There’s 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.
Part of their attraction is that they are triple-distilled from both malted and unmalted barley, and most lack the peaty smokiness of Scotch. Traditionally Irish distillers develop the character of their spirits in the vat rather than post-distillation blending. As a result, whiskeys typically are light-bodied and brimming with character and intriguing nuances.
There was a time when Irish whiskey ruled supreme. By the end of the 19th century, there were more than 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 the United States, 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 U.S. speakeasies. Scotch soon became this country’s whisky of choice, a distinction that it hasn’t yet relinquished.
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.
Hot Irish Brands
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 barstools.
• Jameson 12 — Leading the popular resurgence is category bestseller John Jameson & Sons, whose whiskeys are produced at the Midleton Distillery in County Cork, Ireland. The brand’s upper echelons include Jameson 12, a super-premium blend of triple-distilled, malted and unmalted barley whiskeys aged 12 years in used sherry casks and bourbon barrels. The higher proportion of sherry-finished whiskeys gives the blend a slightly sweet, fruity and nutty palate.
• Jameson Limited Reserve — This exceptional whiskey pays homage to the distillery’s tradition of aging whiskeys in oloroso casks. After 18 years maturing in sherry wood, the whiskey is finished in charred American oak and has a wafting, sherry-influenced bouquet and a broad palate with nutty, spicy notes. Their suggested retail prices are $35 and $85 respectively.
• Bushmills 16 Year Old Irish Single Malt — Not surprisingly, the other global player in the category — Bushmills — has an equally distinguished roster of whiskeys. Case in point is Bushmills 16 Year Old Irish Single Malt, a blend comprised of whiskies matured in ex-bourbon barrels, Port pipes and oloroso butts; the flavorants from each contributes mightily to the distinctive character of finished malt.
• Black Bush — This inimitable whiskey was created in 1934 by the master distiller at the Bushmills Distillery in County Antrim, Ireland. It is a blend comprised principally of malted barley whiskeys triple-distilled in copper pot stills. Most are aged up to nine years largely in Oloroso sherry oak casks. Black Bush is a full-bodied beauty with a sherry influenced nose and a rich, malty palate. Its silky body makes Black Bush a highly accessible whiskey, an ideal entrée to the category.
• Bushmills 21 Year Old Irish Single Malt — This ultra-premium is a blend of whiskeys aged more than 20 years in charred American oak and Spanish oloroso sherry butts before being finished in Madeira oak drums. The resulting malt has tremendous complexity and sophistication. Priced around $100, the recently launched Bushmills 1608 is a small-batch whiskey triple-distilled with expensive crystal malt, so-called because of its crystalline appearance and revered for its chocolate and toffee flavor.
• Redbreast Pure Pot Still — The renowned brand is triple-distilled in traditional copper pot stills entirely from malted barley and spring water. Introduced in 1939 by John Jameson & Sons, the whiskey is barrel-aged for a minimum of 12 years in bourbon barrels and sherry casks. It’s complex, delightfully assertive and smooth as satin.
• 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. Knappogue also is known for its Castle Collection, a series of six vintage-dated whiskeys, the first of which debuted in 1990.
• Tyrconnell Single Malt — Tyrconnell from Gemini Spirits & Wines is a pure pot still whiskey that dates back to 1762. It’s made at the Cooley Distillery in Dundalk, Ireland, using malted and unmalted barely and spring water, and then barrel-aged for five to six years. The spirit is full-bodied with a malty bouquet, slightly sweet flavor and a marvelously dry finish.
• Connemara Peated Single Malt — Those seeking more adventure in their lives will want to spend time with award-winning Connemara Peated Single Malt. Also produced 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.
• Power’s — In a country known for its abiding appreciation of whiskey, Powers remains the best-selling brand in Ireland. It’s an elegant blend comprised of approximately 70% pot still whiskies; no malt is used in the blend. Founded in 1791, Power’s was the first to market whiskey in bottles.
• Midleton Very Rare — Midleton is an ultra-sophisticated whiskey triple-distilled in the firm’s famed copper pot stills from spring water and malted and unmalted barley. Artisanal in every respect, the vintage-dated spirit is matured over 20 years in American white oak barrels. Bottling of the reserve whiskey is limited to only 50 casks a year.
• Michael Collins Single Malt — Produced at the Cooley Distillery, this marvelous malt is distilled in small batches from 100% peated barley malt and matured in ex-bourbon barrels between 8 and 12 years. It has a brilliant bouquet and a dry, appetizing palate with succulent fruit notes. The malt finishes long and silky smooth.
• Kilbeggan — Kilbeggan has earned a reputation for delivering tremendous bang for the buck. Produced at the Cooley Distillery, it’s comprised of pot- and continuous-distilled spirits made from malted barley, corn and lime-softened spring water.
• Clontarf — Made in Dublin by the producers of 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.
• Tullamore Dew — Perennial all-star Tullamore Dew is a small-batch whiskey aged for a minimum of three years in American oak barrels and ex-Sherry casks. Created in 1829 and now produced at the Midleton Distillery, Tullamore Dew is a premium dram at a value price.
The trend is clear, give the people what they want, and order more barstools.