Most people associate Ireland with the color green: the Emerald Isle, lucky four-leaf clovers, expanses of grass-covered hills where livestock graze.
But in reality, Ireland is awash in gold—its golden Irish whiskeys, so light and delightfully drinkable.
What makes Irish whiskey distinctive is its smooth and gentle character, says Sean Muldoon, the Irish-born founder and general manager of The Dead Rabbit Grocery and Grog, a New York City tavern noted for its extensive selection of the spirit.
“It doesn’t have the peatiness of Scotch, or the rich sweetness you find in Bourbon,” he says. “It’s easy to drink.”
In the glass, Irish whiskeys are fresh, often fruity and grassy, with a restrained hand on the peat, if it’s used at all. Yet, they’re complex enough to hold a drinker’s interest.
No wonder Irish whiskey is finding increasing favor with Americans—and not only at Irish pubs or on St. Patrick’s Day, either. The United States is the largest export market for Irish whiskey and, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, it’s the -fastest-growing spirit category in the country, with a 23.6% increase in volume in 2011. (Data for 2012 is not yet available.)
Despite its recent surge in popularity, Irish whiskey has a long history, with some experts dating its distillation back to the 12th century. In its early days, Irish whiskey, distilled from a blend of malted and unmalted barley, was widely considered superior to all other European whiskeys.
Queen Elizabeth I was said to favor Irish whiskey. Peter the Great, czar of Russia, wrote, “Of all the wines, the Irish spirit is the best.”
Even Scottish distillers would export their wares to Ireland and have it stamped as Irish. It would then be shipped back home and sold for a higher price.
What made those Irish whiskeys so wonderful? Most experts point to the round-bellied copper pot stills that imparted hearty character and full, rich flavor during the distillation process.
Another key distinction continues to be that most Irish whiskeys are distilled three times. By comparison, most Scotches are distilled twice. That third run through the still is what gives Irish whiskey its softer, lighter feel.
Starting in the 1860s, misfortune in other parts of Europe proved to be Ireland’s gain.
The arrival of phylloxera devastated vineyards in France, virtually halting production of wine and brandy on the continent. Irish whiskey filled the void, and by 1900, it was the largest-selling spirit in England and had a strong presence in the United States.
The decades that followed saw a downward spiral for Irish whiskey, thanks to an unusual confluence of events. The Irish War of Independence from 1919–1921 created an economic standoff and the loss of the English markets. During the same time frame, Prohibition brought the loss of America as an export market, just when Ireland needed it most.
It seemed like the end for Ireland’s native spirit, but there was still some fight left in the Irish.
Threatened with extinction in the early 1900s, the Irish whiskey industry banded together into a single company. Even today, the multitude of Irish whiskey labels are made at just three distilleries: New Midleton, Cooley and Old Bushmills (some include microdistillery Kilbeggan, making the total “three and a half”).
Scotland, by comparison, has nearly 100 operational distilleries.
In recent decades, thanks in large part to a strong marketing push by Jameson and revived interest among young consumers, Irish whiskey has resumed its ascent.
Distilleries of the Emerald Isle
Old Bushmills Distillery
Located in Northern Ireland, Old Bushmills is the oldest of the Irish distilleries, tracing its lineage to 1608 (although the distillery was officially registered in 1784). Now owned by Diageo, Bushmills produces complex, fruity single malts and blends, including the rich and flavorful Black Bush.
Many of the aged Irish whiskeys being released now were first created here during the country’s Celtic Tiger period of economic expansion—including Bushmills’s 21-year-old, the oldest Irish whiskey on the market—so expect an influx of excellent aged offerings.
94 Bushmills Black Bush Irish Whiskey (Ireland; Diageo North America, New York, NY). Rich and flavorful, with caramel notes reminiscent of Bourbon. Light apricot and honey tones come from maturation in oloroso Sherry casks.
abv: 40% Price: $30/1 L
The country’s youngest distillery, Cooley is located on Ireland’s east coast. A former potato-alcohol plant, Cooley opened in 1989, and until recently was the only independent, Irish-owned distillery in operation (Cooley was sold in 2012 to Beam Inc.).
