Table of Contents
Did you know that Irish whiskey almost went extinct in the 1970s? In 1975, there were only two Irish whiskey distilleries left in operation, New Midleton just outside of Cork, and Old Bushmills in Northern Ireland. Both were owned by one company at the time, Irish Distillers, which is now part of Pernod Ricard. Things have come a long way since then, and the Irish whiskey renaissance has created new independent distilleries and allowed long-dormant brands to be revived. Keep reading to discover the best Irish whiskey and explore the fascinating history of this beloved spirit.
According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) and the Drinks Ireland | Irish Whiskey Association (IWA), American interest in the Emerald Spirit is at an all-time high. So it’s not just St. Patrick’s Day driving sales, it’s the luscious liquor itself.
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’s trailed by brands like Tullamore DEW, Bushmills, and Proper No. 12.
Whether your go-to spirit of choice is Irish whiskey, or you just think 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 attributes that make them worth trying.
Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about Irish whiskey, from the production of this spirit to which are the best brands for each occasion.
How Is Irish Whiskey Produced?
Like other whiskey categories, the production of Irish whiskey is defined by law. Irish whiskey is any whiskey distilled in Ireland that’s aged for at least three years.
While American bourbon is strictly regulated as far as mash bill and maturation, there’s more wiggle room in the production of Irish whiskey. The spirit can be made from different types of grains, although barley is commonly used, and it can be aged in a variety of different cask types.
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 Whiskey
Single malt Irish whiskeys are made from 100% malted barley at one distillery. This type of whiskey is typically double distilled in Scotland, while in Ireland it is frequently, but not always, triple distilled. After distillation, the whiskey is aged in barrels, which can be ex-bourbon, sherry casks, virgin oak, or other types. In Ireland, the use of peat is uncommon, but not unheard of in single malt whiskey.
Bushmills, Connemara and Teeling all produce single malt Irish whiskeys.
Single grain whiskeys are produced in one distillery in continuous column stills but made from a mixture of grains. These grains might include malted barley (up to 30%), corn, wheat, or un-malted barley. The result is a slightly sweeter whiskey that tends to be a component of blends.
Kilbeggan, Teeling and Greenore produce versions of single grain whiskey.
Single Pot Still Whiskeys
Single pot still whiskeys are a distinctly Irish type of whiskey, made in one distillery in a pot still from a mash bill of malted and un-malted barley (a small amount of other cereal grains can be included as well, up to five percent). The result is a spicy and fruity whiskey that can be slightly oily on the palate.
Redbreast, Powers and Teeling all produce a single pot still whiskey.
Blended Irish whiskeys are by far the most popular category. They are a combination of at least two of the three above whiskey types from any number of Irish distilleries. A common combination is grain whiskey and pot still whiskey, such as Jameson, but any other combination can be used as well – malt and grain or malt and pot still, for example.
Jameson, Tullamore, Bushmills and several other smaller brands produce blended whiskey.
The History of Irish Whiskey
If you’re looking to buy 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 which is part of the United Kingdom.
In addition to its place of origin, Irish whiskey must also be aged in wooden casks for at least three years and it must be bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV. Similar to scotch whisky, a small amount of caramel coloring can be added to Irish whiskey before bottling to maintain color consistency (something not everyone is fond of).
2. Irish Whiskey Has a Long History
Whiskeys from around the world can trace their heritage to Ireland (although the Scots might beg to differ). 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 the centuries 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 Powers 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, American Prohibition, and trade wars between Ireland and the United Kingdom.
Meanwhile, Scotch whisky 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.
Irish whiskey continues to grow here in the US as a category. The Irish Times said that sales rose by over 16 percent last year, and the director of the Irish Whiskey Association, William Lavelle, predicted that sales could exceed that of scotch by 2030.
3. There Will Be Many New Brands Soon
There are three big names in Irish whiskey, in terms of recognition and sales — Jameson (produced at the Midleton Distillery), Bushmills in Northern Ireland, and Tullamore D.E.W. 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 has been difficult, but is getting easier every year. Many distilleries are still aging their first barrels and haven’t even made it to market yet, so they are either sourcing aged whiskey to bottle and sell or making gin or vodka in the meantime.
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, but you should drink it any way you prefer. But if you’d like to try it neat, here are some tips. First, smell the whiskey in your glass two to three times with your mouth slightly open. Then, take a sip and swirl the liquid in your mouth for a few seconds before swallowing.
If the ABV is too high for you, try cutting the liquor with a splash of 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. However, you can find expensive blends that incorporate older whiskeys into the mix.
In general, the older the whiskey is, the more expensive it will generally be. Whiskey is a spirit that tends to get better with age, but there are limits to that concept and older whiskey doesn’t necessarily mean better whiskey.
The Best Irish Whiskey for 2022
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. 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. Redbreast 12
Redbreast is a shining example of single pot still Irish Whiskey, and the popular 12-year-old expression has plenty of fanatical support. It’s packed with flavor picked up from 12 years spent inside a combination of Oloroso sherry casks and bourbon barrels, giving it its trademark Christmas cake and dried fruit flavor profile. The spiciness, creaminess and fruitiness of this whiskey make this a go-to dram for fans of the category. You should certainly try sipping this neat, but go ahead and try using it in cocktails as well to see what it brings to the party.
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. This blended whiskey has elements of fresh fruit and vanilla that appeal to your taste buds along with a finishing hint of sweet honey. While the whiskey does fall 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. 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. This crisp and always sippable whiskey has truly withstood the test of time as customers continue to return time and again to this classic Irish blend.
