On these pages, we’ve focused mainly on Scotch whisky. But don’t get us wrong, we’re not playing favourites. We’re fans of whisk(e)y as a whole! However, since there’s so much to talk about when it comes to Scotch, we may have unintentionally overlooked other types of whiskey. But hold your horses, folks! Today is a day that calls for something different. It’s St. Patrick’s Day, for crying out loud! So, let’s break out of the Scotch zone and chat about Irish Whiskies!
But what sets Irish Whiskey apart from its Scottish cousin? Besides that sneaky ‘e’ in the name. What are the must-try Irish Whiskies? Don’t worry, we won’t leave you hanging much more with the answers to those questions. Grab a glass and settle in as we spill the tea (or better, the dram) on some of the best Irish whiskies out there.
Alright, folks! It’s time to sail off to the land of shamrocks – the emerald island where whiskey flows like a river (yeah it actually happened in Dublin!). Are you ready to dive headfirst into the tantalizing world of Irish whiskey? Then let’s not waste any more time and get going!
What is Irish Whiskey?
Irish whiskey is one of the most popular whiskeys in the world. To label Irish Whiskies as such, the production must follow some rules, although they are less strict than Scotch Whisky ones. There are two major components of the Irish Whiskey Act of 1950:
- Irish whiskey to be rightfully called such must be distilled in the country of Ireland from a mash of malt and cereal grains.
- Irish pot still whiskey must be distilled in pot stills within Ireland from a mash of grains grown in Ireland.
Where does Irish Whiskey come from?
There is one question that continues to remain unanswered. Does whisky have Scottish or Irish origins? The challenge in answering this question accurately lies in the fact that whisky centuries ago was a private affair and we have very few records of it. Monks, and later private houses, began distilling what they called the ‘water of life’ (Uisce Beatha in Gaelic) as early as the 1200s.
The oldest written record of Irish whiskey seems to date back to 1405, thanks to a description in the Annals of Clonmacnoise. The passage explains that a clan chief had died from drinking too much ‘aqua vitae’ at Christmas.
Legend has it that the wise Irish monks may have picked up some epic distilling skills while jaunting through the Mediterranean back in the 11th century. But it wasn’t until 1608 that the smooth and delicious nectar we know as Irish whiskey transformed from a humble pastime into a full-blown industry. This happened when Northern Ireland’s Old Bushmills Distillery went ahead and snagged the title of the world’s very first licensed whiskey distillery.
Well, we may not know who to give the credit for this amazing invention, but one thing is for sure – when it comes to the title of the world’s first legal distillery, the Irish take the cake!
The growth of the Irish Whiskey Industry
With the introduction of licenses in the 17th century, the production of whiskey in Ireland began to skyrocket.
Although the 17th and 18th centuries brought significant growth to the Irish whiskey industry, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Despite the introduction of licensing and registration, plenty of illegal whiskeys were still being produced outside of major cities.
Nevertheless, the expansion of licensed distilleries continued at a rapid pace. Famous names like Jameson, Bushmills, and George Roe’s Thomas Street Distillery emerged as leaders, and by the 19th century, Irish whiskey had become popular worldwide.
A river of whiskey in Dublin
The history of Irish whiskey is one of the ups and downs. But, one particular event almost caused the downfall of Dublin.
On June 18, 1875, a fire at Malone’s malt house caused the 5000 casks of whiskey to burst. The spirit flooded the streets of the capital, creating a river of whiskey. Now, you may think “Lucky the people that witnessed such a moment!”. The thing is an 80-proof drink is quite flammable, so the river of whiskey also carried the fire with it. As consequence, buildings were damaged and livestock were lost. Moreover, thirteen people also died during the disaster, although not because they were trapped in the flames.
In fact, some people thought was a brilliant idea to get their hands and glasses on some free whiskey… only to die of alcohol poisoning.
Irish Whiskey in modern times
Everything was going quite well. Then, the 20th century came, and Irish whiskey was suddenly on the verge of disappearing altogether. During this period, Scotch whisky overtook Irish whiskey in popularity, leading to the almost failure of the Irish whiskey industry.
A number of factors contributed to the decline. These included the Irish War of Independence, followed by a civil war, and a trade war with Britain. Moreover, the American Prohibition had a devastating impact on the export market, as did the protectionist policies of the Irish government. As a result, numerous distilleries were forced to shut down, and by the 1960s there were only 3 distilleries operating in Ireland (and if you were wondering, yes they produced for different brands too).
Fortunately, the story of Irish whiskey didn’t end there. In the 21st century, several independent distilleries have emerged from the shadows of the past, crafting exciting new varieties of Irish whiskey.
When you hear people say that Irish whiskey has been rising in popularity lately, that “lately” is literal. Indeed, while in 2010 there were only 4 distilleries operating in Ireland, today there are 40! And more are being built.
Why Irish Wiskey is spelt with an e?
The reason why Irish whiskey is spelt with an “e” while Scottish whisky is not, goes back to the 19th century when the Irish wanted to distinguish their whiskey from the Scotts one. To set their whiskey apart, Irish distillers added the extra “e” to the word “whiskey”.
