Irish ales form more a loose configuration than a cohesive style. They tend to be low- to medium- bodied amber-red ales with a creamy malt palate. But beyond a general range of qualities, nothing especially distinguishes the style. I found a couple, and their differences seem to prove the rule.
Smithwick's was founded in 1710 in Kilkenny (making it Ireland's oldest) and now inhabits an abbey to which it was originally adjacent. It was purchased by Guinness in 1964, who has now made a big push to get it to American markets. (I've seen it around Portland, but haven't heard much buzz surrounding it. Methinks it may be a short-lived experiment, so if you find a pint or bottle, buy it.) I was informed by an Irish-born waitress at what was formerly my neighborhood pub (County Cork) that it's pronounced "Smitticks." Wikipedia concurs, but most webfeet are ignorant of the fact, so beware.
A tawny-red brew with a fluffy head, light nose with notes of caramel. Early impressions are deceiving--could be any mass-market amber. But the flavor is impressive in subtlety. The initial flavor is toffee sweetness and a gentle, soft mouthfeel. The finish is very clean and doesn't cloy at all--surprising following the initial sweet note; after a sip, you're hand is making another trip to your lips. We don't tend to hail session ales in the Northwest, but we should; it's hard to find a beer that you could drink over the course of an evening and enjoy the last pint as much as the first.
(It is also, incidentally, one of Sally's favorite beers, and that's high praise--at this point her palate is at least as good as mine.)
Alcohol By Volume: 4.5%
Original Gravity: Unknown
Wexford Irish Cream Ale
Wexford is one of the beers available with a widget, which seems like an unfair advantage--perhaps Smithwick's should join the growing crowd. I was able to learn exactly squat about Wexford, except what was posted on the importer's webpage. So I thus hasten to the review...
After the entertaining nitro cascade, the beer settled into a deep amber, topped by a cream-colored, creamy head. The aroma was suprising: pure green apple. I sniffed deeper and got caramel notes. This marks the first time I've gotten a caramel apple aroma from a beer. I feared the worst, but there were no off-flavors; I haven't a clue why it smelled like that.
Like the Smithwick's, it was a creamy, gentle ale. I was surprised to find a fair amount of hopping supporting the caramel sweetness, though. It wasn't exactly NW hoppy, but it was surprisingly hoppy for an Irish. A good beer, but I would call it less polished, less nuanced than the Smithwick's.
Alcohol By Volume: 5.0%
Original Gravity: Unknown