The palate has hints of vanilla, cream and freshly cut grass. The whiskey is aged for a minimum of four years, resulting in a 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.
4. J.J. Corry The Gael
Louise McGuane founded this Irish whiskey brand in 2015. J.J. Corry is a whiskey bonder, a practice more common a century ago. Whiskey bonding means that the company sources new-make whiskey from various distilleries, and then ages and blends it at its own facilities, in addition to procuring mature whiskey. The Gael is the flagship blend and only arrived here in America last summer. It’s a blend of 60% malt and 40% grain, with an age range between seven and 26 years. Look for a rich fruitiness, with notes of citrus, vanilla, herbs, and a touch of pepper on the palate.
5. West Cork Original Irish Whiskey
BEST INDEPENDENT DISTILLERY
The West Cork Original Irish Whiskey is a versatile whiskey option that 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.
6. 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 Powers Gold Label. At 43.2% ABV, it is a bit stronger than your average blend, with a complex palate to match. Hints of cinnamon, honey, caramel and vanilla add to the bold flavor profile. Additionally, you can look forward to mild notes of spice throughout and a long and creamy finish in this historic blended whiskey.
7. Glendalough Double-Barrel Irish Whiskey
By starting the aging process in American bourbon barrels and finishing in Spanish Oloroso sherry casks, Glendalough Double-Barrel Irish Whiskey offers a complex palate that matches the best Irish whiskeys. In addition to this memorable flavor, your nose will pick up notes of vanilla, white chocolate and buttery fudge, while your palate opens with caramel and butter and finishes with blackberry and marmalade notes. 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.
8. Teeling Irish Whiskey Small-Batch
Teeling Irish Whiskey Small Batch is this modern Dublin distillery’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. The blend is finished in ex-rum barrels to add a unique flavor, and as it’s bottled at 46% ABV, there’s plenty of character to be enjoyed, too. Try this one neat, and expect sweetness, spice and hints of wood in every sip of Teeling Irish Whiskey.
9. The Irishman Cask-Strength
Walsh Whiskey has two lineups in its portfolio, Writer’s Tears and The Irishman. Both have many excellent expressions in their rosters, but if you’re looking for a high-quality cask strength whiskey try The Irishman. This is a blend of single malt and single pot still whiskey that is bottled at barrel proof in different annual batches, so each year will differ slightly. The 2022 edition was bottled at 54.9% ABV, so strong but manageable, and only 1,200 bottles were released here in the US. Look for notes of green apple, walnut, honey, and toasted oak on the nose and palate. Sip this one, add some water, or mix up an assertive Old Fashioned if you prefer a cocktail.
10. Slane Irish Whiskey
This all-black bottle might look a little menacing but don’t be too scared, Slane is delicious. The whiskey undergoes a triple-cask method which means that three different cask types are used to age the components of the blend. The use of virgin oak, Tennessee whiskey barrels, and Oloroso sherry casks means that the flavor at the end becomes very sleek and rich. We love sipping this stuff solo but feel free to throw a few cubes of ice into your glass.
11. 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-old Knappogue Castle Single Malt Irish Whiskey is a great example. It’s distilled in copper pot stills from 100 percent malted barley and then is aged in ex-bourbon barrels for 12 years. 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.
12. 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 newcomers and whiskey veterans alike. It’s aged in a mix of bourbon and sherry casks for seven to 10 years 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.
13. Midleton Very Rare
Generally speaking, Irish whiskey is not going to cost as much as scotch when you’re considering older bottlings. There are, of course, exceptions, like this annual release from the Midleton Distillery outside of Cork. Midleton Very Rare is different each year, and you have to hunt around to find each release, but when you do it will likely run you a few hundred bucks. But it’s one of the best Irish whiskeys out there, and worth the splurge if you can afford it. The 2021 release was a blend of pot still and grain whiskey aged between 13 and 35 years and was delectable. Notes of baking spice, ginger, vanilla, and tobacco pop on every sip. This is a special whiskey best reserved for sipping, but try it any way you like it.
14. The Tyrconnell Port Cask-Finish
The Tyrconnell is a historic brand that has been revitalized in recent years by its parent company Beam Suntory. The whiskey, distilled at the Cooley distillery, is aged for a decade in ex-bourbon barrels before spending a final six to eight months in port pipes from the Duoro Valley in Portugal. This final step layers the vanilla and cream base flavors of the palate with notes of dark fruit, spice, and citrus. Try sipping this neat on a cool night to warm yourself up from the inside out.
15. Waterford Irish Whiskey Single Farm Origin Series
Waterford is an Irish distillery that is really focused on terroir in whiskey in a way that no other brands are doing at the moment. There are several different Single Farm Origin single malt expressions available, each made using barley grown at a single farm to highlight how the terroir affects the whiskey’s flavor. The whiskey is then aged in French and American oak, carefully monitored all the while. If you can, buy a few different bottles and taste side-by-side to really see how they each differ.
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. That being said, these are two distinctly different types of whiskey.
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 using triple distillation in Scotland and others who 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.
Additionally, the most popular and best-selling Irish whiskeys and Scotch whiskies are blends, but there is a wide range of single malt and single grain whiskeys to enjoy (and single pot still in Ireland).
Both Irish and Scotch whiskeys can be aged in various types of wooden containers, including American ex-bourbon barrels, sherry casks and rum barrels. Legally, bourbon can only be aged in new charred oak containers, so once these barrels are emptied most of them wind up being used to age Irish whiskey and Scotch whisky.