Unlike many of its Irish brethren, Cooley is noted for double distillation, as the third pass has been said to strip flavor and character from the whiskey. Whether that’s true or not, Cooley produces robust, exceptional whiskeys like The Tyrconnell, Connemara and Michael Collins.
94 The Tyrconnell Single Malt Irish Whiskey Aged 10 Years Finished in Sherry Cask (Ireland; Beam Global Spirits & Wine, Deerfield, IL). One of three cask-finished bottlings, the Sherry version layers bold and lovely dried-fruit and hazelnut tones over the existing warm vanilla 10-year-old whiskey base.
abv: 46% Price: $80
This historic distillery was built in 1757 and shuttered in 1957. As a result, most smooth, blended Kilbeggan currently available for purchase was produced at the Cooley distillery, where it has been made since 1987.
The Kilbeggan distillery resumed production in 2007, and now produces up to 250,000 bottles of whiskey per year. Reportedly, all production of Kilbeggan will eventually shift to this distillery, which is open for tours.
92 Kilbeggan Irish Whiskey (Ireland; Beam Global Spirits & Wine, Deerfield, IL). Golden honey color. The aroma is a pleasing mix of caramel and faint smoke. Bold, oaky flavors, rich feel and beautiful, lingering butterscotch finish with a faint whisper of smoke and just the right amount of bite. Sip over ice.
abv: 40% Price: $20
New Midleton Distillery
Further south in County Cork, this powerhouse, owned by Pernod Ricard, produces several beloved brands, including Jameson, Powers, Midleton and Red Breast. The distillery is situated alongside the Old Midleton Distillery, which ceased operations a few years after the new distillery opened and is now a visitor center. Guests can also tour the Old Jameson Distillery in Dublin, but it’s purely a museum—no whiskey is made there.
93 Redbreast Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey Aged 12 Years (Ireland; Pernod Ricard USA, Purchase, NY). This golden-hued bartender favorite layers lightly smoky notes with jazzy tones of honey, dried fruit, cinnamon and ginger.
abv: 40% Price: $40
While woodsy, citrusy Tullamore is distilled in New Midleton under a license from William Grant & Sons, which owns the brand, that’s expected to change soon. Construction of a new Tullamore distillery should be completed in 2014. Meanwhile, visitors can look around the new Tullamore D.E.W. Visitor Centre, located in the Midlands region.
87 Tullamore Dew (Ireland; William Grant & Sons, New York, NY). Yellow-gold, with a vanilla aroma and flavor and soft, light feel. Versatile, but best with some dilution and sweetness, like with ginger ale or in a cocktail with vermouth.
abv: 40% Price: $24
Mixing It Up: Irish Whiskey Cocktails
You won’t find many whiskey-based cocktails in Ireland, but Americans are making fine use of the spirit for mixed drinks, as most selections are reasonably priced and blend well with other flavors.
One drink in particular is conspicuously missing from the group below: the notorious Irish coffee. Why? At many bars, Muldoon says, “Irish coffees are made with Bourbon.” Ouch! Try one of these spirited libations instead.
Recipe courtesy Phil Mauro, bartender at Rye, San Francisco
2 ounces Paddy Irish Whiskey (or another blended Irish whiskey)
¾ ounce fresh grapefruit juice
½ ounce honey
2 dashes Bittermens Boston Bittahs
In a mixing glass, shake all ingredients with ice, and fine strain into a coupe glass.
Recipe courtesy Sean Muldoon, founder and general manager of Dead Rabbit Grocery and Grog, New York City
1½ ounces Michael Collins Single Malt Irish Whiskey
1 ounce Dolin Red Vermouth
½ ounce green Chartreuse
½ ounce chilled water
2 dashes Fee Brothers Orange Bitters
½ teaspoon cane sugar syrup
Orange twist, to garnish
In a mixing glass, stir together all ingredients with ice, and strain into a martini glass. Garnish with an orange twist.
A classic cocktail variation adapted from Gaz Regan, author and cocktail consultant
One lime, cut in half
1½ ounces Redbreast 12-Year-Old Irish Whiskey
4–6 ounces ginger ale
Squeeze the lime juice into a Collins glass, and drop the spent lime shells into the glass. Add in one or two cubes of ice and the whiskey, and top with ginger ale.