The very word “whiskey” comes from an old Irish neck of the woods, as it’s the Anglicization of uisce beatha – a phrase meaning “water of life” that comes from Goidelic – an old Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx branch of languages. Irish whiskey was once the most popular spirit in the world, but since its decline in the late 19th century, there are only seven distilleries currently operating in Ireland.
Of those seven distilleries, only four have been around long enough to have products sufficiently aged to be on the market today, and only one of them predates 1975. It’s a damn shame, but we’re glad to see them making a comeback. In fact, it’s consistently been rated the fastest growing spirit in the world every year since 1990.
Whiskey is an Irish Invention
Whiskey was invented in Ireland, predating Scotch by over seven hundred years. It’s not entirely clear when the first whiskey was made, but most historians agree it was the work of Irish monks sometime around 500 AD. Thank the Lord for those monks, right?
The Irish monks would have learned about distilling during their travels to the Far East, where it was generally used to make perfume. They realized if they used a mash of water and barley and fermented it with yeast, then heated it in a pot still, they could separate the alcohol to create a miracle drink. They named it Uisce Beatha, also known as The Water of Life, or in some other places around the world, aqua vitae.
It was first used as a medicine, administered to those who had eaten bad food. They’d also use it to clean wounds. Drinking too much and entering an altered state was considered holy.
For hundreds of years Irish whiskey was one of the world’s most popular drinks, and was much beloved by famous figures such as Queen Elizabeth I, who shared hers with Sir Walter Raleigh. Tsar Peter the Great of Russia loved it, declaring it his favorite. By the late 19th century, there were 160 whiskey distilleries operating in Ireland.
Unfortunately, history dealt several tough cards to Ireland’s hand, and Irish whiskey went into decline. While Irish people have remained loyal to their heritage drink, the rest of the world looked to Scotch and Bourbon and other regional whiskeys to fill the void, leaving us with only seven distilleries pumping out all of the world’s current Irish whiskey supply.
Here are a few interesting facts about Irish distilleries currently operating:
- The Cooley Distillery was converted from a potato alcohol plant in 1987, and makes Connemara, Michael Collins, and Tyrconnel brand whiskeys.
- The Echlinville Distillery makes Dunvilles, and is the first Northern Irish distillery to earn a distilling license in nearly 125 years.
- The New Midleton Distillery was established in 1975, and makes Jamesons, Powers, Paddy, Midleton, Redbreast, and the rare Green Spot.
- Old Bushmills is the oldest licensed distillery in the world, having been established in 1784, and is currently owned by Jose Cuervo, of all things. They make Old Bushmills, Black Bush, and Bushmill single malts.
- The Teeling Distillery was established in 2015, and was the first new distillery built in Dublin in the last 125 years.
Irish vs. Scotch Whiskey
The first thing you should know is that Irish whiskey is much different than Scotch whiskey, which is a point of Irish pride. To explain the difference let’s start at the most basic of facts: whiskey is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented grain mash, usually aged in wooden casks, giving it a gorgeous brown color and distinctive taste. To be considered a bourbon, the whiskey’s mixture of grains should be 51% corn, rye, wheat, malted rye, or malted barley grain. It must also be stored in charred oak containers that don’t contain additives, which gives it its signature smokiness.
The main difference between Irish whiskey and Scotch in a very general sense is that Irish whiskey is distilled three times, which produces a lighter flavor. Scotch is typically only distilled twice. Irish whiskey also tends to be less smokey than Scotch.
Many Irish whiskeys are famous for being “single pot still” whiskey, which is a technique that’s unique to Ireland. While single malt Scotch is made from malted barley, single pot whiskey is made with a combination of malted and unmalted barley, giving Irish whiskey like Jameson’s a very distinctive flavor.
