The Serious Eats Guide to Irish Whiskey


Last year, the Distilled Spirits Council announced that Irish whiskey is the fastest growing sales category in the United States. It's popular in part because of its easy drinkability; Irish whiskey is sweet and smooth, but still has the complexity of a brown spirit. I find it's a good gateway for people who want to beyond their vodka cocktails. Irish whiskey also presents a good bargain in the market, so it's more within reach of younger consumers than are most Scotches.

Irish whiskey is on a tear these days, but it wasn't always thus. This week, just in time for a certain mid-March holiday, I'll look at the definition and history of Irish whiskey, discuss what distinguishes it from its Scottish cousin, and talk about the major distillers and brands. Slàinte!

What Is Irish Whiskey?

The rules regulating Irish whiskey are generally looser than those for Scotch (which we looked at previously) or bourbon (which we'll be examining soon). These are a little technical, but I'll break them down into lay terms.

For spirits to be called Irish whiskey, they must conform to these regulations:

The spirits shall have been distilled in the State or in Northern Ireland from a mash of cereals which has been—

  • saccharified by the diastase of malt contained therein, with or without other natural diastases,
  • fermented by the action of yeast, and
  • distilled at an alcoholic strength of less than 94.8% by volume in such a way that the distillate has an aroma and flavour derived from the materials used

The spirits shall have been matured in wooden casks—

  • in warehouse in the State for a period of not less than three years, or
  • in warehouse in Northern Ireland for such a period, or
  • in warehouse in the State and in Northern Ireland for periods the aggregate of which is not less than three years.

Okay, let's unpack this. First, Irish whiskey, logically, must be produced and aged in either Ireland or Northern Ireland. Then, saccharification is the process of breaking starches down into sugars. Next, a diastase is an enzyme that does the work of breaking down starches. So what that first bullet point means is that a cereal's starches are broken down by enzymes contained in the malt, either with or without other added enzymes.

This definition distinguishes Irish whiskey from single malt Scotch, which cannot contain added enzymes.

Old Bushmill's Distillery, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland. Wikimedia Commons

Irish Whiskey Production

The process of making Irish whiskey is similar to that of Scotch, except that where Scotch starts with entirely malted barley, Irish whiskey starts with a mix of malted and unmalted barley.

Aside from that, the process is nearly identical: The barley is dried in a kiln, in most cases without the use of peat smoke (although there is one notable exception I'll discuss later). It's then ground and steeped in water to ferment. The fermented liquid is then distilled (triply so, in the case of most Irish whiskey) and aged in oak barrels for at least three years. Those barrels may be new, or they may have previously aged fortified wine, bourbon, or rum.

Depending on the brand, some Irish whiskeys are then blended with grain whiskey prior to bottling.

Common Misconceptions About Irish Whiskey

I hear two major misconceptions commonly bandied about, by bartenders, spirits retailers, and consumers alike. Let's lay these to rest.

  1. Misconception: Irish whiskey is smoother than Scotch because it's triple distilled. This one is only partly true. Some Irish whiskies are triple distilled. But not all of them, as we'll see later. And some Scotches are triple distilled. Just don't let anyone try to tell you that all Irish whiskey is triple distilled, and all Scotch is double distilled; both are misconceptions.
  2. Misconception: Irish whiskey is smoother than Scotch because Scotch is made with smoky peat, whereas Irish whiskey is unpeated. This is a misconception about both Scotch and Irish, in fact. Not every Scotch whisky is peated, as we saw a few weeks ago. More germane to this discussion, though, not every Irish whiskey is unpeated. We'll look a little later at a delicious peated Irish whiskey.
  3. The Irish invented whiskey, and those danged Scots stole it. Unclear. Read on.

History of Irish Whiskey

The production of whiskey in Ireland dates back centuries. Historical records are unclear, but most whiskey writers seem to accept that Irish missionary monks picked up the technique of distillation in the Middle East about 800-1000 years ago and brought it home to their island. What's unclear is whether they then spread that technology to Scotland, or whether the Scots picked it up from mainland Europe, via Scandanavia and Russia.

The question of who invented whisk(e)y may never be solved, but one thing that's clear is that in 1608 the Bushmills distillery, in what is now Northern Ireland, had a license from the British Crown to distill whiskey. Bushmills says that makes its distillery the world's oldest whiskey distillery, and I can't see any reason to dispute that claim.

At the dawn of the 20th century, the Irish whiskey industry was thriving. By 1900, Irish whiskey was the leading spirit in Great Britain. By 1919, Jameson was one of the top-selling whiskey brands in the United States. Irish whiskey enjoyed the support of London exporters, who carried it worldwide, providing the industry with a thriving global market.

Today, however, only four distilleries remain, and Irish whiskey is vastly overpowered in the global marketplace by Scotch and, to a lesser extent, bourbon. What happened to this proud tradition?

Kilbeggan Distillery. Wikimedia Commons

Revolution in the Éire

The first major blow to the Irish whiskey industry started in 1916, during the Easter Rising. Irish republicans rebelled in Dublin against the British crown, seeking the creation of an independent Irish republic. The Easter Rising was one of a series of uprisings dating back to 1534, but in this case, it led first to Ireland's declaration of independence from the Crown in January 1919, and then to the Irish War of Independence, which lasted from 1919 to 1921. As a punitive measure against the Irish, England closed its markets to Irish exports, including whiskey, thus drying up a major pipeline for Irish whiskey.

Not to worry, said Irish distillers. We still have the Americans, who are always a very lucrative market for us.

The Great Experiment

On January 21, 1919, the revolutionary parliament of the Irish Republic declared its independence from the British Crown, sealing the fate of Irish whiskey in the lucrative British export market.

