Toast to Detroit’s Celtic Heritage With a Glass of Irish Whiskey

Forget the green beer this St. Patrick’s Day
Irish Whiskey
There’s no better place than Corktown to sip (or do shots of) Irish Whiskey this St. Patrick’s Day.

March 17 may be St. Patrick’s Day, but in Detroit, the real party is on the Sunday before the 17th. That’s when the St. Patrick’s Parade works its way through Corktown’s streets in celebration of the city’s rich Irish history and culture.

It’s also the biggest day of the year for Nancy Whiskey in North Corktown, says co-owner Gerry Stevens.

According to organizers, the parade typically attracts 80,000-100,000 people, making it one of the largest St. Patrick’s parades in the country.

“And it seems like I get half of that through my door on that day,” Stevens says. He typically sells 800 pounds of corned beef, and the whiskey also flows. “Let’s just say you have to have cases and cases and cases of whiskey,” he says.

At the Corktown institution, Tullamore Dew has been the house Irish whiskey since the days when his aunt, who owned the bar before he took over more than 16 years ago, would offer first-timers a shot of the whiskey. These days the bar’s love of the Irish whiskey is on prominent display in the back patio, where there’s a 6-foot Tullamore Dew bottle carved out of a tree Stevens chopped down.

Irish immigrants first began arriving in Detroit in the early 1800s, and by the 1850s, over half the population of the city’s Eighth Ward was of Irish heritage. With most of them hailing from County Cork, the neighborhood quickly became known as Corktown.

While the demographics have changed, Irish immigrants’ impact on the neighborhood has been long lasting and can be seen in its gathering places that pay homage to Corktown’s Irish culture, history, and of course, whiskey.

For the most authentic Irish experience of all, look into becoming a member of the Detroit Gaelic League Irish American Club, which was founded in 1920 in Corktown. With a goal of preserving and promoting Irish culture, this Irish social center offers live music and other events, along with pints and whiskey aplenty. 

McShane’s Irish Pub & Whiskey Bar offers an extensive Irish whiskey selection, including many from a new crop of innovators. This includes Connemara, launched in 2012, which is the only peated Irish whiskey currently widely available. The bar has three selections from Teeling, which in 2015 became the first distillery to open in the Irish capital of Dublin in over 125 years. Another interesting offering is Concannon, which is a collaboration between the California winemaker and Cooley Distillery in Ireland, featuring Irish whiskey finished in Petite Sirah wine casks.

At Nancy Whiskey, home to “Detroit’s oldest party,” Stevens says the bar carries a selection of 15 “tried and true” Irish whiskeys like Bushmills, Clontarf, Fighting 69th, and other classics. “We don’t look to just carry anything and everything. I personally have to taste it before we put it on the bar. ”

When he tastes Irish whiskey to offer at his bar, he’s looking for “caramel smoky flavor. I’m looking for smoothness, meaning you can swirl it in your mouth. … You’re also tasting the burn [and how it goes down].”

While Jameson seems to be the most common pick among patrons, especially among the younger crowd, Stevens is always willing to share his knowledge and love of whiskey to help people broaden their horizons.

“We’ve got a lot of people come in and say they want two shots of Jameson. So I say, ‘Can I introduce you to something else? Try this or try that.’ And a lot of times I’ll say, ‘Listen, let me buy you a shot of this.’”

This story is part of the March 2022 issue of Hour Detroit. Read more in our digital edition