Did you know that Irish whiskey almost went extinct in the 1970s? In 1975, there were only two Irish whiskey distillers left in operation. Thankfully, the Irish whiskey renaissance has created dozens of new independent distilleries. Keep reading to discover our favorite Irish whiskey brands and explore the fascinating history of this beloved spirit.
With St. Patrick’s Day on the horizon, it’s time to start thinking about how you’re going to spend everyone’s favorite Irish holiday. Aside from wearing all green, dining on corned beef and potatoes or driving all of the snakes from Ireland, how should you celebrate on March 17?
St. Paddy’s Day is a holiday for enjoying Irish tradition and the heritage shared by a large percentage of Americans. And one of the things the Irish undoubtedly do well is whiskey. The best Irish whiskey has a warming effect on the body and mind, and it has a slightly spicy flavor with a velvety texture.
We’re not the only ones thinking whiskey over beer this year. According to Nielsen, Irish whiskey consumption is on the rise in the United States, where it’s the #1 fastest growing type of whiskey in bars and restaurants. And in a consumer survey, Nielsen found that one in three American adults goes to a bar on St. Patrick’s Day, which is why more Irish whiskey is sold in March than any other month. In fact, Americans bought $190 million of Irish whiskey in March 2018 alone. But when it comes to picking up a bottle to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, which Irish whiskey brand should you pick?
Jameson is the most popular Irish whiskey in the world by far, with 70% of the global market. It’s also the best-selling Irish whiskey in the United States, where it competes with Tennessee whiskey, Kentucky bourbon and Canadian whiskey.
If you’re committed to drinking Irish whiskey for the taste or because it’s a fun way to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, you’ll need to figure out which bottle is the best for you. This really isn’t a chore as even the budget-friendly options have plenty of ticks in the positive column.
Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about Irish Whiskey, from the production of this spirit to the best brands in the world.
How Is Irish Whiskey Produced?
Like most specialty alcohols, the production of Irish whiskey is defined by law. Irish whiskey is any whiskey produced on the isle of Ireland that’s distilled and aged for three years or more.
However, unlike many other regional liquors, like American bourbon, there’s a lot of wiggle room within that legal definition. The liquor can be made from pretty much any mass of grains, which may or may not include whole grains, and can be distilled or blended in a variety of ways.
In total, there are four different types of Irish whiskey, and each one is produced slightly differently, so let’s break them down.
Single Malt Whiskeys
Sometimes referred to as malt whiskeys, single malt whiskeys are made from 100% malted barley at a single distillery, per the Whiskey Advocate. This type of whiskey is commonly triple distilled, although some brands still double distill single malts. After distillation, the whiskey gets its flavor by being aged in barrels. Many single malt whiskeys tend to be peaty in profile.
Bushmills, Connemara and Teeling all produce single malt Irish whiskeys.
Single Grain Whiskeys
Single grain whiskeys, or simply grain whiskeys, are created in a single distillery in continuous column stills but made from a mixture of grains. These grains might include malted barley (up to 30%), corn, wheat or unmalted barley. The result is a slightly sweeter whiskey that tends to blend well.
Cooley, Teeling and Greenore make versions of single grain whiskey.
Single Pot Still Whiskeys
Following on with the same theme, single pot still whiskeys are made in a single distillery in a pot still, but they feature a mixture of grains. These include at least 30% malted barley, at least 30% unmalted barley as well as other cereals. The result is a spice-filled whiskey that can be slightly oily on the pallet.
Currently, the only single pot still whiskeys on the market are produced in Ireland. Redbreast, Powers and New Midleton all produce this type of whiskey.
The final category is possibly the most creative. Blended Irish whiskeys can be a combination of any of the three above whiskey types from any number of Irish distilleries. The most common combination is grain whiskey and malt whiskey, but malt and pot still as well as grain and pot still combinations are gaining popularity.
Jameson, Tullamore, Bushmills and several other smaller brands produce blended whiskey.
The History of Irish Whiskey
If you’re looking for a great bottle of Irish whiskey, you might want to learn more about this popular spirit first. What makes Irish whiskey so special?
1. Irish Whiskey is Produced Solely in Ireland
We mentioned this above, but it’s worth reiterating that Irish whiskey can only be produced on the island of Ireland. This means that it can technically be a product of the Republic of Ireland or the country of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom.