Just five days earlier, on January 16, the United States dealt its own death blow to Irish distilling, ratifying the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution. It would take a year for Prohibition to finally take effect, but when it did, whiskey sales plummeted. Scotch still enjoyed the protection of London merchants, who were able to ship it to Canada, where it slipped easily through the U.S. border, but Irish whiskey lacked that advantage, thanks to trade embargoes. When Prohibition was finally repealed in 1933, the effects on the Irish whiskey industry were permanent.

Rocky Road to Recovery

Cooley Distillery in the Cooley Mountains. Wikimedia Commons

Irish distilleries have spend the last 100 years playing catch up. Four distilleries operate today, making every Irish whiskey you'll find in the market. Only one of these four—Bushmills, in Northern Ireland—was operating in the 19th century. The other three are relatively new.

In 1966, the three distilleries remaining in the Republic of Ireland—John Jameson, John Power, and Cork—consolidated to form the Irish Distillers Group, setting up operation in a new facility in Midleton, alongside Cork's old distillery.

In 1987, the Cooley Distillery opened, on the Cooley peninsula in County Louth.

Finally, the historic Kilbeggan Distillery reopened in 2007. Whiskey produced there will be available in 2014; current stocks of Kilbeggan were produced at the Cooley Distillery.

Today's Distilleries, and the Whiskeys They Produce

Three of the four distilleries in Ireland. Wikimedia Commons

Old Bushmills Distillery: We start in the North, with the oldest distillery on the island of Ireland. Old Bushmills is owned by the spirits conglomerate Diageo. This plant is open for tours. Old Bushmills distills the following brands:

  • Bushmills Original—an entry-level blended whiskey with no age statement
  • Bushmills Black Bush—an upscale blend, with a higher percentage of malt whiskey (that is, less grain alcohol) than the Original. The malt is aged in sherry casks.
  • Bushmills single malts—available in several age declarations: 10, 16, and 21 years. The 10 year is aged in bourbon casks; the 16 and 21 are aged in a combination of bourbon and sherry casks.

New Midleton Distillery: Owned by Pernod-Ricard, and situated alongside the Old Midleton Distillery, which ceased operation a few years after the new distillery opened. The old distillery has been extensively renovated and turned into a visitor's center. New Midleton distills the following brands:

  • Jameson—The powerhouse in the Midleton portfolio. When most people think of Irish whiskey, Jameson is the first brand that comes to mind. The main Jameson expression—Jameson Original—is triple distilled and a blend of pot-stilled malt and column-stilled grain. Jameson also produces several "reserve" whiskeys, upscale products that are aged longer than Jameson Original, and blended from whiskeys aged in virgin oak barrels and bourbon or sherry casks.
  • Powers—A blend of pot-still and grain whiskey. Sold as Powers Gold and Powers 12 Year Old Reserve.
  • Redbreast—My personal favorite Irish whiskey, Redbreast is a single pot still whiskey, triple distilled from a mix of malted and unmalted barley. The flavor is rich, deep, and complex. Available mainly in a 12-year-old release, but lately, a 15-year-old has been sporadically available as well.
  • Tullamore Dew—Distilled by New Midleton under a license from William Grant & Sons, which owns the brand. Grant is reportedly considering the possibility of opening a new distillery to produce Tullamore Dew on its own. That would be a welcome sign of Irish whiskey's growth as a product category, so cross your fingers and toes. Tullamore Dew is available in several expressions: the Original is a blended whiskey; Black 43 is also blended, but the pot still component is aged in sherry casks; Single Malt is a 10-year-old single malt; and finally, TD has several Reserve bottlings at various ages.
  • Green Spot—Another single pot still whiskey, produced for the Dublin wine merchant Mitchell and Son. It's a blend of 8 year old pot stilled whiskeys, about a quarter of which have aged in sherry casks. Green Spot is unavailable in the United States, but it merits mention here because it's consistently very highly rated by whiskey writers, so if you're ever in Ireland, try to sneak back a bottle for me, will ya?

Cooley Distillery: Formerly the only independent, Irish-owned distillery in Ireland, Cooley was purchased in 2011 by Beam, Inc. Cooley's products are all double-distilled, not triple-distilled; Cooley's management believes the third distillation strips some of the flavor and character from the product. The distillery is currently closed to visitors during renovations. Cooley produces four very distinct brands:

  • Kilbeggan—Produced at Cooley since its inception in 1987, some production has moved to the historic Kilbeggan Distillery (more on that in a moment). Kilbeggan is a smooth, blended whiskey. All stocks of Kilbeggan, whether distilled in Cooley or Kilbeggan, are aged at the Kilbeggan Distillery.
  • Greenore—Now here's something different, an 8-year-old single-grain whiskey, in this case, corn. I've had this product, and if you're expecting bourbon, you're wrong. Greenore is smooth, soft, and mildly sweet. If you love Jameson, you might want to try Greenore.
  • Tyrconnell—A single-malt Irish whiskey, made entirely of malted barley. Tastes fruity and moderately spicy, with a strong malt character.
  • Connemara—Finally, the whiskey that gives the lie to the misconception that no Irish whiskeys are peated. Connemara is a peated, pot stilled, single malt Irish whiskey, delicious and smoky.

Kilbeggan Distillery: Produces up to 250,000 bottles of whiskey a year. Reportedly, all production of Kilbeggan whiskey will eventually shift to this distillery. Kilbeggan is also associated with the Locke brand, which produces both a blended product and a single malt, but Locke is unavailable in the United States. Kilbeggan is open for tours.

So, tell us. What's your favorite Irish whiskey?