The distinctive flavor of Irish whiskey begins at the source – the rich soil and soft climate of Ireland provide the ideal place to brow barley. To obtain malted barley, the barley is allowed to sprout, and then it’s dried, created an organic material that is more fermentable than a mature barley plant. At the malting stage, Irish malt is dried in a closed kiln, whereas Scotch malted barley is dried in an open kiln and exposed to peat smoke. If 100% malted barley is used in a whiskey, it’s called a Malt Whiskey. If it’s a blend, it’s a Blended Whiskey.
Once the grain is dried, it’s mixed with water to make a mash, then receives its yeast for fermentation. After that, it’s off to the still.
Distillation and Aging
To distill whiskey, you’re seperating alcohol from water by evaporating the alcohol out of the water by using heat. Since Irish whiskey is distilled an additional time, it’s considered by many to be smoother than Scotch. Typically, the final spirit is 80% alcohol, and is brought down to 63% by adding water before going into the cask for aging. As the whiskey ages, a bit of it is lost to evaporation. This, adorably, is called “the angel’s share.
It’s Irish law that whiskey must mature in cask for no less than three years. Most makers mature longer, for five to seven years. Once its aged, the master blender combines multiple casks into a single vat, and adds more water to bring the ABV down to 40% or so.
Another way to look at the difference between Irish and Scotch whiskeys is their approach – the Irish believe the art is in the distilling, whereas the Scottish emphasize the art of the blend.
Irish Whiskey Brands
When English whiskey writer Alfred Barnard toured Ireland’s distilleries 130 years ago, he found 28 in operation. Fast foward 100 years since his visit, and only two remained – Bushmills in Northern Ireland, and Midleton, near Cork in the south. Both were owned by the one company still making whiskey in Ireland: Irish Distillers Ltd.
Bushmills, which persists strongly today, is distilled three times using 100% malted barley. The Midleton distillery made a few different brands using different blends of grain, sometimes using the very Irish method of distilling in huge, old-fashioned copper pots. Midleton’s brands 30 years ago were Jameson, Powers, Paddy, Tullamore Dew, and a few smaller ones.
Despite being an amazingly high quality product, the Irish whiskey market was suffering and sales were tanking. In 1988, a French company bought IDL and began marketing Jameson, the lightest whiskey of them all, to vodka and white-rum drinkers, supressing the fact that it was whiskey. It worked – Jameson sales grew 20% every year.
Thanks to Jameson, people are now coming around to Irish whiskey again in a major way, and IDL has started focusing more on pur pot-still whiskeys to answer the demand. IDL isn’t the only company in Ireland anymore, either. Bushmills was sold to Diageo (owner of Guinness, Johnnie Walker, Captain Morgan, Crown Royal, and a ton of others from all around the world), and Beam (like Jim) also threw their hat in the ring with the purchase of a new microdistillery that will come of age very soon.
Where to Start
Where’s a good place to start when it comes to Irish whiskey? You should probably begin at the beginning with Bushmills. It’s been made in Ireland since 1608, when King James I gave a royal license to distill whiskey to Sir Thomas Phillips. It was one of the only distilleries to stay open druing Prohibition, but stopped operations druing World War II to house Allied troops.
If you’re not ready to drink it straight despite its exceptional smoothness, don’t worry, you’ll get there. Begin by drinking with ginger ale, or add a bit of honey with a lemon twist. Move on to drinking it with club soda, then just water, then on the rocks, until you can finally drink it straight. If you reach any part of that progression where you’re truly happy, feel free to stay there and embrace your drinking style.
The tasting notes of Bushmills from Master of Malt describe it as being tangy, elderflower, a little coastal. Mineralic. It has a long finish and is best described as being very supple.
A great way to start yourself out with Bushmills is a cocktail called the Irish Buck.
Irish Buck Cocktail
1.5 oz Bushmills Original Irish Whiskey
.25 oz Fresh lime (or lemon) juice
2 oz Ginger ale
Fill a Collins glass (or AlehHorn!) with ice, add whiskey and lime juice. Top with ginger ale, garnish with lime wheel or wedge.
From there, you can move on to other whiskeys that appeal to you.
