Restaurant News & Reviews

Ri Ra wants you to fall in love with Irish whiskey

The Whiskey Room at Ri Ra offers the opportunity to sample 40 different Irish whiskeys, bottle-aged cocktails, punches and small plates in an intimate setting.
The Whiskey Room at Ri Ra offers the opportunity to sample 40 different Irish whiskeys, bottle-aged cocktails, punches and small plates in an intimate setting. Courtesy of Ri Ra Charlotte

Quick, name a brand of Irish whiskey.

OK, now name one besides Jameson’s.

It’s not an easy pop-quiz question for most of us to answer, since most of us haven’t done much dabbling in the world of Irish whiskeys. But uptown Charlotte’s Ri Ra Irish Pub is looking to change that with The Whiskey Room, a new concept on the second floor of its space at 208 N. Tryon St.

You might wonder: What makes this a big deal? After all, Ri Ra has been serving Jameson’s, Tullamore Dew, John Power, Bushmills and other Irish whiskeys since opening in 1997.

But thumb through The Whiskey Room’s elegant new hardcover menu and you’ll realize Ri Ra has hit upon something unique, fun and enlightening. It’s an homage to the four classic styles of Irish whiskey – single malt, pot still, single grain and blended – and an opportunity to enjoy them in a surprisingly wide range of ways.

If you just want to dip your toe in, there are punch bowls perfect for sharing with friends ($20 for a two-person or $45 for four); $12 craft cocktails including the Tipperary (aka an Irish Manhattan) and the Pub Thug (made with your whiskey of choice, Portuguese wine, Italian bitter liqueur and cinnamon cordial); and Irish coffees for $10.

More advanced whiskey drinkers, meanwhile, can order glasses straight-up (from $7-$65) or go with a boilermaker that pairs a whiskey with a craft beer ($12).

Oh, and for the particularly indecisive or the particularly adventurous, there are cocktail flights and straight-up flights.

The menu actually can seem a little overwhelming, but if you don’t rush through it, everything quickly becomes clear – Ri Ra’s approach and presentation are simple but not condescending, informative but not boring, classy but not snobby.

To design the menu for The Whiskey Room, Ri Ra owners Ciaran Sheehan and David Kelly exploited a business connection to enlist the help of Belfast native Jack McGarry, co-owner of award-winning New York City hotspot The Dead Rabbit Grocery and Grog.

McGarry, who was in Charlotte last week to train the Ri Ra staff, said he jumped at the chance to show bar-goers that there is a whole lot more than Jameson’s.

“It used to be the same with Bacardi,” he said. “Not a lot of people actually knew Bacardi was rum. And it’s the same now: There’s people that think Jameson’s is just Jameson’s. They don’t actually know it’s Irish whiskey. So with the program we’ve got here, we’re really showcasing the four unique styles within Irish whiskey ... in a way that’s accessible, digestible; it’s not in-your-face.”

Sheehan said the project began in November, but had been percolating since 2010, when Ri Ra reopened after being closed for more than nine months due to a fire that caused roughly $1 million in damage. The upstairs was restored as a dining room with a bar, but the area was fairly generic, Sheehan said.

So the design team spent the past several months carving out about 1,200 square feet to create The Whiskey Room, decorating it with woodwork, furniture, antique mirrors, tin ceiling tiles, copper table and bar tops restored in Wicklow, Ireland, and light fixtures made of hand-cut crystal whiskey decanters.

“Now it’s a high altar to Irish whiskey,” Sheehan said. “Hopefully, it provides our customers a nice alternative. If they want a traditional pub experience, more beer-driven and casual food, downstairs is where they want to go. If they want to come upstairs, we’re talking about premium cocktails, whiskeys (and) smaller plates.”

“The discovery part of it is the key to the experience. ... If we can get people to at least try these drinks, then we’ll have a successful endeavor.”

Janes: 704-358-5897;

Twitter: @theodenjanes

If you go

Ri Ra Charlotte is at 208 N. Tryon St.

Hours: 11 a.m.-midnight Sunday-Monday, 11:30 a.m.-1 a.m. Tuesday-Wednesday, 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m. Thursday-Friday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Saturday.

Details: 704-333-5554; www.rira.com/charlotte.

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