After nearly a century of slow global sales, the distillers of the Emerald Isle are experiencing a rebound that's propelling their whiskies into the top tier.
In the affluent 1990s, consumers went on a quest for quality. Along with fine wine, one of the beneficiaries was premium whiskey—particularly, Scotland's single malts and Kentucky's small-batch Bourbons. Irish whiskies, sadly, were perceived as cheerful but second-rate, possessed of carefree lightness and drinkability, and not much more.
But that situation is changing. In response to the fast-evolving taste preferences of consumers, the distillers of Ireland have been creating heartier, more exciting styles of whiskey that better suit contemporary palates. Many of the late-model Irish whiskeys, especially the deeply flavorful pot-still, premium-blended and single-malt offerings of the past seven years, have been enthusiastically received both by the press and the bar and restaurant trade. Consequently, sales of Irish whiskey are growing in the United States.
One of the people responsible for the recent makeover of Irish whiskey is Dave Quinn, the former head distiller at Old Bushmills Distillery in County Antrim and currently the director of research and development for Irish Distillers, which includes two of Ireland's three operating whiskey distilleries. "Irish whiskey is in a renaissance," asserts Quinn. "It's no secret that what's making Irish whiskey so attractive to consumers is the broadening range of styles that we're offering. Variety and quality will carry us into the future."
Barry Crockett, master distiller at the Midleton Distillery in County Cork, which makes the popular Jameson brand, agrees. "We're looking ahead with renewed enthusiasm and resolve," says Crockett. "The nightmarish days, I believe, are behind Ireland's whiskey industry now. The press and general public's reaction to our newly released Jameson whiskies has been more than encouraging. Clearly, to us, a significant corner's been turned in the last half decade."
To better understand why Ireland's distillers are today using terms like "nightmarish days" and "renaissance" it's important to examine how and why Irish whiskey, which a century ago was considered the world's foremost whiskey, toppled from grace while their wily archrivals from Scotland catapulted their whiskies forward to become the darling of drinkers the world over.
That Was Then... Ireland considers itself the birthplace of whiskey. The resources for creating whiskey in Ireland—grains (especially barley) and crystalline spring water—are as bountiful as the island's velvety green carpets of pasture. And Ireland's latitudinal position along the 52nd and 54th parallels in the chilly North Atlantic guarantees copious amounts of dank, raw weather—in and of itself, ample motivation for a population to concoct a warming, soothing libation like whiskey.
Although there is no proof of precisely when, where and by whom whiskey was invented, the inside betting heavily favors Ireland as whiskey's cradle. Possibly as early as the sixth century A.D., inhabitants of the Emerald Isle, including Christian monks, brewed primitive beers from barley and wheat. Folklore tells us that spirits distilled from grain have been part of the Irish landscape for as long as a thousand years. This is entirely plausible, since whiskey is nothing more than beer that's been distilled. Few historians doubt reports of English King Henry II's returning soldiers who, in the 12th century, described their enjoyment of the local libation of Ireland, a heady, high-alcohol lubricant called uisce beatha, Gaelic for "water of life." Uisce beatha later became fuisce, which eventually evolved into "whiskey."
By the end of the 18th century, say historians, it is possible that there were as many as 2,000 stills in Ireland. Most of the 19th century proved to be Irish whiskey's halcyon day, when it was deemed the international gold standard of whiskey. Then, a series of internal and global events caused Irish whiskey's bubble to burst.
Ironically, it was an Irishman who caused one of the first fractures in Ireland's whiskey industry. Aeneas Coffey advanced the technique of continuous distillation with the introduction in 1831 of the patent still (a k a, the Coffey still). In the patent distillation method, huge volumes of grain mash are distilled nonstop in tall, metal columns in a single operation. This process is far cheaper and less labor intensive than the traditional pot-still method, in which only small batches of spirit are produced in at least three production steps per batch.
Scottish distillers were quick to perceive the economic and commercial advantages of producing large volumes of light, blendable, high-volume whisky that could be married to the more intense whiskies from pot stills to meet increasing global demand for less intense whiskey. Ireland's distillers opted to remain with their customary small-batch, low- volume method. As a result, by the 1890s, blended Scotch whisky started to outsell Irish whiskey in many markets. Today, patent stills are used at both the Midleton and Cooley distilleries, along with traditional pot stills. (Note: When one refers to the whiskeys of Ireland or the United States an "e" is employed. The "e" is dropped when identifying the whiskies of Scotland or Canada.)
In the early years of the 20th century, more obstacles were hurled in the path of Irish whiskey: antialcohol sentiment, the struggle for freedom from England, World War I and Ireland's own civil war of 1919-1921. Then on January 17, 1920, the enactment of Prohibition in the United States proved to be the final insurmountable hurdle for the Irish distillers.
By the time the U.S. Congress repealed Prohibition in December 1933, the Irish whiskey industry was in shambles. Unlike their Scotch counterparts, the Irish distilleries hadn't planned properly for the eventual lifting of Prohibition by building whiskey inventories. By the end of World War II, Scotch whisky had become the preeminent tipple in the parched U.S. market and, indeed, worldwide. Ireland's bleak era of mass distillery closings lasted from before World War I into the 1970s. By the time President Kennedy visited Ireland, his ancestral homeland, the Irish whiskey trade teetered on the brink of extinction with a mere four distilleries still operating.
Today, although there are but three working distilleries in Ireland, the industry is experiencing something of a renaissance. In 1987, John Teeling and a group of friends opened the Cooley Distillery in the Cooley Mountains north of Dublin—the sole new Irish distillery to open in the 20th century. In 1988, the French firm Pernod Ricard bought Irish Distillers, which now operates the other two: Old Bushmills in Northern Ireland and Midleton in the Republic of Ireland.
