Irish whiskeys have quietly become the fastest growing spirits in America. So what’s the attraction? It may be no more complicated than no such thing as an uninspired Irish whiskey. Collectively they present aficionados a range of whiskeys diverse in style and breadth of expressions with world-class offerings at every price point. Add in that they’re highly aromatic and exceptionally easy to drink and you begin to explain why Irish whiskeys have become hot commodities.
There are several telling differences between Irish and Scotch whiskies. Unlike Scotch, Irish whiskey is distilled from both malted and unmalted barley. The malt used in the distillation is dried in closed kilns, rather than over peat fires as is the traditional practice in Scotland. As a result most Irish whiskeys lack the peaty smokiness of Scotch. Irish producers also triple-distill their whiskey and prefer to develop its character in the vat, rather than post-distillation blending.
Equally attractive, years of steadily increasing popularity haven’t significantly driven up their price making them relative bargains. For a category long exhibiting nary a pulse, these are heady days.
There was a time when Irish whiskey ruled supreme. By the end of the nineteenth century, there were over 160 active distilleries in the country producing 400 brands of Irish whiskey. It was exported to every port of call in Europe, the British Empire and America, exceeding the worldwide sales of all other types of whiskey combined. It had become the world’s spirit of choice.
Two historical events brought the Irish whiskey industry to its knees. The first was the 1916 Irish War of Independence against Great Britain. In retaliation, England leveled a trade embargo with Ireland, which denied distillers access to markets throughout the British Empire. Then in 1919 came the American Prohibition and overnight Irish whiskey’s largest consumer base effectively vanished. The cumulative effect on the Irish economy was devastating.
During the same time, Scotch whisky distillers were thriving. Unaffected by the British embargo, exports of Scotch skyrocketed and truckloads of whisky found their way across the Canadian border and into American speakeasies. Scotch soon became this country’s whisky of choice, a distinction that it hasn’t yet relinquished.
Ireland’s standards of quality are such that there is no such thing as a mediocre Irish whiskey. In a marketplace where demand for super-premium spirits is soaring, Irish whiskeys are hot commodities. The strategy is clear, give the people what they want and order more bar stools.
Clontarf — Made in Dublin by the producers Buru Irish Vodka, Clontarf is triple distilled from grain and spring water. It is aged in ex-bourbon barrels and filtered through Atlantic Irish oak charcoal. The full-bodied whiskey is delightfully exuberant and flavorful.
Connemara Peated Single Malt — Those seeking more adventure in their lives will want to spend time with award-winning Connemara Peated Single Malt. Produced also at the Cooley Distillery, the small batch whiskey is distilled with malted barley kiln dried over peat fires, which imbues the finished whiskey with a distinctively smoky edge. The Connemara range recently expanded and now includes both a 12-year old and a 115.8-proof Cask Strength expression.
Greenore — There are several things about Greenore that make it something special. Made at the Cooley Distillery in County Louth, it is distilled from corn, and not malted barley, which explains its sweetness. The corn is distilled in a modern column still and aged a minimum of 8 years in first fill bourbon barrels from Kentucky. The 80-proof whiskey is satiny smooth and flavorful.
Kilbeggan — Also made at the Cooley Distillery, it’s comprised of pot- and continuous-distilled spirits made from a blend of malted barley, corn and lime-softened water drawn from the near by Slieve na gCloc river. Kilbeggan deserves its reputation for delivering a lot of whiskey for the buck.
Knappogue Castle Single Malt — Vintage delineated Knappogue Castle Single Malt is produced in limited quantity from malts and selected by the master blender for their exceptional quality. The whiskey has been aged a minimum of 15 years in American oak and bottled at the traditional strength of 86-proof.
Jameson Select Reserve Black Barrel — Produced at the at the Midleton Distillery in County Cork, the newest member of the esteemed range is Jameson Select Reserve Black Barrel, a triple-distilled blend of pot still and grain whiskeys that have been aged in both Oloroso sherry casks and American white oak barrels. The barrels are inspected and then further charred according to the Master Cooper’s specifications. The deep charring has a profound affect on the aging whiskey.
Mad March Hare Poitín — There is perhaps no older or historic type of Irish whiskey than this. Also called poteen, this once illegal spirit compares quite favorably to corn-based moonshine in both character and style. The 80 proof, unaged whiskey is distilled in Dublin from locally sourced potatoes and possesses a crystal clear appearance, a generous vegetal nose and a delectable semisweet palate with a brilliant, slightly peppery finish. Glorious.
Redbreast Pure Pot Still — This prestigious whiskey is crafted in heavy copper pot stills from malted barley and spring water and then barrel aged for a minimum of 12-years. The whiskey is complex, delightfully assertive and smooth as satin. It has a bouquet laced with malt and fruit aromas and a palate brimming with the flavors of honey, spice and sherry. New to the range is the Redbreast 15-Years Old, a full-bodied whiskey aged in both Oloroso sherry casks and American white oak barrels.
Teeling — This extraordinary blended whiskey from Dublin contains a high percentage of first-fill bourbon barrel whiskey and a higher-than-normal ratio of malt to grain. To round off its maturation, the whiskey is finished in ex-rum casks and bottled at 46% alcohol (92 proof) without chill filtration. The whiskey has a vanilla and spice nose and a rum influenced palate. Top-notch.
West Cork — West Cork Irish Whiskey is a delicate blend of grain and malt whiskeys that are aged a minimum of 10 years in charred, American white oak barrels. Based in the remote seaside town of Skibbereen, located in County Cork, Ireland, West Cork Distillery uses fresh spring water sourced from the Ilen River and is the only distiller to malt its own Irish-grown barley. The whiskey sports aromas and flavors of rich caramel, wild floral honey, vanilla bean and silky toffee. It is bottled non-filtered and 40% alcohol (80 proof).