In addition to its place of origin, Irish whiskey must also be distilled and wood-aged for three or more years. It can be no higher than 94.8% ABV.
2. Irish Whiskey Has a Long History
Whiskeys from around the world can trace their heritage to Ireland. The process of distilling the spirit may have been transferred from Ireland to Scotland thanks to traveling monks. According to Master of Malt, these monks were producing something called uisce beatha, which evolved into usquebaugh and then, finally, whisky (without the e).
For most of the hundreds of years that both Ireland and Scotland have been producing whiskey, the Irish product was considered superior. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, Irish whiskey was exported around the world, and people quickly developed a taste for the warm flavors produced using the traditional pot still distillation. By 1800, there were more than 1,000 distilleries in Ireland, and Jameson and Power had already established their names as top producers. During this time, the extra ‘e’ was added to whiskey from Ireland in order to set the liquor apart from competitors. By the end of the 19th century, Irish distillers accounted for 70% of the world whiskey market, according to Forbes.
However, the industry suffered in the years ahead. In the 20th century, producers faced religious abstinence campaigns in Ireland and abroad, two world wars, the Easter Rising, the Irish Civil War, the Great Depression and trade wars between Ireland and the United Kingdom.
Meanwhile, Scotch whiskey boomed thanks to the development of new grain distillation methods, the success of whiskey blends and the growing taste for the spirit abroad. By 1975, there were just two Irish whiskey distillers left.
At this time, Jameson Blended Irish Whiskey became the name with which all Irish whiskey was associated. The triple-distilled blend is made from both pot still and grain whiskeys, giving it a unique taste that was easy to market abroad. This, combined with selective distilling and entrepreneurs who were eager to promote Irish whiskey, led to an Irish whiskey renaissance during the 1990s and 2000s. During these decades, the Irish whiskey market grew by 15 to 20% per year.
Still, Irish whiskey has a long way to go. Irish producers sell a total of 6 million cases a year, whereas Scottish producers sell upwards of 95 million cases a year. But with so many styles and new distilleries popping up all the time, the future is bright for Irish whiskey.
3. There Will Be Many New Brands Soon
There are three big names in Irish whiskey – Jameson (produced at the Midleton distillery), Bushmills and Teeling (produced at the Cooley distillery). Beyond these three, 20 of the 25 licensed distilleries currently operating in Ireland opened their doors after 2011. The other two distilleries started producing whiskey in 2003 and 2007.
Because many of the Irish whiskey distilleries are so young, finding independently produced, aged Irish whiskey is really difficult. Many distilleries are still aging their first barrels and haven’t even made it to market yet.
In addition to the 25 licensed distilleries currently operating in Ireland, a further 24 distilleries plan to begin operation in the next few years. Irish whiskey is making a major comeback, and we’re likely to see plenty of new Irish whiskey brands hit liquor store shelves soon.
4. How to Drink Irish Whiskey
The most traditional way to drink Irish whiskey is neat. Because most producers triple distill, drinking Irish whiskey is a smooth, clean experience.
To get the most taste out of neat whiskey, first smell the whiskey in your glass two to three times with your mouth open. Then, take a sip and swirl the liquid in your mouth for a few seconds before swallowing.
If you don’t particularly enjoy the taste, try cutting the liquor with water. This will dilute the alcohol content and open up a new flavor profile. Over time, you’ll likely need less and less water, letting you fully appreciate the warming flavors of the best Irish whiskey.
Finally, Irish whiskeys can also be enjoyed in cocktails. Use an Irish whiskey blend for cocktails with complex flavor profiles, like whiskey sours, and use single malt or single pot still whiskeys for bold cocktails, like Manhattans.
5. Single Malt is More Expensive Than a Blend
Although rules are meant to be broken, single malt, single pot still and single grain whiskeys all tend to be more expensive than blends. That’s because blends are far less intensive to produce. However, you can find expensive blends if the flavor profile or included whiskeys are particularly sought after.
In addition, the older the whiskey is, the more expensive it will generally be. Whiskey is a spirit that tends to get better with age. However, some whiskeys don’t age well, so it’s always best to check with websites like Whiskey Advocate or The Spirits Business before investing in a particularly old bottle.
What’s the Difference Between Irish Whiskey and Scotch Whisky?