Jameson Irish Whiskey
If you’re like me and you live out in the boonies, your little liquer store may not have everything on this list, but you can bet your bottom dollar it’ll have Jameson. Many credit Jameson for reinvigorating the deflating Irish whiskey market, so if you like any Irish whiskeys, you should raise your glass once in awhile to the Dublin original.
According to Jameson, their whiskey has “The perfect balancy of spicy, nutty, and vanilla notes with hints of sweet sherry and exceptional smoothness.”
Just because it’s easy to find, inexpensive, and popular, it doesn’t mean you should overlook this one as you traverse the Irish whiskey wilds.
Concannon Irish Whiskey
Concannon is now made by Cooley, one of Ireland’s recent upstart distilleries expected to pump out excellent product as it comes of age. It’s a corn and barley blend, and it received Irish Whiskey of the Year at the 2012 New York International Spirits Competition, but it’s very easy on the wallet at $25 per bottle.
The L.A. Whiskey Society describes Concannon’s palate as “heavy on vanilla with malt in the background, turning to cream soda notes that last forever.”
This budget whiskey is great for drinking in cocktails, but also great with water or on the rocks.
According to the Clontarf Whiskey Company, “The palate entry is sweet, mildly grainy, and peppery; at midpalate the flavor profile features lemongrass and grain.”
An added bonus is the history behind Clontarf 1014, which is named for the Battle of Clontarf in 1014 in which the High King of Ireland, Brian Boru, defeated an army of Vikings. Since 2011, the new packaging has highlighted the 1000 year anniversary of the battle of Clontarf. Both High King Brian Boru and Earl Sigard the Stout died in battle, but it is said to have been the battle that freed the Irish from foreign onslaught, and King Brian became an instant legend.
If you end up with a bottle of Clontarf 1014, try an Irish Shillelagh:
1.5 oz Clontarf Irish Whiskey
1 oz light rum
.05 oz sloe gin
1 oz fresh lemon juice
.05 oz simple syrup
Fill a shaker halfway with ice, mixing in all ingredients. Shake and strain into rocks or highball glass, or an AleHorn. Garnish with cherries and a few berries.
This Irish Whiskey has been around since 1757, but they only just recently began distributing in the US. It’s made in the oldest continuously operating distillery in Ireland. As Kilbeggan says, “Like most Irish people, Kilbeggan is easy going and approachable, but with its own distinctive style.” Kilbeggan is named after St Bécán, one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland who founded a monastery in the area in the 6th century.
According to Master of Malt, “The palate is of good body with honeyed sweetness and malt. The finish is short with oaked dryness.”
If you’d like to try an Irish single malt, this one is a great place to start. Tyrconnell is one of the very few Irish single malts of age today, and is definitely one of the most affordable at $35. It’s a pot-still whiskey made in the old Irish style, and is named for a horse who won the Irish Derby nearly 200 years ago, even though this particular whiskey is older than that, having first been made in 1762.
According to Master of Malt, “The palate is full of sweet with barley malt and hot buttered granary toast with honey. The finish is dry and grassy with a little spice.”
Redbreast 12 Cask Strength
Just to add something a little special to the list, once you’ve determined you like sipping Irish whiskey, it might be time to put down a little cash on something like a Redbreast 12 cash strength, which is $65 a bottle. Redbreast’s 12 year whiskey is something special, but this one is even more so. It was made Irish Whiskey of the Year in for 2013 in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible, and is a favorite among whiskey critics. Cask strength whiskeys are meant to be added to water, so you can adjust the strength to your own preference.
According to The Whiskey Exchange blog, the palate is “Bitter, with tannic wood that runs down the sides of the tongue, and sour red grape and raisins that dominate the middle with some dark fruit liqueur, grown-up fruit cake, fruity dark chocolate, and a bit of olive oil. Water adds more spice and vanilla, and highlights the vine fruit, but it stays well away from syrupy sweetness.”
Try these out and let us know what you think in the comments. Think we need to add some to our list? Tell us!