If there’s anything the Irish have done well, it’s parading their drinks of perfection around the world. No country is taken more seriously when it comes to the dram or the pint than that of Ireland and it’s for good reason; these men and women have not only been a part of history but practically created it as it applies to spirits and beer. While many consider a good Irish beer to be the hallmark of their country, in my opinion it comes second to whiskey. While I do enjoy an ice cold Guinness in the summer months, bottles of whiskey are what make up my bar. Both at home and the office I dedicated areas specifically to fine spirits from around the world and nothing is more precious to me than them. I remember once my son accidentally stumbled into the bar while playing and the look of sheer terror struck his face as he waited as the seconds ticked by to see what if anything would fall to the ground. Fortunately, the only casualty that day was a single Glencairn glass, but I’ll never forget the look on his face. It took significant time for me to reassure him that he was more important to me than any dram and if he knocked a bottle by accident, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. I share this story though as a testament to how important whiskey is to me and how even my family understands that there are few things besides them that hold such a dear place in my heart.
Many of you have read my Scotch whisky articles and wondered why Irish whiskey hasn’t been mentioned. The only answer I can give is time and today that time has come that I will now dedicate an installment to what many believe is the premium whiskey of the world.
It is my distinct honor to present to you The Irish Whiskey Guide.
What is Irish Whiskey
Many people ask me what the primary difference is between Irish whiskey and Scotch whisky. The main difference is that Irish whiskey is typically distilled three times, whereas Scotch whisky is in most cases only distilled twice. In addition to that, while many Scotch whiskies are heavily peated and known for their smoky, earthy flavors, Irish whiskey is typically unpeated and therefore quite smooth and succulent on the finish. Obviously there are exceptions to every rule and there are a number of unpeated or gentle Scotch whiskies as well as some very smoky and peaty Irish whisky. A perfect example of each would be Scotland’s unpeated and triple distilled Auchentoshan and Ireland’s Connemara which is not only peated but also only twice distilled. Both of these are fantastic drams and I strongly encourage you to try them if you haven’t already.
Just as bourbon and Scotch have requirements governed by law in order to use those coveted names, so does Irish whiskey. While it’s not nearly as difficult to meet those requirements, nevertheless they do exist. The Irish Whiskey Act of 1980 requires that all whiskey labelled as Irish Whiskey be distilled and aged exclusively on the island of Ireland. The whiskey must be distilled to an alcohol by volume level of no more than 94.8% from a yeast-fermented mash of cereal grains and must be aged for a minimum of three years in wood casks. Interestingly, there are no regulations in regard to what kind of barrel you use. Often old Bourbon or Madeira barrels are used to create the unique flavor profile of Irish Whiskey.
If the spirits comprise a blend of two or more such distillates, the product must be labeled as a “blended” Irish whiskey.
One thing that’s important to note is that Irish whiskey can be labelled as “single pot still”, “single malt”, “single grain”, and “blended”, however, unlike Scotch whisky, Ireland does not govern rules of production for single malt or single grain and so each distillery is left to define those labels themselves.
The History of the Dram
Long ago, Irish whiskey was actually far more popular than Scotch and in fact, was the best selling spirit in the world at one time. Unfortunately, the industry suffered a significant decline in the 19th century as distilleries spread across Scotland like a virus at a kissing booth. Today while Scotland maintains over 100 distilleries, all of Ireland has but nine and unfortunately only four of them have been open long enough to actually sell their aged whiskey. Despite this, Irish whiskey is still the fastest growing spirit worldwide every single year since 1990. There’s a reason for that and it’s simply because it’s bloody fantastic.
Despite what many believe, Scotch was not the first distilled whisky in Europe. As early as the 12th century, Ireland began to distill whiskey due to Irish monks that had been taught the process on their journeys through the Mediterranean sometime in 1000AD. Despite opening in 1784, the Old Bushmills Distillery has laid claim to being the oldest distillery in the world receiving heritage to a license from King James I in 1608.
At the dawn of the 20th century Irish whiskey had the foothold across America. It was only due to the Prohibition of the 1920s that caused the import of Irish whiskey to suffer, leading to the close of many of Irelands distilleries. Then the Irish War of Independence followed suit and with Britian cutting off their exportation capabilities, the world of Irish whiskey dried up and distilleries closed as profits ceased to exist. By the mid 1960s there were only a small handful of distilleries left in Ireland and in a valiant effort to stay afloat, they merged to form what famously became known as The Irish Distillers. Less then ten years later, all but two were dissolved and Bushmills and New Midleton were left to represent a country that was once at the top of the worlds market. Then in 1988 a French company by the name of Pernod Ricard took over the Irish Distillers and a resurgence was born. Capitalizing on a brand they called Jameson, worldwide marketing efforts were increased and within two years Irish whiskey was set to become the world’s fastest growing spirit for decades to come. In the 1900s Ireland was producing 12 million cases of whisky. By the 1970s that number had dropped to under 500,000. In 2013 Ireland sold 6.5 million cases of whiskey and it’s projected that by 2018 that number will rise back to match their record of 12 million once again.
Ireland’s Distilleries and Whiskies
Today there are a total of nine distilleries spread throughout the island. Unfortunately, for the majority of them, their whiskies haven’t come to mature quite long enough for them to be sold.
