There are currently a huge swathe of Irish whiskies out there reinventing, challenging, subverting, defying or simply exceeding the stereotype of the spirit only being suitable as a shot or chaser.
The archetypal flavours and qualities associated with Irish whiskey are of a light, smooth spirit that still retains complexity and depth.
You will often find fruit, especially apple, banana and pear. Vanilla, cinnamon, black pepper and nutmeg all pop up amongst the spicy edges. The sweetness can vary from very light to rich and dark.
Quite often the whiskey will have a mouth-coating oiliness far greater than the spirit’s heft might suggest.
The one thing you will very rarely find in Irish whiskey is smoke or peat. Connemara is a notable exception, and other distilleries have put out peated whiskies, but it is not a common feature.
Best Irish whiskey to buy
Midleton Method and Madness single pot still Irish whiskey
Method And Madness is a small, experimental offering from within the Midleton distillery. The single pot still comes in a striking bottle with contemporary labelling, but the beauty is in the taste. The nose is rich and sweet, with spices led by ginger and cinnamon. On the palate, it continues sweet, the caramel edging into toffee, with the malt toasty. It finishes long and rich, still sweet, but more of the chocolate and cocoa amongst a nutty, woody spicing. The unconventional flavour notes, including hints of chestnut, set this whiskey apart.
Glendalough Double Barrel Irish whiskey
While this hits a lot of the notes you’d expect from an Irish whiskey, there’s a real kinship with American whiskies to the Double Barrel, and as such it strikes us a perfect introduction to Irish whiskey for a fan of bourbon. The nose has vanilla, and creamy smoothness, almost chocolatey at the end. That creamy element continues into the palate, with more vanilla, dried fruit and a little coffee note all contributing to the full body and a touch of brown sugar sweetness as well.
That Boutique-y Whisky Company Irish single malt #1
Packaging by That Boutique-y Whisky Company is always eye-catching, but this nod to Father Ted takes it to another level. Novelty packaging aside, this is a company dedicated to sourcing great whiskies that you might not be able to find elsewhere, such as ones from overlooked or now-closed distilleries. This particular batch comes from an unnamed distillery. Expect a full body and smoothness. It’s fruity on the nose, which carries through to the palate, with hints of melon.
Bushmills 10-year-old single malt whiskey
A solid whiskey from a heritage brand, this is keenly priced for a spirit of this vintage. While it’s a light whiskey, there’s plenty going on in the flavour and aroma stakes. Expect a light-bodied sweetness and fudgey undertones, plus juicy fruits and a hint of sherry. Its lightness means it lends itself well to being used in whisky cocktails.
Pearse Distiller’s Choice Irish whiskey
Pearse is one of a new wave of Irish distilleries. Based in Dublin next to the Guinness factory, it was founded by Dr Pearse Lyons, an expert with an extensive background in distilling and production. The Distiller’s Choice is one of the core range. It has a light nose with citrus hints, while on the palate, there’s grape and pear before familiar vanilla notes, with stewed fruit followed by a hint of cocoa and caramel.
J.J. Corry The Battalion whiskey
Looking for a talking-point whiskey? This modern spirit by J.J Corry is aged in mezcal casks. While the resulting flavour might not be for everyone, this whiskey is unexpected and fascinating. On the nose there’s a leafy, savoury note, along with apples, which continues on the palate. Its sweetness is tempered by nuts and there is, very lightly, an agave element. This one is best served neat to allow the unique flavour notes to sing.
Master of Malt (£59.95)
Redbreast 15-year-old single still whiskey
Redbreast is a respected brand in Irish whiskey and is now the biggest-selling single pot still whiskey in the world. Their 15-year-old is a pure pot still whiskey which, on the eye, is a rich deep copper. On the nose, it has a full, almost viscous air, with honeyed malt, intense spices, dried fruit and gentle woody notes that fade into creamy vanilla. On the palate, the interplay of honey, spice, fruit and wood notes carry on. A touch of water in the glass opens it up.
Egan’s Fortitude whiskey
A beast of a whiskey, this spirit doesn’t pull any punches. The aroma is immense, with big sherry notes and even a savoury element, like roasted bone barrow. It doesn’t stop there – there’s a feast for the palate. Expect wood, fruity tannins, more leather and savoury notes over a smooth, incredibly oily consistency with a redolence of dark chocolate. A touch of water or an ice cube will dial things down a notch. If you’re looking for a hefty whiskey without going down the peaty route, this is for you.
Teelings Small Batch whiskey
Like rum? This complex whiskey has flavour notes that will feel familiar thanks to the spirit spending six months aging in Central American rum casks. The aroma features vanilla, soft fudge, toffee and brown sugar, the finish has a woody note that keeps all that sweetness in check. This one is a great contender for serving in a classic Irish coffee.