Besides the difference in spelling, there’s a lot of overlap between Irish whiskey and Scotch whisky.
In general, Irish whiskey tends to be triple distilled while Scotch whisky is double distilled, but that’s not a hard and fast rule. You’ll certainly find producers practicing triple distillation in Scotland and others practicing double distillation in Ireland.
Traditionally, Irish whiskey was produced exclusively in pot stills. This gave it a very unique, spicy taste. Yet, the process led to the decline of Irish whiskey when Scotch whisky producers began to use column stills. Today, producers in either country use both pot- or column-distilled spirits.
In general, most Irish whiskeys are blends while Scotch whisky can be either blended or single origin. But, you will certainly find some single malt and single grain Irish whiskeys.
Finally, Irish distilleries are allowed to add enzymes to the fermentation process in order to better prepare the starches in the mash, per Vinepair’s Irish Whiskey 101. This doesn’t overly impact the taste of the final product.
Both Irish and Scotch whiskeys can be aged in various types of wooden vessels, including American Bourbon barrels, Madeira casks and rum barrels. And both traditions have been known to mix grain whiskeys and malt whiskeys to create a blended whiskey.
In the end, there is no longer much difference between Irish whiskey and Scotch whisky beside the place of origin. Our advice is to try many brands across both types of whiskey to determine which you prefer.
What Are The Best Irish Whiskey Brands?
If you’re ready to invest in some of the best Irish whiskey bottles, we’ve put together a selection of the top brands to help you get in the spirit this St. Patrick’s Day. These can all be ordered on either Drizly.com or Wine.com, two super convenient delivery sites for alcohol brands from around the world. For each option, we’ve even included how we think each one is best enjoyed, be it neat, on the rocks or in a cocktail. There are classics, like Bushmills and Jameson, as well as a few lesser-known options to add a bit of variety to your liquor cabinet.
1. Tullamore Dew Irish Whiskey
Tullamore Dew Irish Whiskey is a triple-distilled whiskey that has been patiently aged in a mix of ex-sherry and bourbon casks. This process gives the whiskey its distinctive smoothness, which has lead to its popularity across the globe. After Jameson, Tullamore Dew is the second most popular Irish whiskey in the world.
Sip this spirit neat and you’ll taste appealing notes of citrus and spice which are a result of the malt and pot-still whiskey used in the blend. While delightful straight or on the rocks, for something a little fresher yet equally delicious, give a Tully & Tonic a try. Throw a splash of whiskey in with some cubed ice, a cut of orange and fill the cup with tonic water.
2. Bushmills Irish Whiskey
If you’re looking for a whiskey with an appealingly rich, warming taste, Bushmills Irish Whiskey could be the right choice for you. You’ll find elements of fresh fruit and vanilla that appeal to your taste buds along with a finishing hint of sweet honey. While the whiskey does find itself falling into the budget-friendly category, it’s not an indication of the whiskey’s quality, which is evident in the fact it’s best enjoyed neat or on the rocks.
3. West Cork Original Irish Whiskey
BEST INDEPENDENT DISTILLERY
The West Cork Original Irish Whiskey is a versatile whiskey option which works well for mixing but tastes great neat, too. This blended whiskey is aged in ex-bourbon casks to create a complex flavor that will keep you coming back for more. Taste-wise, you can expect to enjoy notes of buffalo grass, light caramel and poached pear with a finish that includes appealing notes of pepper and orchard fruit.
4. Jameson Irish Whiskey
When it comes to picking out a whiskey for social occasions, it’s hard to steer away from the classics. And there are few more popular options than Jameson Irish Whiskey. The crisp, sippable appeal has truly withstood the test of time as customers continue to return time and again to this classic Irish whiskey.
The recipe includes hints of vanilla, cream and freshly cut grass. Each production is aged for a minimum of four years, resulting in the smooth product. You won’t be sorry if you add a bottle of Jameson to your spirit shelf. Aside from drinking this whiskey neat, it’s also enjoyable when mixed with club soda, ginger ale or more complex cocktails.
5. Powers Gold Label
BEST FOR COCKTAILS
If your raison d’etre is to find a whiskey best suited to mixing in cocktails, look no further than the Powers Gold Label. At 43.2% ABV, it packs a punch which is accompanied by a strong taste. Further hints of cinnamon, honey, caramel and vanilla add to the bold flavor profile. Additionally, you can look forward to mild hints of spice throughout and a long and creamy finish in this distillate-driven whiskey.
