If you’re celebrating St Patrick’s Day this year, we’d recommend having a glass of fine Irish whiskey in your hand. But 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. As a result, drinks industry analyst IWSR has predicted that Irish whiskey sales will grow by 33% between 2020 and 2024.
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
Recommended by Julie Sheppard and Richard Woodard
Bushmills Causeway Collection 1995 Marsala Cask
First granted a licence to distil in 1608, Bushmills is now one of the largest Irish whiskey brands in the world. Its Causeway Collection is named after the famous Giant’s Causeway. This triple-distilled single malt is matured in oloroso Sherry and bourbon wood, then ‘finished’ in ex-Marsala casks. Rich and ripe on the nose with dried fruits and nutty sherry notes. It bursts into life in the mouth, with a gorgeous mid-palate of juicy black cherry, melding into menthol. An opulent and hedonistic Irish whiskey. Alc 57.8%
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%
Method & Madness Rye & Malt
The first aged release from Irish Distillers’ experimental micro-distillery at Midleton, this double-distilled mix of 60% rye and 40% malted barley is cereal-driven, with notes of Rich Tea biscuits and light hazelnut. The rye spice builds in the mouth into a crescendo of Jalapeño chilli, and a light touch with the oak delivers a highly expressive whiskey. Alc 46%
Redbreast Lustau Edition
With its long history, Redbreast is one of the very best examples of the Irish pot still style – and its signature combination of single pot still whiskey and ex-Sherry casks finds its ultimate expression here in one of the world’s great sherried whiskeys. Rich, rounded and seamless, with dark berry fruit, then figgy treacle, liquorice and pot still spices. The creamy, mouthfilling texture makes for a persistent, lengthy finish. Alc 46%
Samuel Gelston’s Blended Irish Whiskey
Amid all the exciting new styles and high-end releases, this is a reminder of how the world fell in love with Irish whiskey again. A simple, approachable blend that offers light flavours of green apple, ginger and honey, with a touch of banana and a silky texture. Good value and a decent base for mixed drinks and whiskey cocktails. 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%
The Irishman Single Malt
From Walsh Whisky, which also produces Writers’ Tears (see below), this small-batch single malt is matured in bourbon and oloroso Sherry casks. Fruity and spicy aromas, with ripe banana, dried mango and creamy toffee. The palate is rich and smooth, with notes of candied peel, sultanas and figs, peaches and caramel, plus mellow spice notes from the oak lingering on the finish. Thoroughly enjoyable! Alc 40%
This single malt is light in colour and aroma. There are barley notes on the nose, plus vanilla fudge, lemon citrus and peach, sprinkled with spice. The palate is lifted and expressive, with notes of light fruit cake, lemon meringue, a dash of white pepper and candied peel, alongside some fresh oak notes and a honey-on-toast finish. Wears its alcohol lightly and is a good choice for a refreshing Whiskey Highball. Alc 47%
Waterford Arcadian Gaia 1.1
Ireland’s ﬁrst certified organic single malt whiskey was launched in 2020. 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%
Writers’ Tears Double Oak
Combining single pot still and single malt whiskeys, then maturing them in a mix of American and French oak (the latter sourced from Cognac), gives a richly fruity style with plenty of weight and grip. Initial aromas of toffee apple move into more exotic notes of stewed plum and oak-driven spice, with an undertone of bright citrus. Alc 46%