With St. Patrick's Day coming, I thought this would be a great time to look at a few good value brands of Irish whiskey. These bottles have character but won't set you back more than $25.
Irish whiskey is one of the fastest-growing liquor categories in the United States right now, especially among younger people who are looking to develop a taste for whiskies. It's easy to see why: Irish whiskey is smooth and sweet, but still tastes like a rich brown spirit. It's a good transitional drink for people who are beginning to explore the world beyond vodka-sodas and tequila shots.
And Irish whiskey is currently at a turning point. New distilleries are opening, and existing distilleries are creating new products and exporting to our shores classics (such as Green Spot) that have previously never been available here.
When I wrote about this category two years ago, there were four distilleries in operation. Now, ten distilleries are either operating or under construction, but two of the ten aren't open yet, and three have whiskey stocks still in-barrel, not sufficiently aged for sale.
That leaves the major players as the best sources of Irish whiskey, either value or premium. If this list looks skewed toward the majors, that's just the way it has to be right now. Check back in a few years, and things might change.
These whiskeys are blends; you can buy unblended Irish whiskeys (Redbreast is a great example), but they're too expensive for a piece on what to buy on a tight budget. Expect prices on single-malt and pot-still Irish whiskeys to run $35 and up.
Note: I'm sticking with the convention that American and Irish drams generally are spelled whiskey and Canadian and Scottish ones are whisky, even though I think using different words for the same family of products is unnecessary and cumbersome.
Also Note: Liquor.com did a great roundup recently of several common myths about Irish whiskey, including the lingering misconception that Jameson is Catholic and Bushmills is Protestant. I'm not re-treading that ground, so if you're interested, hop over to Liquor.com.
Jameson (80 proof; $20)
Still perhaps the first Irish whiskey that most people try. It's clean, floral, mildly sweet, and easy to sip, with just a touch of woody flavors from the barrel. Jameson remains a classic example of the style. It's a simple whiskey that's easy to enjoy.
Bushmills (80 proof; $21)
Bushmills is just a touch more complex than Jameson, while also being just a hint smoother. It tastes of grain and honey, flowers and a hint of barley. Woody flavors are a little more subtle here than in the Jameson. If you have a few more bucks to spend, the Bushmills Black Bush is a nice splurge, with a little more malted barley in the blend, and a little less grain whiskey. If not, the original Bushmills won't steer you wrong, though.
2 Gingers (80 proof; $19)
2 Gingers was introduced in Minnesota a couple of years ago, and is now available nationwide. The brand seems to be aiming for the entry-level market dominated by Jameson and Bushmills. I don't like it quite as well as either of the more classic Irishes, but for the price it's a good buy.
Clontarf 1014 (80 proof; $19)
Named for a battle that went down a millennium ago, Clontarf 1014 is another entry-level Irish whiskey, designed to be smooth, drinkable, and approachable. Unlike some of the other whiskeys in this price range, Clontarf is filtered through charcoal, to smooth out the rough edges. Clontarf smells mildly of oak and malt, and it tastes somewhat toffee-like and malty.
Powers Gold Label (80 proof; $23)
Powers is another easy drinker, with a bit more chocolate and vanilla notes than the other whiskeys on this list, and a slightly heavier mouthfeel. I find Powers to be a bit more one-note than the other whiskeys on this list, though it's still good for the price. However, I know people who vastly prefer it to Bushmills or Jameson, so your opinion might vary.
Tullamore Dew (80 proof; $24)
Tullamore Dew starts with an aroma of biscuit and fruit. As you sip, you taste toffee, caramel, a bit of citrus, and a hint of barrel wood. Of all these, I think Tullamore might be my favorite to sip just with a little ice, as opposed to mixing with other ingredients.
Of course, if you can spend a little more, there are some excellent mid-level and premium Irish whiskeys on the market now. Redbreast, a pure pot-still whiskey, is always rich and delicious. Green Spot deserves its reputation. Connemara is a peated single-malt, delicious in a Scotchy sort of way, but keeping the easy drinkability you associate with Irish whiskey. Greenore is a lovely, light grain whiskey that's very nice to sip on.
What are your favorite Irish whiskeys, budget or otherwise?