Don't dismiss Irish whiskey as a drink of the past—it's making a comeback you won't want to ignore.
In late January, a Japanese whiskey called the Yamazaki Single Malt Whisky sold for $300,000 at Sotheby’s auction house in Hong Kong, breaking the record for the most expensive bottle of whiskey ever sold. It was previously held by another Japanese whiskey, the Karuizawa 1960. Right now, Japanese whiskey is one of the most sought-after spirits in the world. But it is in Ireland—the supposed birthplace of the liquor, if you ask any Irish person with even a drop of national pride—where a true revival of whiskey is taking place.
By the mid-twentieth century, Irish whiskey had fallen out of favor in the global market place, replaced in large part, by bourbon, its American cousin. In 1966, two rival companies, Jameson and John Power & Sons, joined forces to preserve the traditional methods of distilling Irish whiskey and survive the economic crisis. By then, most whiskey distilleries in Dublin had shuttered—Jameson was one of the last hold-outs. In 1971, it, too, closed its doors, moving operations to Midleton, in County Cork. The last whiskey distillery in Dublin closed in 1976.
Now, Irish whiskey’s biggest advocates—bartenders, distillers, even tour guides—have made it their mission to educate the public about Irish whiskey’s legacy, and to revive it’s reputation in the public eye as some of the most complex, best tasting whiskey you can buy today. Here, three experts in the field explain why Irish whiskey is more relevant in the world of spirits than ever before.
The distilling and aging process
Teeling Whiskey Distillery is the first of it’s kind to open in Dublin in more than 40 years, though the Teeling family has been in the whiskey business since the late 1700s. Its opening harkens back to a time when Dublin was a whiskey distilling capital.
Eve is the head tour guide at Teeling. She tells visitors an apocryphal story you’ll probably here more than once if you visit Dublin: Irish monks invented whiskey after picking up the art of distillation from perfume makers the Mediterranean. Legend aside, Eve told me that the process by which Irish whiskey is distilled in the modern era results in its distinctive flavor.
“In Ireland, whiskey is triple distilled,” she explained. “It’s lighter, more mellow, and has a higher alcohol content, but it’s less bitter from exposure to the copper pots.”
Ireland’s damp, rainy, foggy, chilly, but generally consistent, climate also plays a role how Irish whiskey tastes. As Eve puts it, “Mild climate, mild whiskey.” On the other hand, in Kentucky, the weather is much hotter, causing bourbon barrels to contract and expand more frequently, leading to more evaporation, and a quicker aging process. Irish whiskey can stay in the barrel longer—in fact, in order to legally be called Irish whiskey it must be aged at least three years. A typical Irish whiskey is aged at least six years.
Eve’s official recommendation for how to enjoy Irish whiskey is simple: “Never let anyone tell you how to drink your whiskey. Drink it however you like.” If pressed, however, Eve admits that she usually doesn’t recommend adding ice to your glass. Ice numbs the palette, and dilutes the spirit over time. She does, however, suggest adding a couple drops of water to your glass.
The flavor profile
Stephen Tighe, the newly appointed bar manager at Lemuel’s in the Conrad Dublin, agrees with Eve’s assessment that what makes Irish whiskey so special is its drinkability. He calls Irish whiskey, pointing to Jameson in particular, a “gateway,” from which you can expand your whiskey palate. From there, he says, “The world is your oyster.”
Tighe believes Irish whiskey is especially appealing because it’s “accessible.” There’s never the peat or the smoke in it that you’ll find in Scotch. “You might be expecting it to be harsh,” Tighe explains, but instead your palate encounters a buffet of flavors. Here’s a just of sample of how he describes the tastes that accompany a good Irish whiskey: Spicy, peppery, Christmas spice, fudge, tobacco, fresh fruit, honey and oak.
Tighe’s Irish whiskey of choice is Green Spot Single Pot Still. He also argues that Powers John’s Lane 12-year-old Single Pot Still is the best Irish whiskey to be produced in the past ten years. I can personally attest to Green Spot’s smoothness—it leaves behind no after burn, making it the perfect whiskey to sip neat.
Tighe has one more reason to drink Irish whiskey if you can, and it has nothing to do with taste.
“Drink Irish whiskey to support the Irish economy.”
A national tradition
Justine Murphy is a guide at Dublin Whiskey Tours and leads private tastings with Whiskey Experts Ltd. During a whiskey tasting at the Palace Bar (where I sampled both Green Spot and Teeling Single Grain), Murphy let her national pride—which is behind so many arguments in favor of Irish whiskey—shine through. She cited the “traditional methods,” used by Irish distillers as one their greatest advantages.
“In Ireland, [we use] one single distillery. In some places, like Scotland, whiskies are blended together from lots of different distilleries. One-site production allows us to be on top of the quality,” she explained. “Every single component [of the process] is on site.”
Irish distillers, Murphy contends, have an exceptional “concentration to detail.” Their reliance on some of the oldest recipes in the world is not cause to dismiss Irish whiskey as irrelevant. The discerning drinker, instead, treats these old fashioned methods as one of Irish whiskey's greatest draws.