Whenever you crack open a bottle of Irish whiskey, it’s worth remembering that this category nearly died out altogether a few decades ago. The Irish were almost certainly the first distillers in the British Isles, and there was a time in the late 19th century when Irish whiskey ruled the world. It reigned supreme over its inferior Scottish rivals thanks to the use of huge pot stills which gave reliable consistency to Irish drams.
However a number of factors, including world war and internal political upheavals, as well as the rise of blended Scotch, combined to cause the near collapse of the Irish whiskey industry. Eventually just three operational distilleries remained, with producers clinging together for survival as one company: Irish Distillers.
That situation began to shift very slowly and for the last decade, the Irish whiskey category has enjoyed exponential growth worldwide. Global Irish whiskey sales grew by +10.9% in 2019, driven by the popularity of big brands Jameson, Bushmills and Tullamore Dew. Meanwhile new distilleries have begun appearing all over the country, from Dublin to remote coastal locations such as Dingle.
What’s driving this change in fortunes? ‘The most well known brands of Irish whiskey have an unparalleled versatility and can be enjoyed in far more varied manners than other categories of whiskey/whisky,’ says Oisin Davis, Irish beverage advisor at Elite Wine & Whisky.
‘At any one time, you can find Irish whiskey lovers either sipping it neat or mixing it into classic cocktails such as a Highball. Additionally, the old Irish custom of enjoying a dram alongside your beer is still very much widespread, especially in the US,’ he adds.
‘Finally, as one of the most popular whiskey serves, the Irish Coffee has always been strong but is currently going through a rebirth thanks to bars like The Dead Rabbit in NYC and Bar Swift in London. Irish whiskey brand owners have been less precious with how consumers enjoy their products, which has ultimately led to a greater accessibility and broader appeal for the category.’
New wave styles
The renaissance is creating a diverse array of styles. They are underpinned by the traditional triple distillation technique that creates a gentle and approachable taste profile – exemplified by Jameson and Tullamore Dew.
Importantly single pot still – Ireland’s unique whiskey style, involving the use of unmalted barley – is blossoming again. ‘Due to a malt tax imposed on the Irish when Ireland was still a part of the British empire, whiskey producers on the Emerald Isle quickly pivoted to include unmalted barley as well as malt in their products,’ explains Davis.
‘Compared to the single malts of Scotland, it gives single pot still Irish whiskeys such as Redbreast an instant point of difference. After distillation, unmalted barley will offer up a grassy and floral note which balances very well with the sweetness and spice of the malted barley.’
Alongside this, fresh takes on single malt and peated whiskey are also emerging. Young distilleries may not have the heritage and stocks of old whiskey, but they are proving their skill with innovative mash bills and creative cask finishes.
‘The Irish whiskey scene is really growing fast, it’s so exciting!’ says Jarrod Cuffe of Dublin-based Off the Cuffe, creator of an original range of bitters made from Irish whiskey and organic botanicals, for use with cocktails.
‘At the moment it really is all about transparency of labelling – it’s fine that you have a 10-year-old expression and have only been distilling for five years: just say so. It showcases how capable you are with your finishing programme and it really spells what is to come. The next five to 10 years here in Ireland look so promising.’
The selection below is a mix of well known names and innovative new releases, taking in blends and single malts, to give a taste of the dynamic Irish distilling scene.
Best Irish whiskeys: Eight to try
Drumshanbo Single Pot Still Whiskey
This distinctive bottling is from The Shed Distillery in County Leitrim, which also makes Drumshanbo Gunpowder Irish Gin. Opened in 2014, it was the first new distillery in the province of Connacht in over 100 years. Matured in Kentucky bourbon and oloroso Sherry casks, it’s made with a mixture of malted and unmalted barley, plus Irish Barra oats, which add a lovely creaminess to the texture. You’ll also find plenty of spice – green chilies, black pepper – alongside caramel, baked apples and a savoury tang. Alc 43%
Glendalough Pot Still Irish Whiskey
Finished in sustainably harvested virgin Irish oak from the Wicklow Mountains, just outside Dublin, Glendalough is made from a blend of malted and unmalted barley, aged in bourbon casks. Spicy and woody aromas with liquorice and some lighter fruity notes scattered over the top. In the mouth it’s creamy and richly spiced with notes of dark fruit cake, ginger and candied peel. The lingering finish is edged with white pepper and fresh green chilli, thanks to that Irish oak. Distinctive and very enjoyable. Alc 43%
Hyde 6 Year Old No.7 President’s Cask
This limited edition single malt is matured in Oloroso sherry barrels, giving a warm tawny colour. President’s Cask takes its name from Douglas Hyde, who served as the first President of Ireland from 1938 to 1945. Each of the distillery’s bottlings bears a significant date from Irish history that relates to Hyde. Complex aromas with notes of clotted cream toffee, woody spice, dark chocolate, black toffee, a savoury hint of umami. Rich, layered flavours on the palate, with notes of black spices, chocolate toffee, leather, dark fruit cake and baking spices. Very long and complex finish. Alc 46%
Jameson Black Barrel
The best known Irish whiskey brand around the globe, Jameson is made at Midleton in County Cork. Small batch Black Barrel is a richer, more weighty offering than the classic Jameson, boasting a high proportion of pot still whiskey. Aged in bourbon barrels that have been double charred – hence the black barrel name. A fruity nose with tropical and stone fruit notes, is followed by a creamy palate packed with peach, caramel, sweet spices, dates and chocolate. Alc 40%
Lambay Small Batch Blend
This blended whiskey takes its name from Lambay Island, off the east coast of Ireland, and is crafted with Lambay Island Trinity Well water. A blend of malted barley and grain whiskey, it’s aged in bourbon barrels and finished in Camus Cognac casks. Lifted woody and citrus aromas, topped with sweet vanilla, an overlay of spice and some floral tones. Mellow and richly fruity, with barley notes, nuttiness and spice; the cognac character coming through on the finish. A good all-rounder whiskey for sipping, mixing or using in cocktails. Alc 40%
Redbreast 12 Year Old
With its long history, Redbreast is one of the very best examples of the Irish pot still style. Made from malted and unmalted barley, the 12yo is matured in a combination of bourbon and oloroso Sherry casks, creating harmonious fruity, spicy and toasty aromas. Rounded dried fruit notes – sultanas, raisins and a touch of dried banana – alongside warm baking spices, dried citrus peel and marzipan nuttiness, with a lingering spicy finish. Look out for the newest release, a limited-edition 10yo, or invest in the exclusive Dream Cask Ruby Port Edition – if you’re lucky enough to lay your hands on a bottle. Alc 40%
Teeling Small Batch
Established in 2015, the Teeling distillery was the first new whiskey distillery to open in Dublin in 125 years – though the Teeling family has been making Irish whiskey since 1782. This is a blend of grain and malt whiskies, initially aged in ex-bourbon barrels, then finished in rum casks. Mellow spicy aromas, followed by a warming and rounded palate with spiced caramel, citrus peel and ginger biscuits. Orchard fruits, sultanas and tinned peaches with caramel sauce are balanced by fresh lemon notes. Alc 46%
Waterford Arcadian Gaia 1.1
Ireland’s ﬁrst certified organic single malt whiskey was launched last year. Waterford Distillery focuses on provenance, producing whiskeys from organic and biodynamic heritage barley grown by local farmers. Gaia, named after the Greek goddess of the Earth, was matured in a combination of US oak, French oak and used vin doux naturel casks. Aromas of creamy toffee, orange zest, dried apricot and beeswax, backed by a rich and spicy palate, with warming barley notes, butterscotch, fruit cake and some citrus zip. Alc 50%