Your guide to Irish whiskey, the rising star in the spirits world

Updated on February 1 2018

The rapid ascension of Irish whiskey has become a bit of a phenomenon. Prior to 2016, Hibernian distillers had a paltry claim to the global whisky market as compared to its Scottish, and even Japanese counterparts.

A simple litmus test, if conducted two years ago, would prove this. Ask a group of people to name whisky brands, and rarely would an Irish label come up in conversation — unless you were speaking to seasoned drinkers with a firm grasp on the whisky world.

irish whiskey guide
The Bushmills Distillery in the Ulster region of Northern Ireland stands as one of the oldest, standalone distilleries in the country.

Fast forward to the midpoint of 2016, and the situation is drastically different. A joint report by the International Wine and Spirits Research (IWSR) group showed a jump in Irish whiskey sales of 11.2 percent, rising from 7.8 million nine-litre cases sold that year, to 8.7 million. Reasons for the boost include an increase in export to the United States, while demand from emerging markets like Canada, Slovakia and Poland also ramped up.

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Brands like Jameson and Tullamore Dew are now on the tip of everyone’s tongues, whether it be whisky connoisseurs or amateur drinkers. Irish whiskey has also proven to be an accessible gateway for people to test the waters of whisky appreciation, due to its smoother, milder flavours when compared to Scotch. But, we’ll get more into that later.

In this guide, you’ll get a brief touchstone for what Irish whiskey is, why its upward trajectory isn’t slowing, and where to start if you’re a beginner.

A bit of history 

Irish whiskey’s ascension is remarkable because the industry was driven to the brink of extinction in the late 19th and early 20th century. Despite being the most popular spirit in the world prior to that era, a combination of social, political and religious events combined to cripple this giant. Issues like the temperance movement, Prohibition, civil, trade and world wars, as well as a reluctance on the part of whiskey producers to adapt to changing market tastes, saw 30 distilleries diminish to two by the 1970s.

A slow return occurred in the 1980s as more distilleries were reopened, established or acquired by larger conglomerates like Diageo and Pernod Ricard. Now, the industry stands at 18 distilleries, with The Spirits Business reporting that the Irish Whiskey Association has plans for another 14 to open in the coming years. Exports, as per the IWSR report, are predicted to double by 2020, with zero forecast of any decline.

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What is Irish whiskey?

The legal definition for this category is whiskies made in Ireland from grain, fermented with yeast, and matured for at least three years in wooden casks, like oak. Yes, it is also mandated as whiskey, with an emphasis on the presence of the ‘e’. Irish whiskies are available in single malt, grain, blended and single pot varietals.

irish whiskey guide
A bottle of Jameson.

It doesn’t seem all too different from Scotch, until one considers the small nuances. While Scotch uses malted barley, its neighbour prefers raw, unmalted barley usually dried in kilns. The Irish also produce whiskies not, or minimally finished with peat, eliminating the smoky, iodine quality present in some Scotches, like those from Islay. Irish whiskies are also triple distilled in pot stills, which removes the sharper esters. The result is often a smoother liquor when compared to twice-distilled Scotch whisky.

irish whiskey guide
Pot stills.

However, it’s crucial to note that the above is deduced from a longstanding pattern of whiskey craftsmanship used by Irish distillers. It is not an exhaustive, nor definitive categorisation of what all Irish whiskies must be. Some makers produce contrary expressions, like Connemara, which makes peated single malts, twice-distilled.

Where to start?

Jameson remains the leader of the Emerald Isle’s output, making it the perfect place to start thanks to its classic Irish profile. Give its no-age statement bottle, the Original, a try, before progressing up to its older siblings.

Tullamore Dew’s 12 Year Old is another prize. Matured in sherry and bourbon casks, this is a fruity blend with hints of spice — familiar flavours that make it a sure crowd-pleaser.

irish whiskey guide
An ad for Tullamore Dew whiskey likening it to true Irishness. Designed by Richmond Marketing.

Redbreast concocts some of the best single pot still whiskies Ireland has to offer, and a sample of their superbly balanced 15 year old proves exactly that. Single pot stills are unique to the country, made from one distillery with a blend of malted, as well as unmalted barley, even wheat or oat, in a pot still.

Delving into a new spirit group will always be a challenge. While the above is a useful stepping stone, it is ultimately up to the drinker to branch out and sample all there is to offer.

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