In 2006, there were three whiskey distilleries in all of Ireland. Today, there are at least 30, with more in development. Yet while Irish distilleries remain relatively obscure, overshadowed by their peaty neighbors to the north, they’re churning out spirits that, as of late, are able to sway even the most steadfast of single malt devotees.
Old-style Irish whiskey is crafted from both malted and unmalted barley and distilled in pot stills (a time-consuming process). Today’s distilleries, however, have strayed from tradition, turning to column stills and blending whiskeys for more consistent, nuanced flavors. Here are six bottles, selected by Sean Muldoon of New York’s renowned Dead Rabbit, that reflect the state of contemporary Irish whiskey and signal the good things still to come.
What Makes Irish Whiskey Distinct?
“Irish Whiskey must be distilled on the island of Ireland (both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland) from a mass of malted cereals with or without whole grains,” says Jack McGarry, who co-founded Dead Rabbit alongside Sean Muldoon. “Irish Whiskey has to have a minimum alcohol content of forty percent, and must be matured for a minimum of three years on the island of Ireland.”
Under the Irish whiskey umbrella, there are four subcategories, each marked by the following flavors: single grain, which is sweet and light; blend, which is approachable and accessible, that's both sweeter and more floral, offering low spice with high wood impact; malt, which is delicate and floral, with bread and malt characteristics, and, depending on the wood maturation profile, notes of dried fruit; and pot still, which is sweet, spicy and viscous
The Best Irish Whiskey
“This whiskey is made up of ninety percent grain and ten percent malted barley, meaning it is light, floral and slightly sweet. It’s a good introduction to Irish whiskey, and its delicate flavor means that it works incredibly well in an Irish Coffee.”
Teeling Small Batch
“This whiskey has quickly become a bartender’s favorite due to how well it mixes in drinks and its affordable price point. It’s the flagship whiskey of the Teeling Company — a blend of malt and grain whiskeys that have been aged for a minimum of seven and four years, respectively, before being aged for a further six months in Caribbean rum casks.”
Knappogue Castle 12-Year
“This is a lovely, warming single malt whiskey with a creamy texture. It’s made with one hundred percent malted barley and aged in ex-bourbon barrels for a minimum of twelve years. On the palate there are traces of honey, toasted malt and white chocolate. I feel this whiskey manages to capture a great deal of characteristics from the malted barley, and the flavors are delicious.”
Redbreast 12 Year
“This Irish pot still whiskey has garnered a cult following in recent years. Another favorite among bartenders, it’s a blend of pot still whiskeys that have been aged in a combination of ex-bourbon and sherry-filled barrels for twelve to fifteen years. On the palate it has a warm ginger spice, and, due to the heavy sherry influence, a rich, dried dark fruit character, namely prunes and raisins.”
Powers John’s Lane
“This is a heavy, rich, full-bodied pot still whiskey, made from a blend of whiskeys that have been aged for twelve to fourteen years in mainly first-fill Bourbon casks, with a small percentage aged in Oloroso Sherry butts. It’s forty-six percent ABV and is named after the street on which the John Power & Son Whiskey Distillery was once located in Dublin. It’s a great example of how Dublin whiskey tasted a hundred or so years ago.”
Bushmill’s Black Bush
“Bushmill’s Black Bush is a blended whiskey that carries no age statement. Here, a high proportion — eighty-five percent — of malt whiskey that has been matured in former Oloroso Sherry casks for between eight and eleven years is combined with a sweet, grain whiskey. The resultant whiskey is rich, fruity and intense, yet at the same time very smooth. It has a silky texture with a nutty character, and the sherry influence is very evident. On the palate, there are also hints of cinnamon and honey. It is extremely tasty [and a] great value for the money.”