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Distilling Ireland – Eight whiskies to discover

The story of Irish whiskey is worthy of any of the country’s renowned novelists, containing glory, complacency, decline and death. But in a surprise plot twist it’s back, with innovation, quality and confidence.

Irish whiskey is the drink that refused to die, despite being buffeted by the winds of history and pounded by the tides of fashion. Once a whisky colossus that easily outsold its Scottish counterpart, it descended into disfavour and near destruction, before undergoing a triumphant renaissance in the 21st century.

Dublin in the Victorian era was one of the great trading hubs of the British empire, its vast distillery complexes small towns within the city. The big four – John Jameson, William Jameson, John Power and George Roe – exemplified pre-independence Ireland’s domination of the global whisky scene, with nearly 30 distilleries dotted around the country.

Scroll down to see Richard Woodard’s selection of Irish whiskies to discover

Within a century, Dublin’s whiskey plants had been wiped out by a crippling mix of the rise of blended Scotch, political and macroeconomic factors, and an attitude of arrogant complacency on the part of its distillers. In 1976, the stills at Powers in John’s Lane fell silent, leaving the island of Ireland with only three operational whiskey distilleries: New Midleton in County Cork and, in Northern Ireland, Bushmills and Coleraine (which closed two years later).

Dublin revival

Inside Dublin’s Teeling distillery

Jack Teeling was born just as Dublin whiskey died, in 1976. Whiskey is a thread running through his family history, from 1782, when Walter Teeling established a small distillery in Marrowbone Lane, Dublin, to 1989 when Jack’s father John opened the Cooley distillery in a disused potato alcohol plant in County Louth, to the north of Dublin.

Cooley was no overnight success – it took more than a decade to turn a profit – but in time the Teelings’ thoughts turned to the revival of whiskey-making in Dublin. After Cooley was sold [to Beam Inc, as it was at the time], Teeling Whiskey was established on Haymarket in 2012 – but this was never going to be a slavish recreation of the city’s whiskey past.

‘I was very clear in my mind that I wanted to create a more modern and contemporary brand of Irish whiskey, while still celebrating our Dublin history,’ says Jack Teeling. ‘I felt we could embrace the energy and dynamism of the city and produce an Irish whiskey that represented what was happening in Dublin at the time.’

The result exemplifies the adventurous spirit that now suffuses the Irish whiskey scene. The stubborn refusal to change that nearly destroyed an entire industry has been swapped for originality and freedom of thought.

Teeling bottles blends, single malts, single grains, single pot still and peated whiskey – using an eclectic range of finishes from stout to wine casks from around the world. The approach would be scattergun if the liquid wasn’t so uniformly characterful. A prime example is Teeling’s Blackpitts peated single malt (Alc 46%, £48.90-£53.95 Master of Malt, The Whisky Exchange, The Whisky World): no hairy-chested Islay beast, but an elegant, perfumed delight; the combination of peated malt, triple distillation and cask selection (ex-Sauternes wood plays a role) makes for a fresh take on peated whisky.

Spark of innovation

The Pearse Lyons distillery in Dublin’s historic Liberties area. Credit: Donal Murphy Photography

The Teelings are far from alone in reimagining what Irish whiskey can be. Dozens of distilleries have cropped up all over the country, and Dublin is home not only to Teeling, but also to Dublin Liberties, Pearse Lyons and a revived George Roe operation, Roe & Co.

The rugged Atlantic coast of Ireland’s southwest is about as far as you can get from Dublin without getting your feet wet. Here, on the edge of the harbourside town with which it shares its name, the Dingle Distillery has been open, like Teeling, since 2012.

Located in a former sawmill, this is a thoroughly modern operation that makes gin and vodka, as well as whiskey. The triple-distilled, core Dingle Single Malt expression – aged for six to seven years in first-fill, ex-PX Sherry and bourbon casks (Alc 46.3%, £50.99 Drink Finder, House of Malt, Master of Malt) – is a zesty, fruit-filled charmer of a whiskey, supplemented by small-batch expressions such as the Wheel of the Year series, the latest a superbly balanced rye cask finish called Lá Le Bríde (see below).

Drive from Dingle across to the east for about 150 miles and you’ll arrive at Waterford, where Mark Reynier – one of those who engineered the revival of Islay’s Bruichladdich – is leading Irish whiskey into a wine-inspired world of uber-provenance, with a laser focus on the raw materials of production.

Waterford Distillery makes organic whisky (the company eschews the ‘e’) biodynamic whisky, single farm origin expressions and two peated whiskies that claim to be the first in generations to use not only Irish barley, but Irish peat, too. There’s also a Heritage Hunter bottling (Alc 50%, £92.95-£100 widely available online) of a variety of barley that hadn’t been used in whisky production since the 1970s.

Pot still expressions

Midleton Master Distiller Kevin O’Gorman

This collective wave of innovation transforms popular preconceptions of what Irish whiskey should taste like, but then those preconceptions are rooted in relatively recent history. Until 1968, Jameson – the ubiquitous best-seller that spearheaded the Irish revival – was not the easy-drinking, mixable blend to launch a million St Patrick’s Day knees-ups, but a single pot still expression of a very different nature.