6. Glendalough Double Barrel Irish Whiskey
BEST DOUBLE BARREL
By starting the aging process in American bourbon barrels and finishing the process in Spanish Oloroso Sherry casks, the Glendalough Double Barrel Irish Whiskey offers a complex flavor rarely seen in other Irish whiskeys. In addition to this memorable flavor, your nose will pick up notes of vanilla, white chocolate and buttery fudge, while your palate enjoys caramel and butter with underlying blackberry and marmalade flavors. Thanks to the smoothness of this Glendalough product, this whiskey is best enjoyed neat, on the rocks or with a hint of water to balance out the strong flavor profile.
7. Teeling Irish Whiskey Small Batch
BEST SMALL BATCH
The Teeling Irish Whiskey Small Batch is this company’s flagship product. The taste, complexity and consistency are aimed at demonstrating what the brand does best. The small batch process allows for hand selection of casks to ensure the resulting flavors are exactly as they should be. Ex-rum barrels add a flavor you won’t find anywhere else in Irish whiskey, and as it’s bottled at 46% ABV, there’s plenty of character to be enjoyed, too. Best enjoyed as it is, expect sweetness, spice and hints of wood in every sip of Teeling Irish Whiskey.
8. The Dead Rabbit Irish Whiskey
This Dublin Liberties Whiskey Company product is made in Ireland in cooperation with the famed Dead Rabbit Grocery & Grog in New York City. The whiskey itself undergoes five years of aging inside a combination of bourbon and virgin American-oak casks to deliver a smooth whiskey which doesn’t disappoint. It begins as a unique blend of single malt and grain whiskeys and takes in a deep oakiness during the aging process. Other notable tastes include vanilla, toasted nuts and notes of cereal. If you love whiskey with a woody taste, definitely consider this as a whiskey to drink straight. Otherwise, it makes a great option for cocktails and mixers because of its distinctive taste.
9. Writers Tears Pot Still Irish Whiskey
Writers Tears Pot Still Irish Whiskey makes things simple (and boasts a pretty awesome name if we do say so ourselves). The award-winning spirit sports a bright amber color, complete with a range of appealing aromas, a round body and a rich flavor. All of these elements combined makes it a great go-to choice or easy drinker for any newcomer to the world of whiskey. Taste-wise, this spirit features hints of green apple, caramel, ginger and vanilla all culminating in a fruity finish. Enjoy it neat, mixed or as part of a flavor-filled cocktail.
10. Knappogue Castle Single Malt Irish Whiskey
BEST SINGLE MALT
As we move into older whiskeys, it should be of little surprise that most offer a much more rewarding sipping experience. This 12-year Knappogue Castle Single Malt Irish Whiskey is a great example. It’s distilled in copper pot stills and is made up from a single malted barley which is then aged in oak casks. The resulting experience is one you’ll adore. Imagine the smell of allspice-flavored biscuits with a hint of honey before your mouth enjoys a bit of fruitiness finished off with a slightly spicy, slightly sweet smoothness. For many, this is the ultimate sipping whiskey.
11. Green Spot Irish Whiskey
BEST POT STILL
Using a combination of malted and unmalted barley, this Green Spot Irish Whiskey has a robust flavor profile much loved by norms and critics alike. It’s aged in a mix of bourbon and sherry casks and delivers aromas of sweet barley, sugar, porridge, peppermint, citrus and more before the spicy and soft flavor even hits your tongue. The taste continues with menthol, potpourri and green woods before a long vanilla-y finish. You’ll be pouring yourself another before you know it. How is it best enjoyed? We recommend straight up or on the rocks so you can savor every last bit.
12. Redbreast 12 Year
This Redbreast is another popular 12-year whiskey with plenty of fanatical support. It’s stuffed full of flavor which it can attribute to the 12 years spent inside the Oloroso sherry casks collecting the trademark Christmas cake flavor profile. Your palate is truly in for a treat when the spiciness, creaminess and fruitiness of this whiskey hits. Meanwhile, your nose will be kept busy with complex aromas of fruit, spice and toasted wood. The Redbreast is another option which is best prepared pure or on the rocks, if you like a little chill as you sip.