In the mid 1800s, Irish distilleries were responsible for one gallon of whiskey in every seven made across Great Britain and Ireland. Fast forward to 1960 and Ireland had lost 26 of the 30 distilleries previously operational, leaving just four to uphold the island’s tradition of making a famously smooth spirit.
By 1966, three of the remaining producers merged, moving to a new distillery in Midleton, County Cork – an act that left Dublin, previously a powerhouse of whiskey distillation, dry.
Today, the Celtic Tiger is roaring again, or should that be pouring again, as, from a base of just four distilleries 10 years ago there are now well over 30, signalling a new golden age for Irish whiskey.
Scotch has, for the past couple of decades, been the pace-setter for long-aged, premium whisky (note the spelling by the way: with an ‘e’ in Ireland and the US, without an ‘e’ in most other countries), allowing Scotland’s neighbours on the Emerald Isle to slowly build up good stocks of aged spirit, slumbering away in warehouses.
The stalwart distilleries of Bushmills, Midleton and Cooley found themselves in the slipstream of Scotch, which afforded them the opportunity to showcase their whiskeys to a new generation of curious drinkers.
Along with a host of independent bottlers and creative blenders, suddenly Irish whiskey was back in the spotlight and being taken seriously as a sipping spirit – not just the jolly Jameson mixer that had previously underscored whiskey from Ireland as a good-time party drink.
Today there is a broad church of whiskey styles on offer, from Dublin-based Teeling’s award-winning grain to the tapestry of tastes found in the “pot still” whiskeys of Redbreast and Green Spot, made at the Midleton Distillery in County Cork.
The single malt style, more often associated with Scotland, is to be found at Bushmills in the north of Ireland, which triple distils its spirit for an additional level of smoothness. The smoky, peated style of single malt is also noticeable in Connemara, a whiskey from the Cooley distillery in County Louth.
After a tumultuous time over the past century, Irish whiskey is once again building a fierce reputation for high-quality aged whiskey that manages to meld excellent flavours with an approachability and personality that is distinctly Irish.
Is this all down to the luck of the Irish? Not one bit. It is entirely down to brilliant distilling, skills built on a history of fine whiskey-making, and long may it continue.
Redbreast Lustau Edition
This exceptional single pot still whiskey brings together all the sweet, fragrant and fruit-laden character you would expect in an Irish whiskey, but does so with an additional complexity and spice, thanks to being further matured for a year in fresh, first-fill oloroso sherry casks from the acclaimed Bodegas Lustau producer. Get it here.
Bushmills 16 Year Old
One of the most enduring and legendary names in Irish whiskey, Bushmills stands as the benchmark for Irish single malt and, after a taste of this 16-year-old, it’s easy to see why. An explosion of delicious tropical fruit, sweet malt and deeper, richer complexity comes from the three cask types it is matured in: ex-sherry, bourbon and port. Learn more here.
A relatively new player in Irish whiskey, Waterford is the brainchild of Mark Reynier, the driving force behind the renaissance of Bruichladdich Scotch whisky. Waterford’s main USP is its focus on the terroir of the barley used in the production and this expression can be traced back to a “single farm origin”. Buy it here.
Connemara Irish Peated Whiskey
If you’re looking for something completely different in an Irish whiskey, look no further: Connemara, distilled at the Cooley distillery on the west coast of Ireland, is famed as being one of the only smoky Irish whiskeys on the market. Like Scotch, it uses peat-dried malted barley, but has a wonderful rich, sweet smokiness for a very unique experience. Get it at Ocado.
Teeling Small Batch Irish Whiskey
Once a thriving hub of distillation, Dublin’s whiskey fortunes have recently been resurrected, with the growth of a number of more independent craft operations sprouting up. Arguably the largest and most successful of these is Teeling, which has explored maturation in a number of unusual cask types, including this expression, which is finished in ex-rum barrels. Find it here.