Green Spot single pot still whiskey
Green Spot is a classic single pot still whiskey, lacking an age statement but believed to be comprised of seven-to-10-year-old whiskies. The colour is a pale gold, and the nose is light but rich. There’s sweet barley and a vanilla creaminess to the aroma, with a pleasing viscosity on the palate. This is a delightful introduction to single pot still whiskey, coming at the lower end of the price scale to its peers, without sacrificing either complexity or drinking pleasure.
What is Irish whiskey?
What makes an Irish whiskey, and why should you be interested?
Firstly, some basic legal requirements: it must be made and matured in either the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland. The maturation must be in wooden casks, and for a minimum duration of three years.
These requirements are similar to Scotch, although you will notice that it is not oak casks that are specified, simply wood.
While oak is a favoured wood for cooperage for a reason, this does allow for more experimentation, giving distilleries and bonders more to play with than previously filled oak casks.
While Irish whiskey is usually thought of as triple-distilled, and often is, this is not mandated by law, and offers another point of variance for distillers looking to change things around.
Irish whiskey has categories for grain and single malt whiskey that are also recognisable, but the category that is unique to the Irish is ‘single pot still’.
One hint is in the name, as it specifies that the spirit must be made in a pot still, rather than any other type, like a column still.
To qualify for the ‘single’ part of the nomenclature, the spirit must all be made on the same site. This can be confusing when talking about a single grain whiskey, which doesn’t mean it only contains one grain, just that it was made entirely on one site.
Unlike with single malt, single pot still doesn’t require 100 per cent malted barley, but is always a blend of malted and unmalted barley, with a minimum of 30 per cent of both in the grist, and no more than 5 per cent of any other grain included.
While the blending of malted and unmalted barley might be a historical accident caused by distillers avoiding tax on malted barley, the interplay of flavours was well liked and helped form part of Irish whiskey’s Victorian dominance and recent resurgence.
A history of Irish whiskey
Irish whiskey, despite having been a more popular and prestigious spirit in its golden age than Scotch whisky, did not have the best time of the mid-20th century.
Now though, there are a profusion of both invigorated old brands and exciting new entrants to the market, all seeking to rectify our ignorance of what its adherents claim is the original whisk(e)y.
Firstly, the Irish claim to have been making whiskey before everyone else. This is based on a note dating to 1405 in the Annals of Clonmacnoise, about the head of a clan who died after ‘taking a surfeit of aqua vitae’ at Christmas. The earliest Scottish record of distilled spirits apparently dates to a tardy 1494.
Hibernian-Caledonian bragging rights aside, this is of less interest than the fact that Irish whiskey was, by the late nineteenth century, absolutely massive. Like with beer, whiskey scaled well to the possibilities of the industrial revolution and it was the Irish who ruled the roost.
In 1823 a 31,618-gallon pot still was commissioned for the Midleton Distillery in County Cork, and was so large that it required the room to be built around it. The largest pot still currently in operation today that we could find reference to is a ‘mere’ 16,498 gallons.
As the Victorian era waxed, the five main distilleries in Dublin alone could produce up to 10 million gallons of spirit a year between them.
The Irish whiskey boom was not just a question of scale, but also of prestige. There’s a fuller explanation in our guide to whiskey and whisky, but the fact is that the Irish didn’t want their product confused with the more parochial product from across the North Sea, adding an ‘e’ to differentiate themselves and keep the association with quality for the Irish product.
Things got rather dicier in the 20th Century, however. There was the steady encroachment of lighter-bodied spirits made from column stills, which were both to the public’s taste and also more efficient to run.
The post-Independence situation in the 1920s restricted access to the United Kingdom and Commonwealth, which had been a huge market for Irish whiskey.
Prohibition in the United States wiped out another massive export destination for a decade, and then the Great Depression hampered things everywhere.
Distilleries consolidated and merged, and by the late 1960s, you only had Irish Distillers (Jameson, Powers and Cork Distillers) based in the Republic, and Bushmills in Northern Ireland. In 1972, Bushmills joined Irish Distillers.
Things perked up slowly – in the late 1980s the new, independent Cooley’s distillery opened and drinks giant Pernod Ricard picked up Irish Distillers, prompting more interest and advocacy for this august spirit and some of its surviving brands.
This process has accelerated in the last two decades, with 25 operating distilleries now in Ireland (2019 figure), and more planned, as the appetite for Irish whiskey worldwide is claimed to be growing by over 15 per cent a year.
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This review was last updated in August 2019. If you have any questions, suggestions for future reviews or spot anything that has changed in price or availability please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.