Irish whiskey is on a roll. Sales to America have risen by 409 percent in the last decade. Admittedly, much of that increase belongs to Jameson, which has captured nearly 80 percent of the U.S. market—but there's so much more to Irish whiskey than one megabrand. This St. Patrick's Day why not take the opportunity to explore Ireland's rich whiskey heritage?
It was Irish whiskey, not Scotch, that was the world's first global spirit. In 1887, the big four distilleries, John Power, John Jameson, William Jameson and George Roe, produced 2.4 million gallons of whiskey a year. On the eve of the First World War there were more than 400 brands of Irish whiskey available in America. From this high, things started to go wrong. Prohibition in 1919, followed by independence from Britain in 1922, knocked out the two biggest markets. In the following decades, distilleries closed until in 1975 the remaining businesses amalgamated to form Irish Distillers (now owned by Pernod Ricard) and moved production to the massive New Midleton Distillery in Cork. Along with Bushmills in the north, there were now only two distilleries left in Ireland and none in Dublin, once the distillery capital of the world.
The revival began in 1987, when John Teeling opened the Cooley Distillery and revived one of the great old brands, the Tyrconnell. Teeling sold to Jim Beam in 2012 but in 2015 his children set up a new distillery in Dublin called, naturally, Teeling. In the same year, Scotch whiskey producer William Grant & Sons opened up a new distillery for the Tullamore Dew brand in County Offaly. This year, the New Midleton had three gigantic new stills delivered, Bushmills (now owned by Jose Cuervo tequila) is planning to expand and spirits giant Diageo is reviving the Roe & Co brand with a new Dublin distillery. There are now 16 distilleries in Ireland, from the gigantic to the boutique with more planned.
Most of these distilleries are so new that their spirit isn't old enough (at least three years, though normally longer) to be classed as whiskey—so they buy stock to sell. This can be confusing for the consumer. There are whiskeys with names such as "the Dubliner" but the contents of the bottle won't be from Dublin. Ian Buxton, author of 101 Whiskies to Try Before you Die, told me: "the labeling is highly suspect. There is a danger of misleading people. There are something like 100 brands but only three distilleries of any size, Cooley, New Midleton and Bushmills."
This is possible because the big three distillers produce an astonishing variety (and quantity) of whiskeys. Dave Havelin, who writes the Liquid Irish whiskey blog, told me: "Midleton has over a million casks maturing on site. They have been releasing some wonderful whiskeys the last few years, among the best Ireland has ever produced." The traditional Irish style is made from a mixture of malted and unmalted barley distilled in a large pot still, resulting in a full-bodied, creamy spirit. This style almost died out, but it has been revived by Irish Distillers with its Redbreast whiskey. Ireland also produces pure malt whiskies both double and triple-distilled, smooth, sweet grain whiskeys (made from corn, oats, rye or unmalted barley) and even smoky peated whiskeys.
Factor in all the different casks that the spirit can be aged in and distillers have a huge palette to choose from. Smaller companies are experimenting with innovative aging techniques such as using Napa Valley wine barrels. Whiskeys such as these are rare, and sold at higher alcohol levels and not chill-filtered (which removes flavor) to appeal to aficionados. Despite Buxton's reservations about labeling, he agrees that some of these releases are exceptionally good, but I cannot wait until those new distilleries start releasing their own whiskeys. Then the Irish whiskey renaissance will have really started.
Five Irish Whiskeys to Try for St. Patrick's Day
Redbreast 12-Year-Old ($45, Mission Wines and Spirits)
This brand is considered the apotheosis of the pot still style and consistently one of the country's most highly praised whiskeys. The texture is full and oily, and it has a long finish of honey and dried fruit.
Tullamore Dew Trilogy 15-Year-Old ($80, Marketview Liquor)
A beautifully balanced luxury blend with sweet fruit with notes of pepper and vanilla. A blend of pot still, malt and grain whiskeys also from the New Midleton distillery. This will appeal to lovers of Johnnie Walker Black Label.
Glendalough Limited 7 Year Old Single Malt Whiskey ($33, Cappy's Warehouse)
A single malt from Cooley distillery. Mmmm, this is rich and luxurious. There's tobacco on the nose with sweet spicy notes and then it's like one of those Portuguese custard tarts on the palate. Long finish. Great stuff!
Teeling Whiskey Company Single Grain ($40, Town Wine & Spirits)
This shows how interesting the smaller distillers can be. This is all grain whiskey from the Cooley distillery aged in Napa Cabernet Sauvignon barrels. You can really smell the cassis from the wine on the nose, the mouth is honeyed with peppery, chili notes. Long and smooth.
Writers Tears Pot Still Blend ($33, Wine Bazaar)
I couldn't resist this one because of the name. It's a classic Irish blend of pot still and single malt whiskey. There's a sweet cakey nose, lovely texture with peppery and sweet notes. One to drink whilst weeping over your royalty statement.