master McGrath, a pub named after a famous racing greyhound and a place where Dave had worked as an apprentice bartender before leaving for school in California. We opened with pints of Guinness. As our glasses were getting low he asked if he could buy me a whiskey. “Well sure,” I said, pleased that I seemed to be passing muster with my pal’s father.

Dermot Kelly asked the publican to pour us a couple of glasses of Bushmills. “No, not that one,” he said. “I want the Black Bush for my American friend.” I didn’t know much about Irish whiskey, but had heard of Bushmills and caught on that the Black Bushmills was considered a superior version. Bushmills is made in County Antrim, though it is a pleasure not restricted to the Protestant majority of the citizenry of Northern Ireland.

The Kelly family were Catholics and I was soon to learn that we were drinking in a Catholic pub. After the first—or maybe the second--glass of whiskey, I asked Mr. Kelly why there seemed to be a sheet of plywood just inside the large window opening to the sidewalk in front of the place. The installation blocked the view, didn’t it? It did, he concurred, but he explained that it was sheet steel, not plywood. He told me that one of the Protestant paramilitary organizations had vowed to destroy every Catholic pub in the area. The steel was thick enough to stop a petrol bomb thrown at the front window, said Mr. Kelly—information that was reassuring ‘til he added that this barrier was not thick enough to stop the armor-piercing ammunition they had recently acquired. I sought comfort in one more large whiskey.

In the years since then Bushmills has been my Irish whiskey of choice, though I’ve experienced most of the other brands available in the U.S. None of this experience qualifies me as an authority on the subject and three decades of writing wine reviews doesn’t give me a vocabulary exactly suited to describing whiskies. Nevertheless, I’ll give it a go:

 

Hell-Cat Maggie

Distilled at Cooley Distillery (Ire.), bottled in the USA

80 proof

Average Retail: $20-25

“Light golden in color. Aromas include vanilla and some orange peel and a bit of spice (cinnamon?). Alcohol obvious in the taste, but flavors are lighter than many other Irish whiskies. There seems to be a litte smokiness, almost like a hint of peat as in a very subtle Lowland Scotch whisky. Hell-Cat Maggie is relatively inexpensive, as Irish whiskies go and isn’t really bad, but seems the product of a marketing department looking to create a new segment of the American market, rather than a distilling tradition. “

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