This way, you could distinguish the two!
What’s the difference between Irish and Scotch Whisk(e)y?
Apart from the “e” addition in the name, Scotch and Irish whisky are not that different from each other. Let’s say they are cousins with a few differences.
First and foremost, Scotch is made in Scotland, while Irish whiskey is made in Ireland. They also have different ingredients, with Scotch being made mostly from malted barley, and Irish whiskey often including other grains like corn.
The production process also differs between the two. Scotch is usually double-distilled and aged for at least three years in oak barrels, while Irish whiskey is often triple-distilled and aged for a minimum of three years.
However, we must add a quick observation to what has just been said.
Although for many years Irish whiskey was dominated by triple-distilled blends, typically softer and fruitier than Scotch, with almost no peated single malts, things are changing. Now the market offers more tasty experiments.
Another big difference between the two is the categories of whisky.
Grain whisky in Scotland is predominantly produced from wheat, whereas most grain whiskeys in Ireland are made from corn.
Moreover, Irish whiskey has its own unique style known as single pot still, which doesn’t exist in Scotch whisky.
So, how many Irish whiskies varieties are out there?
Basically, there are 4 types of Irish Whiskies.
Single malt whiskeys
These are made at a single distillery in pot stills from malted barley. The flavour palette of this kind of whiskey òargeòy depends on the barrels used to age it. Single-malt whiskeys can be spicy or peaty, or delicate, with floral notes.
Single pot still whiskeys
These whiskies are crafted using a combination of malted barley (at least 30%), unmalted barley (at least 30%), and other cereal grains, all distilled in a pot still at a single distillery. Pot still whiskies are known for their robust flavour profile, bursting with intense spices and an oily mouthfeel that sets them apart from other Irish whiskies.
Single grain whiskeys
Although they’re called “single grain” whiskeys, they’re actually a blend of various kinds of cereal, including unmalted barley, corn, wheat, and malted barley (up to 30%), all sourced from a single distillery. As for the name, “single grain” indicates that it’s the product of a single distillery.
Blended Irish whiskeys
These whiskeys are crafted by blending at least two distinct types of Irish whiskey – single pot still, single grain, or single malt – to create a harmonious blend of flavours. Known for their lighter and more accessible taste, blended whiskeys are a great choice for whiskey lovers of all levels.
Irish Whiskey Production
Traditionally, Irish Whiskey is made in what is known as a pot still, which looks like an upside-down funnel. Usually, Pot Still whiskeys are distilled in small batches for getting maximum flavour out of barley. This remained the main style until the 1800s, when the big four distilleries John Jameson, William Jameson, John Powers, and George Roe, ruled the market.
In 1832, Aeneas Coffey patented the Coffey Still. From that moment on, the new method allowed for continuous distillation and, consequently, faster production. Moreover, this method also made grain-based whiskey more economical and it’s what most of the big producers use today. However, it must be noted that the new distilleries that are popping up from all around Ireland are going back to the traditional pot still method.
If you were wondering which method is better, here you have your answer: it depends. I know we use this sentence a lot when talking about whisk(e)y. But it actually depends on many factors: what type of whiskey is the distillery trying to make? is this whisky destined for a low-budget target? Is it a whisky in high demand? At the end of the day, you choose what’s your favourite drink based on your taste buds.
Irish Whiskies you should try once in your lifetime
After this lengthy introduction to the world of Irish whiskey, you will have worked up a thirst. It’s time to reveal MNIW’s favourite Irish whiskies so you can get inspired. As with our list of favourite Scotch blends, this is not a finished list. Don’t be surprised if we add a couple of bottles to the list in the near future…
You probably know the big names already. Hence, here are some niche Irish whiskey suggestions for you.
Irish Single Malt 29 yo 1990
This Irish 1990 single malt whiskey was bottled by the Taiwanese bottler The Whisky Blues.
The distillery is undisclosed, as well as the kind of barrels used. But we do know that it is 29-year-old whisky bottled at a strength of 49.3% ABV, and only 100 bottles were released.
Believe me, this is not your usual Irish Whiskey. It will surprise you with its rummy and yet metallic flavours with Mango, and ripe banana notes.
Animal Spirits & TWA – Irish 2002
This incredible whisky is a joint bottling by Animal Spirits and The Whisky Agency for Animal Spirits’ 2nd Anniversary.
This Irish from 2002 was matured in a bourbon barrel and bottled at a cask strength of 49.1% ABV. Only 238 bottles are available.
Emerald Isle 24 yo 1991
Emerald Isle is a new series from Speciality Drinks and it includes only Irish whiskeys.
This 1991 expression is a single malt from an undisclosed Irish distillery. It is lightly peated with a silky sherry influence with a chocolaty and smoky long finish.
Irish single malt 23 yo 1991 ‘Maria label’
The whiskey from The Nectar of the Daily Drams – also known as the Maria label – is very famous among Irish whiskey lovers. The sherry aromas mix perfectly with the more fruity flavours of Irish Whiskey.
We hope you found this brief guide helpful in enjoying your St. Patrick’s Day in the right spirit. What are your favourite Irish whiskies? Share this article on your socials, tag us and let us know!