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Reading between the wines: St Patrick's alternatives

Most of the old Christian saints' days that still loom large in the public consciousness tend to do so because they have been appropriated into our new religion; consumerism.

Very often, these occasions are bought into by sections of the drinks trade that have some kind of link, no matter how tenuous. I'm sure you know what I mean. Pink fizz for Valentine's Day, anyone? How about a wee dram for Saint Andrew's Day? You get the picture.

The daddy of all these tie-ins is just around the corner: Saint Patrick's Day. Despite being a national saint's day from Ireland, this particular event is internationally observed, largely thanks to its popularity on the east coast of America, and the opportunism of the giant drinks corporation Diageo, who own - you guessed it - Guinness.

The bars will be decked out with green decorations, and the revellers will cut about in leprechaun-style hats - all adorned with the Guinness logo. No other saint's day has been so strongly identified with a particular drinks brand, and boy do they do well out of it. Now, I like a pint of 'the black stuff' (no, not Bovril) as much as the next person, but the thing is, Guinness is an everyday drink. It's available in almost every bar and apparently they sell 1.8 billion pints of it every year! It's such a common drink that if you fancy celebrating the 17th of March in style, it doesn't feel so special, does it?

The good news is that there are alternatives. I'll leave recommendations of hideously green cocktails to the waistcoated 'mixologists' of this world, and go for some good, old fashioned beers and whiskeys.

If you simply must have Guinness, do yourself a favour, and get a bottle of Guinness Foreign Extra Stout (widely available, approximately £2). It only comes in a wee 330ml bottle, but for good reason; at 7.5% ABV, this isn't Guinness as you know it. Both hoppier and richer, it's got loads more character than the standard and draught brews - a bit like Guinness on steroids.

As it was the Americans that popularised St Patrick's Day internationally, you might want to give them a wee nod too, and grab a bottle or two of the Guinness-inspired Brooklyn Dry Irish Stout (£2.50, Hippo Beers). It has a nice sharp and delicate, roasty flavour, but with a deep, mellow and lasting finish. It gives the Irish a run for their money at any rate.

I also love a dram here and there, and as much as I love my own country's whiskies, the Irish can bottle some good'uns too. Like the Americans, the Irish call them 'whiskey', rather than our protected term 'whisky' - a technicality, but good to know.

Coming from the world's oldest operational whiskey distillery (1608, no less!), you could try Bushmills 10 y.o. Malt Whiskey (£33, Sainsbury's). A mellow and delicate style, reminiscent of our own lowland styles, and with a subtle hint of vanilla and honey coming from time the spirit has spent in American bourbon oak.

For something even more special, opt for the rather more rare Teeling Whiskey (£35, Good Spirits Company) which is not only a small batch production, bottled at 46% without chill-filtering - a process that makes the spirit clearer, but removes alcohol, so this is what I like to call 'real' whisk(e)y. This has a rather unusual rum cask finish, lending it a slightly exotic, fruity and citrusy edge. This is definitely one for the adventurous amongst you.

So many choices, eh? It's just a shame that the 17th is a school night!

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