Irish Whiskey

Overview

Irish whiskey is one of the fastest-growing whiskey categories today. A big reason for this is it is generally lighter, milder, and altogether easier to drink than scotch or American whiskey.   This is why a shot of Jameson is the way many newcomers are introduced to the whiskey category at large.  

 

Irish Whiskey Basics:

  • Irish whiskey utilizes barley as a dominant flavoring grain, like scotch and other malt whiskeys, but what is unique about Irish whiskey is the barely is not always malted.  

  • The Irish don't traditionally use peat, so their whiskeys generally don't share scotch’s smokiness.  Though there are some peated Irish whiskeys - Connemara for example.

  • Irish whiskey is often distilled three times, while scotch is only two.  But not always!  

  • Irish whiskey aging laws are essentially the same as scotch.  It must be aged for a minimum of three years and any kind of oak barrel can be used.  Ex-bourbon casks are typical, but sherry and others are also used. For more in-depth details check out the aging section on the scotch page.

  • The most popular and familiar Irish whiskey brands are blends - Jameson, Bushmills, Powers, etc.  But there are other categories, see across.

 

Mixing with Irish Whiskey

While Irish whiskey is a cornerstone whiskey category in many circles, it is not usually the first choice for cocktails.   For one, outside of the Irish Coffee, there aren’t many classics that call it (The Emerald is another, which is an Irish whiskey Manhattan with orange bitters.  I recommend using a single malt or pure pot still for that one).

 

Secondly,  Irish whiskey's mellowness - which is what many find appealing about it on its own - comes off a little soft in cocktails, in my opinion.  Especially when compared to American whiskey which typically has a sharp spice note.  So I prefer it served neat or maybe with some ice.  But that’s just me.  Some swear by Irish whiskey cocktails, namely the famed bar The Dead Rabbit in lower Manhattan, NYC.  

Types of Irish Whiskey

These are all similar to scotch, with some particulars unique to the Irish.  The word "Single" can be added to any of these if it's all made in one distillery.

  • Pot Still Irish Whiskey (aka Pure Pot Still) - 100% distilled in a pot still.  Made from at least 30% malted and 30% un-malted barely, which is unique to Irish whiskey.  The rest can be made up of other grains.

  • Single Malt Whiskey - Made from 100% malted barely, distilled in a pot still.

  • Blended Whiskey - A combination of grain whiskey and either pot still or single malt whiskey, or both.  In some rare cases, a blend will have no grain whiskey, and be a blend of single malt and pot still, The Irishman Founder's Reserve is one example.

  • Grain whiskey - Made mostly from corn or wheat, distilled in columns stills and typically only used for blends.

Recommended Brands

Overall, the flavor spectrum of Irish whiskey is narrower than scotch.  It's more like to bourbon, there is variance but within a similar ballpark, for the most part.  In general, it's all approachable and easy drinking.  The pure pot still and single malt whiskeys will be richer and fuller flavored, while the blends will be lighter and milder.  As age increases, so will do the influences of the barrel, naturally.  As usual, any age statement on a blend will be of the youngest whiskey in the blend.  Each of the brands listed below releases multiple expressions, follow each link to explore them on their site.

Blended Irish Whiskey

These are the Irish whiskies you’re probably most familiar with. They are about 30-40% pot still or malt whiskey with the rest being be column distilled grain whisey.

 

Recommended brands:

  • PowersPot still and grain whiskey.

  • Jameson - Pot still and grain whiskey

  • Bushmills - Single malt and grain whiskey. The Black Bush has more malt whiskey and is matured in sherry casks, so it's a bit richer.

  • Tullamore Dew​ - Pot Still, single malt, and grain whiskey.

 

Single Malt

Made from 100% malted barley, similar to single malt scotch.  Bushmills makes the classic version of this style.

 

Recommended brands:

  • Bushmills Single Malt - There's a 10, 16 and 21 years.  All with varying barrels and finishes.  The 16 year is a real treat.  Bourbon and sherry casks, with a Port finish.  

 

 

Pot Still

100% Pot Still made with both malted and unmalted barely.  

  

  • Red Breast 12 - My, and many other's, favorite Irish whiskey. They also have a cask strength 12 year (amazing) as well as 15 and 21 year bottlings.

  • Power’s John Lane 12 - No less than 12 years old, mostly bourbon casks.

  • Green Spot - 7-10 years old, aged in bourbon and oloroso sherry casks.  Also try it's 12 year old companion, Yellow Spot.

Irish Whiskey Distilleries: Who Makes What?

The surge in Irish whiskey popularity over the past couple of decades has resulted in a cascade of new distillery openings.  But before 2007, Ireland had only three.  Of the old guard, the best-known is the New Midelton Distillery which makes Jameson, Powers, Midleton, Red Breast, Paddy, Green/Yellow Spot, among others.  Then there's Old Bushmills Distillery which makes all of Bushmills’ line. The Cooley Distillery was the relative newcomer to the group, opening in 1987 (so yes, before then there were only two distilleries).  This model of multiple whiskey brands coming from one distillery resembles American whiskey (check out a map of brands the distilleries they come from here) and different from scotch where every single malt has its own distillery.  

But the big story in Irish whiskey is the future. Today there are 25 operating in Ireland with another 20+ in the works!  Now, many of these are recently established and are not yet selling product.  Many of these new distilleries are sourcing whiskey (more on sourcing whiskey here) while their stocks come of age.   Still, the growth is stunning and it's a whole new world on the Emerald Isle, making this a category undergoing a true renaissance. 

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