In the midst of Irish whiskey’s modern transformation, pot still offers a direct link to its past. Its roots lie in commercial pragmatism: in 1785, the British government introduced a tax on malted barley, so Irish distillers started using a proportion of unmalted barley in production, thus saving money – but, inadvertently at first, adding flavour.

Pot still whiskey – single pot still if originating from one distillery – has an unmistakable character: a silky, sometimes positively oily texture along with a punchy, tangy basket of spiced fruits. It finds its most eloquent expression in Redbreast – a great survivor of Irish whiskey’s boom-bust years – and in the coloured Spot family of single pot still releases.

Today, you’ll find it made all over Ireland, and history has come full-circle with the release of Jameson Single Pot Still (see below) – the creation of which Midleton Master Distiller Kevin O’Gorman describes as ‘a great honour’. Today’s Jameson pot still, however, is no facsimile of an old recipe, but a modern amalgam of five cask types, including virgin Irish, European and American oak.

No limits

Alex Thomas, The Old Bushmills Distillery. Credit: Elaine Hill Photography

Whether old names or new, Irish whiskey makers today are linked by a drive to experiment and push the limits of flavour exploration – from the youthful releases of the latest startup to long-aged expressions such as those from Bushmills’ Causeway Collection, which head blender Alex Thomas says took more than 15 years to perfect. ‘We’re proud to run the full flavour gamut and experiment with all sorts of [cask] finishes, from Port and Madeira to rum and wine,’ she adds. ‘There is an Irish whiskey for everyone and every occasion, which is what makes it such an exciting category.’

Such is the dynamism permeating Irish whiskey today that those hackneyed notions of a soft, inoffensive, easy-drinking spirit can now safely be put aside. ‘Irish whiskey was so undynamic and vanilla in its approach for such a long time as a result of lack of competition and a mistaken belief that there was only one way to make Irish whiskey,’ says Teeling. ‘This shows the danger of being locked or trapped in tradition. Today, our approach is to be respectful to the past, but confident enough to forge our own future.’ Midleton’s O’Gorman agrees. ‘With over 40 Irish whiskey distilleries thriving and a broad product offering, defining a core flavour identity for Irish whiskey is increasingly difficult, and a concept we feel is slightly outdated,’ he says. Indeed, why should Irish whiskey have a single overriding character? Would you expect that of Scotch?

In January, an Irish single malt was put up for sale by The Craft Irish Whiskey Co priced at €80,000 (excluding shipping and taxes) per bottle. The Aodh is a collaboration with jeweller MJ Jones – only 88 bottles of the aged single malt were produced, each luxuriously packaged and including a bespoke ring that has a sample of the whiskey hermetically sealed inside.

It’s the kind of initiative that, until now, would have been confined to the worlds of high-end Cognac or luxury single malt, the province of a Hennessy or a Macallan. Such rarefied projects may be a world away from the teeming, chaotic, steam-filled distilleries of Victorian Dublin, but they’re also a vote of confidence in a drink that so nearly became extinct only a few decades ago.

Eight excellent Irish whiskies to discover

Bushmills The Causeway Collection 1997 Rum Cask

A showstopper thanks to the effortless complexity that comes with age. Tropical fruit, spice, honey and vanilla, alongside a silky texture that lasts and lasts. Expensive? Yes. A great whiskey? Also yes. Alcohol 46.2%

Dingle Lá Le Bríde Single Malt 

Dingle’s core single malt is a cracker, and this limited-edition Wheel of the Year release brings a fresh flavour dimension thanks to a rye cask finish: tangy berry fruit slathered in cream, punchy spice and an anise-note lift. Alc 50.5%

Jameson Single Pot Still 

Jameson returns to its pot still roots with a feisty, oak-accented take on the style. Five cask types bring a dry, almost smoky undertone to pot still’s signature flavours of juicy fruit and rich spice. Alc 46%

Method and Madness Oats and Malt

Oats were once commonly used in Irish whiskey, so it’s a treat to see them return (with 40% malted barley) in this creation from Midleton’s experimental micro- distillery. Notes of orange and vanilla fudge permeate the luxuriant mouthfeel. Alc 46%

Powers Irish Rye

Another Midleton creation, this claims to be the world’s first 100% Irish rye whiskey and offers a very different take to the high- octane American rye style: lipsmacking cherry fruit, liquorice and Jamaican ginger cake. Alc 43.2%

Teeling Single Grain Irish Whiskey

A soft and rounded grain matured in ex-Cabernet Sauvignon casks, this offers pure drinking pleasure with its vinous, grape-skin flavours, married with white chocolate and a peppy herbal undercurrent. Alc 46%

The Donn Single Malt Whiskey

Not quite seven years old, but all about the flavour, not the age. Maturation in bourbon, tawny Port, Hungarian oak and PX Sherry casks creates a fruitcake of a whiskey – supple, plump and sweetly rounded. Alc 46.15%

Waterford Ballybannon 1.1 Peated Single Malt

While peated Irish whiskey remains a rarity, nuances are emerging. Compared to Teeling’s scented elegance, Waterford’s Ballybannon expression offers a more overtly smoky, apple-accented style with distinct maritime notes. Alc 50%

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