Visiting Ireland's Distilleries And Whiskey Exhibits
Learning about Irish whiskey is greatly enhanced with a stop at any of Ireland's three operating distilleries. Old Bushmills is perched on the coast in County Antrim in Northern Ireland, northwest of the city of Belfast. Midleton is situated in County Cork, in the southern reaches of the Republic of Ireland. Cooley Distillery is located between Bushmills and Midleton in the Cooley Mountains of County Louth, north of Dublin on the Republic's eastern coast. The Republic of Ireland converted to the Euro earlier this year. Northern Ireland, as a part of the United Kingdom, did not—their currency is still the British pound.
Cooley Distillery Location: Dundalk, County Louth; Distillery museum is located in the village of Kilbeggan on the N4 Dublin-Galway Road. Phone: 011-353-506-32134 Distillery tours: open year round Admission fee for adults: Euro 4.20 Food: The Pantry Restaurant Gift shop Web site: www.cooleywhiskey.com Owners: Cooley Distillery, Plc. Brands: Kilbeggan, Locke's, Tyrconnell, Connemara, O'Hara's, Inishowen, Millar's, Knappogue Castle.
Jameson Heritage Centre Location: Village of Midleton, County Cork, Ireland Phone: 011-353-21-4613594 Distillery tours: open year round Admission fee for adults: Euro 5.70 Food: The Gallery Restaurant Gift shop Web site: www.irish-whiskey-trail.com Owners: Irish Distillers, a division of Pernod Ricard of France Brands: Jameson, Powers, Paddy, Midleton, Red breast, Crested Ten, Old Dublin, Green Spot, Tul lamore Dew, Dungourney.
Old Bushmills Distillery Location: village of Bushmills, County Antrim, Northern Ireland Phone: 011-44-1-28207-31521 Distillery tours: open year round Admission fee for adults: Â£3.95 Food: The Distillery Kitchen Restaurant Gift shop Web site: www.irish-whiskey-trail.com Owners: Irish Distillers, a division of Pernod Ricard of France Brands made on site: Bushmills, Black Bush
When in Dublin, make certain that you stop by The Old Jameson Distillery on Bow Street in Smithfield Village (011-353-1-807-2355). No longer an operating distillery, the original distillery was built by John Jameson in 1780. Tours begin everyday at 9:30 am and run continuously until 5:30 pm. Admission charge is Euro 6.28. The center is open 363 days a year (closed on Christmas and Good Friday). Guides conduct tours in French, German, Dutch, Italian, Spanish and English. There is also a video presentation and a restaurant.
...This Is Now In the 21st century, Ireland's whiskey industry is experiencing an era of resurgence, modernization and innovation. Ireland itself, a member of the European Union, is vibrant, modern and forward-looking.
Far from minimizing the differences between Irish and Scotch whiskies, Irish distillers are quick to point out three areas in which they are proud to go their own way: · The Irish distill their whiskeys three times while almost all of Scotland's distillers employ double distillation. (Only those malt distilleries located in the Scottish Lowlands use the triple distillation method.) Each distillation makes the spirit lighter, which is in large measure why Irish whiskeys are generally less imposing on the tongue than those from Scotland. · Scotland's whiskies are of two types: malt whisky, which is made in small copper pot stills from 100 percent malted barley; and grain whisky, which is produced in patent stills from maize or wheat. Ireland's whiskey varieties are three in number: grain whiskey, distilled in patent stills (most commonly from maize); malt whiskey, made from 100 percent malted barley in small copper pot stills; and pure pot-still whiskey, a combination of unmalted and malted barley distilled in copper pot stills. The Irish use of unmalted barley makes for less pronounced biscuit flavors than in Scotch. · Scotland's whiskies are noted for their smoky virtues, which are usually brought about by the influence of peat, either in the malted barley drying process or of its presence in or near the water source. With one exception (Cooley Distillery's Connemara Pure Pot Still Whiskey), Ireland's whiskeys are free from the influence of peat, making them seem less medicinal to the nose and taste buds than Scotch whiskies.
While the first two differences are key, too much is made of the peat issue by the Irish, in my opinion. Still, the distillers of the Emerald Isle are fulfilling consumer demand for top-quality whiskeys that exhibit depth of character as well as pedigree. In the U.S., the menu of excellent Irish whiskeys hasn't been this broad since the early 1900s. Indeed, the quality of Irish whiskey has never been better, as the range of whiskey styles and flavor profiles offers some of the finest drams made anywhere.
Top Irish Whiskeys
The following is a roundup of Ireland's most attractive whiskies that are available in the U.S. Each is rated according to the Wine Enthusiast spirits scoring system.
CLASSIC (96-100)/Highest Recommendation Bushmills 16 Year Old Three Wood Single Malt Irish Whiskey; 40% abv, $55. Supple, fruity with mesmerizing aromas of ripe apple, malt, paraffin and citrus. Simply great.
Jameson Gold Special Reserve Blended Irish Whiskey; 40% abv, $60. Toasty, mature. Enchanting notes of toffee/caramel. A decadent powerhouse. Midleton Very Rare 1998 Blended Irish Whiskey; 40% abv, $100. A harmonious marriage of strength and finesse. A top-ten-in-the-world whiskey masterpiece.
SUPERB (90-95)/Highly Recommended Black Bush Irish Whiskey; 43% abv, $28. Most elegant, seamless member of the Irish Whiskey blends category. Outstanding. 80% single malt.