Some might say that Irish whiskey has a bad rap, but for many drinkers, the category has little reputation at all. The cheaper bottles are dubbed a shooting-only spirit, and the more expensive, lazily lumped in with Scotch. Irish whiskey is often simply known as smooth, but “As a moniker, that was starting to be confused in certain markets as meaning bland, especially when you compare it to a Scotch,” says Paul Caris, the master distiller at Grace O’Malley.
The misconceptions are understandable. In 2010, there were just four distilleries in Ireland. But as of 2019, there are now almost 30 distilleries in the country, all making a case to rethink Irish whiskey. Many are producing the country’s signature smooth drams, something Jason Allmond, the bar manager at Broughton Common finds himself returning to “time and time again when I want something spicier than bourbon, but less so than rye. Irish whiskey fills that niche for me.”
But a new guard of producers is pushing the boundaries of the categories. Jared Boller, the Canadian brand ambassador for Bushmills hints that, “There are whiskies that will be released from Ireland that the world has no clue are coming! Whispers down the pipeline of brands, barrels used for aging, and age statements that have never been associated with the Irish whiskey category.”
These anything-but-dull drams are putting Irish whiskey on drinkers' maps—Irish whiskey is now the fastest-growing category in the spirits scene, growing 8% over 2019 according to the IWSR. “People are really keen to see innovation within the category,” says Caris.
What is Irish Whiskey?
Traditionally, Irish whiskey blends malted and unmalted barley in massive stills, producing historically smooth, clean spirits. These stills were generally double or triple the size of the average pot still, producing a lighter distillate than the small stills of their Scottish cohorts.
To be classified as an Irish whiskey, the whiskey must be distilled to a strength of less than 94.8% ABV, and have a final strength of at least 40% ABV. The resulting distillate must be matured in wooden casks under 700 liters, and aged for at least three years.
“As a spirit category Irish is come of the more approachable because of the inherent sweetness from the barley content, triple distillation, and the constant innovation Irish distillers are working on,” says Boller. “On top of it all, it has very approachable price points for anyone’s budget.”
As legend goes, Irish missionary monks introduced distilling to the country in the early 1500s. In 1608, Northern Ireland’s Old Bushmills Distillery opened their doors, becoming the island’s first licensed whiskey distillery. From there, the whiskey scene expanded at a rapid clip. Drinkers around the globe were sipping Irish drams.
That is, until the early 1900s. Prohibition, combined with the turbulence of the Irish War of Independence, slowed the whiskey scene to a slow drip. Not even the British were drinking Irish drams: thanks to a war between the two in 1916, Irish whiskey was the drink of the enemy.
By the mid-1900s, only five brands survived: Jameson, Powers, Paddy Irish Whiskey, Tullamore DEW, and Bushmills. French beverage giant Pernod Ricard acquired that group of Irish distilleries in 1988, pouring their marketing prowess into the brands, quickly reviving the category’s presence around the world.
Beyond the Irish Coffee
Yes, Irish whiskey is perfect in an Irish coffee. “But it’s underutilized in a cocktail sense, thanks to its long-standing reputation as a shooting spirit,” says Allmond. “But I have seen the cocktail world get excited about Irish Whiskey over the last few years.”
He particularly enjoys working with the category “due to its versatility. You can say that about many spirits, but Irish whiskey truly does encompass the ability to do anything. It complements so many other flavors, especially in the fall and winter months. If you aren't using it, you should be.”
Boller agrees. “The mixability of Irish whiskey is endless because of the category’s hallmark smoothness.” Allmond notes that while we’re starting to shake and stir Irish whiskey cocktails more, “this year has been very trying for everyone. Aren’t we all just sitting around shooting Jameson this year anyway?”
That said, let 2021 be the year you enjoy more Irish whiskey. Here are some great bottles to sample:
One of the newer brands to hit the market, Grace O'Malley pays homage to the legendary pirate queen of the same name, born in 16th century Ireland. Caris carefully matures an army of double- and tripled-distilled whiskeys in a range of barrels, including second-use Jamaican rum, second fill bourbon, and French oak. His prior creds include working as a master blender of a Cognac house, so expect Irish spirits with French finesse. $36.99
One of the oldest distilleries in the world, Bushmills has been turning out stellar bottles for centuries. You’ll recognize Bushmills Original as a standard entry-level bottle. But the distillery’s single malts—10, 16, 21 year olds—are really where the category shines. And keep an eye out for limited releases that use everything from first-growth Bordeaux cask finishes to sipping bottles aged for an impressive 28 years. Bushmills 16-year-old—aged for fifteen years in a combo of Oloroso Sherry and bourbon casks and finished in port wine pipes—remains a personal favorite. $124.99
“It’s a spectacular sipper that ends up tasting more like green apples than anything. A bit on the pricier side, but worth the money and super complex,” says Allmond. “If you like it, definitely try their other offerings as well.” What makes this dram special is it’s a single pot still: a whiskey-making process unique to Ireland that blends malted and unmalted barley and distills it in a traditional pot still, aging for between seven to ten years before blending and bottling. $64.99
“They offer a wide range of ages and cask blends, but the original is my go to mixing Irish whiskey,” says Allmond. “It's just all around a good spirit, it's complex enough to mix with just about anything and not get lost, but not too overpowering in crazy flavors to make it difficult to pair. It is also reasonably priced so that you don't feel like you are breaking the bank by putting it in a cocktail.” Try it in an Irish coffee. $27.98
Redbreast 12 Year
“Spicy on the nose, silky on the palate with a ridiculously long finish. Perfect,” Allmond recommends. “Plus it spends some time in Oloroso Sherry casks, so when has that ever been less than stellar?” $66.99
Outside of Bushmills, Boller puts his cred behind Sexton. “It’s truly a remarkable and award-winning Irish whiskey having been aged for a minimum of four years in Oloroso sherry barrels.” $29.99
Teeling Single Pot Still
Dublin-based Teeling (in 2015, they were the first new distillery in Dublin since 1976) released their first single pot still this year, combining malted and unmalted barley (50:50) and aging in Virgin American oak, repurposed bourbon casks, and sherry casks. Spice, with delicate melon notes and orchard fruit, with warm, vibrant notes. It’s unique and complex: a serious spirit drinker’s must-have. $69.99
There are a lot of boxes Slane checks off. It’s smooth, clean, and it shines in cocktails. Triple distilled, aged in three different casks (virgin oak, seasoned whiskey, and Oloroso sherry). Specs aside, the distillery is also housed in the historic Slane Castle, where performers you might have heard of (David Bowie, Queen, Bruce Springsteen, and The Rolling Stones) frequently host concerts on the grounds. It’s also one of the most environmentally-minded distilleries in the country, on track to become zero-waste. $28.99