When it comes to Irish Whiskey in all likelihood the first thing that comes to mind is a bottle of Jameson. And to be fair, Jameson has done a remarkable job as positioning themselves as the Irish whiskey in bars all across the globe. But dig a little deeper and you’ll see that there is more to this category than meets the eye.
What is Irish Whiskey?
The short answer is simple; Irish whiskey is technically any whiskey that is made in Ireland, distilled to no more than 94% ABV and barrel aged a minimum of three years. However there are some typical hallmarks of an Irish whiskey as well.
First, Irish whiskey tends to be a blend, is generally unpeated and usually triple-distilled vs. the Scotch double distilled process. This makes Irish whiskey smoother and lighter than Scotch. Irish whisky also tends to be made exclusively in pot stills, which means the whiskey is a pot-distilled mixture of both malted and unmalted barley, which imparts an oiliness and spice. Now there are of course exceptions to all the above generalizations, but for the most part that is what separates Irish whiskey from its nearby neighbours.
The History of Irish Whiskey
While Scotch may be the king of whisky right now, it wasn’t always the case. In fact, as early as the 12th century, Irish monks began to distill whiskey through processes taught to them on their journeys through the Mediterranean sometime in 1000AD. The Old Bushmills Distillery has laid claim to being the oldest distillery in the world receiving heritage to a license from King James I in 1608.
During the prohibition era, Irish whiskey suffered. Add to that the Irish War of Independence and with Britain cutting off their exportation capabilities, the world of Irish whiskey dried up and distilleries closed as profits died out. By the mid 1960’s only a few distilleries remained and in an attempt to stay in business they merged to form what became known as The Irish Distillers. Only ten years later, only Bushmills and New Midleton remained. Needless to say, Irish whiskey had suffered greatly.
So what turned it around? In 1988, French based Pernod Ricard purchased the Irish Distillers and took a liking to a little brand called Jameson. A global marketing effort catapulted Jameson into the spotlight and launched a resurgence of Irish whiskey for decades. In fact, Irish whiskey has be been growing in double digit numbers, with expectations that in 2020 they total sales will be over 144 million bottles. Irish whiskey distillers have grown from four to over eighteen, with many more in the development pipeline. Granted many of these new distilleries have yet to start producing, but it sets an expectation for Irish whiskey to explode in the next few years.
What you Should Try
Just because there are less distillers, doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of options to choose from. If you want to start to understand the category before it gets crowded, these bottles are a good place to start.
Red Breast 12 Year Cask Strength
This bottle won best Irish Whiskey of the year for 2018, and it’s easy to see why. Bright amber in the glass, it has aromas of toffee, figs, citrus, toasted nuts and baking spices. On the palate it is full and warming, delivering flavours of caramel, dried fruit spice and citrus leading to a finish that is long and balanced.
Teeling Small Batch
This is the flagship whiskey for the Teeling distillery and has also been awarded a number of medals, specifically for blended whiskey. While being very approachable the whiskey is given time in rum casks which creates a higher percentage alcohol and a unique smooth, sweet, slightly woody marriage that sparkles on the tongue.
Connemara 12 Year
This is one of those Irish whiskeys that are an exception to the rules. Connemara is currently the only distillery in Ireland that produces single malt peated whiskey (for now), and they double distill like the Scots.
The 12 year has vibrant aromas of creme brulee, singed flowers, dense spices, and Provence herb soap follow through on a round, supple entry to dryish medium-full body with layers of praline, vanilla bean, and exotic peppercorns. Finishes with very long, evolving honeyed cereal and grassy.
Jameson 18 Year Limited Reserve
Yes we are aware that seeing the name Jameson may make some of you cringe, but we’re will to bet that you haven’t given it a fair shot outside of your college days.
The 18 year is wonderfully mellow and smooth, with a mouthful of complex flavour – fudge, toffee, spice, hints of wood and leather, vanilla and a gentle sherry nuttiness. Honestly, give Jameson a second chance, it is after all the reason you’re even reading about Irish whiskey in the first place.