Today the working distilleries consist of the Cooley Distillery which was converted from a potato alcohol plant in 1987 and has been owned by Beam since 2011. Cooley produces Connemara, Michael Collins, Tyrconnell and a range of other less known whiskies. The New Midleton Distillery which has been around since 1975 and owned by the aforemented Pernod Ricard group since 1988 produces the well known Jamesons brand, as well as Powers, Paddy, Midleton, Redbreast, Green Spot and a few other lesser knowns. Then of course is the famous Old Bushmills Distillery which has been owned by Diageo since 2005. They of course produced all Bushmills branded whiskey, as well as Black Bush and 1608.
In addition to the working distilleries, Ireland has a few others that are currently finishing up or just starting production. There is West Cork Distillery which was opened back in 2008 and of course the Killbeggan Distillery which was reestablished in 2007 after ceasing operations in 1953. There is also the Alltech Craft Distillery and the Dingle Distillery; both of which were established in 2012. The year 2013 saw the addition of the Echlinville Distillery which will make a product call Dunvilles. The Echlinville is actually the first Northern Irish distillery to be bestowed with a license in almost 125 years. Finally, 2014 will see the opening of the Tullamore Dew Distillery which is today still under construction. In addition to these, there are a number of distilleries in the works and companies around the world are now looking to Ireland as their opportunity to join this thriving market.
How Irish Whiskey is Made
Most Whiskeys are made in a similar fashion and since we discussed the steps in our other Whiskey guides already, we won’t repeat them here. Instead, Enjoy this short 3 minute video that provides an excellent insight into how Irish Whiskey is made.
Difference Between Scotch & Irish Whiskey
Many people claim Irish whiskey is more drinkable than scotch in the sense that it is less aggressive and smokey. As such, it often serves as a good entry to the world of whiskey. Here you can learn a bit more about the differences between Scotch & Irish Whiskey.
How to Drink Irish Whiskey
Because it is smoother than Scotch, even novices can drink it neat, with a bit of water or on the rocks. At the end of the day, it all depends on your taste buds, and you can experiment in the same way you do with Scotch until you find something you really enjoy. Of course, can also use it in cocktails – here are just a few inspirations:
1 oz Irish whiskey (I like Redbreast for this drink)
1 oz Cinnamon Schnapps
2 dashes Angostura bitters
3 oz organic apple cider
In a rock glass add the first three ingredients.
Pour apple cider over the ice. Stir briefly to blend. Garnish with a cinnamon stick. Serve.
Irish Car Bomb
1 pint Guinness
1/2 shot Irish cream liqueur
1/2 shot Irish whiskey (Jamesons works well here)
Pour the Irish cream liqueur into a shot glass followed by the whiskey. In a separate pint glass, pour the Guinness 3/4 of the way full and let settle.
Drop the shot glass into the Guinness and chug.
This isn’t the most gentlemanly drink in the world, but it provides for some good fun on a guys night out.
4 ounces of a dark strong coffee
1 ounce Irish whiskey
2 tsp brown sugar
1 ounce lightly whipped double cream
Using an Irish coffee glass or standard mug, pour the sugar then coffee in and stir until dissolved.
Add the Irish whiskey and stir again.
Float the cream on top by pouring it over the back of a spoon. Garnish with a cinnamon stick. Don’t stir again, instead drink the coffee through the cream.
The Zesty Irish
1 oz Drambuie
1 1/2 oz Irish Whiskey
1/2 oz triple sec
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Lemon twist for garnish
Pour the alcohol and lemon juice into a cocktail shaker filled with ice.
Shake until the tin is frosted, strain into a rocks glass filled with ice.
Add a splash of ginger ale and garnish with a lemon twist.
My Favorite Drams
Redbreast 12 Year – A great everyday Scotch that can be mixed for guests or enjoyed straight up.
Bushmills 21 Year – This is one of the greats. Take my word for it.
Tyrconnel Single Malt – Another excellent daily dram.
Midleton Very Rare Blend – When it comes to a blended whisky this is probably in my top five.
Green Spot – Tough to find but worth the hunt. I promise you won’t be disappointed.
Jameson 18 Year – I’ve never been a huge fan of Jameson’s but since it’s one of the most popular brands of whiskey, if you’re going to drink it try the 18 year as it’s the pinnacle of the brand in my opinion.
Knappogue Castle 1951 – I’ve only been fortunate enough to try this once. It’s extremely rare and very expensive. If you happen to set your sights on a bottle it’s worth every penny you’ll spend.
Connemara Cask Strength – One of my favorite Irish whiskies but probably for the wrong reason. The thing I really enjoy about the Connemara is that it’s peaked and resembles a Scotch. It’s kind of my way of supporting Ireland when I’m in the mood for something with some smoke.
While we probably could have included more, it would really be quite redundant of some of our other installments in the spirits column. When it comes to tasting Irish whiskey, it’s really no different than Scotch and I tend to drink them the same way. The production methods can differ but not so drastically that it’s worth mentioning. Also, because many distilleries in Ireland have their own unique production processes, listing them would be futile as they’re always prone to change. One thing that should be mentioned is that many people notice a distinct difference between Scotch and Irish whiskey because of the quality of the water in Ireland. There is something special and unique about Irish whiskey and if you’ve never tried it before I would urge you to consider it for your next dram. Next St. Patrick’s Day, skip the green beer and treat yourself to a nice dram of Irish Whiskey instead – I am sure you’ll enjoy it!