Words by: Simon Difford
As the name suggest, Irish whiskey (‘fuisce’ or ‘uisce beatha’ in Irish) must be made and aged on the island of Ireland. Although within the category there are some notable exceptions, Irish whiskey tends to be triple distilled, unpeated and easy drinking.
There is evidence that whiskey distilling and drinking in Ireland was widespread by the 16th century, however is believed that distillation was practiced much earlier, possibly the 14th century.
Early Irish whiskey was drunk unaged and flavoured with herbs - rather like gin today.
One Christmas present the Irish whiskey industry will never forget is the imposition of taxation on whiskey that began on Christmas day in 1661. A tax of four pence was applied to every gallon distilled. Over the preceding years the industry continued to expand, much of it through illegitimate stills. By the end of the 18th century there were around 2000 stills in operation.
The fortunes of Irish whiskey were given an unexpected boost in 1872 when the Phylloxera Vastatrix louse decimated vines in the Cognac region of France. Whiskey exports rose as the stocks of cognac diminished. Unfortunately for the Irish whiskey industry four different events served to put a check on the spirits' rapid growth.
The first was the beginning of the temperance movement in Ireland, started by Father Mathew, a Capuchin Friar in the 1838. Within six years his movement was directly responsible for the closure of over a third of Irelands drinking outlets.
The second was the development of blended whisky in Scotland. Ironically blended Scotch whisky came about partly thanks to an Irish exciseman, Aeneas Coffey, who invented a more efficient continuous still able to produce cheaper grain spirit, but with a different flavour produced by the existing pot stills. Irish distillers rejected the development, not wanting to sacrifice the distinctive flavour of their whiskies. So Coffey went to Scotland where experiments mixing pot still malt whisky and grain whisky produced in his still resulted in the development of blended whisky. Scotch blends proceeded to dent the sales of their Irish counterpart.
The third misfortune was American Prohibition (1920 - 1933) which effectively cut all sales to this previously lucrative market.
The fourth and final spanner in the works was the 1916 Irish war of Independence which resulted in the partition of the country and a civil war which ran between 1919 and 1921. Trade embargos imposed by the British prevented exports to the Empire including Canada, South Africa, India, Australia and New Zealand.
In 1966, the three remaining Irish distillers in the Republic that had survived (Jameson, Powers and Cork Distillers) joined forces to form the Irish Distillers Company. These allies were further bolstered during the 1970's when Irish Distillers acquired, Bushmills the last distiller in Ulster. However, this united force failed to meet expectations and take-over loomed. Two companies vied for the prize, GC&C Brands (jointly owned by two Irish firms, Gilbey's of Ireland and Cantrell & Cochrane) and the French group Pernod-Ricard. The French won the prize and Pernod Ricard put its worldwide marketing efforts chiefly between two brands, Jameson and Bushmills (the latter first moving to Diageo in June 2005 and then Casa Cuervo in December 2014).
One independent Irish distillery emerged to challenge the dominance of the Irish Distillers Group, named Cooley Distillery near Dundalk. Established by John Teeling in 1987 and subsequently purchased by what is now Beam Suntory in 2011.
While the brands that benefitted from Irish Distiller's period of almost unchallenged promotion still dominate the world market, Cooley has in recent years been joined by a plethora of other producers with gleaming new distilleries springing up across Ireland in a race to gain share of what is now the fastest-growing whiskey category.
Alltech Distillery (est. 2012)
Belfast Distillery Company (under construction)
Blackwater Distillery (est. 2015)
Burren Irish Whiskey (under construction)
Cooley Distillery (est. 1987)
Dingle Distillery (est. 2012)
Dublin Whiskey Company (under construction)
Echlinville Distillery (est. 2013)
Glendalough Distillery (est. 2013)
Great Northern Distillery (under construction)
Kilbeggan Distillery (est. 2007)
Niche Drinks Company (under construction)
New Midleton Distillery (est. 1975)
Old Bushmills Distillery (est. 1784)
Slane Castle Distillery (under construction)
Teeling Distillery (est. 2015)
Tullamore Distillery (est. 2014)
Walsh Whiskey Distillery (under construction)
West Cork Distillers (est. 2008)
Made from malted barley and triple distilled in copper pot stills, this single malt Irish whiskey is aged for 14 years in American oak ex-bourbon barrels before finishing in Oloroso sherry seasoned casks for a further two years. Bottled without chill-filtration. Red apple, apricot, tropical fruit and grilled pineapple with nutty toasty oak.
Made from malted barley and triple distilled in copper pot stills, this single malt Irish whiskey is aged in a combination of American oak ex-bourbon barrels and Oloroso sherry seasoned casks for a minimum of 14 years. Bottled without chill-filtration. Vanilla, toffee, red apple, nectarines, ripe peaches, grilled nuts, toasty oak and Christmassy spice.
Released in February 2016, this is the first ever Redbreast single cask bottling. Sherry butt No. 30087 yielded just 576 bottles, exclusively available through The Whisky Exchange. Blackened fruit cake, matchbox lighting strip, coal dust, burnt raisins, prunes and dates with faint crushed mint and cracked black pepper. Water reveals old leather, espresso, brasil nuts and peacan pie.
Previously only available as vintage releases, this is the first blended age statement Knappogue Castle whiskey. Aged for 12 years in ex. bourbon barrels, this single malt Irish whiskey is thought to be produced at Bushmills Distillery. New leather, chamois leather, biscuity maltiness, treacle and orange zest with pineapple, apricot and passion fruit.
Launched in June 2015 with the strap line “The Spirit of The City”, The Dubliner is a blended Irish whiskey, which as the label proudly declares, is aged in ex-bourbon casks. New leather, cigar box and vanilla with red apple and light elegant white pepper spice.
Released in 2015, The Dublin Liberties Oak Devil is blended from Irish malt and grain whiskies aged in ex-bourbon casks and bottled without chill-filtration. The name is inspired by the Liberties area of Dublin, the centre of whiskey production during the 18th century. Honeyed and spiced cereal with white pepper, toasty oak and blackberry fruit.
Kinahan’s Irish Whiskey was founded on Trinity Street in Dublin in 1779 and the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland subsequently ordered several casks of Kinahan’s, each being marked with an “L.L.” to identify the owner. Cherry, red apple and violets with peach, mocha coffee, overripe pineapple and vanilla.
Named after and endorsed by Celtic punk band, The Pogues, and made by West Cork Distillers, this is blend of Irish malt whiskey. Despite the similarity of the name, this Irish whiskey is completely unrelated to Kentucky’s Old Pogue Bourbon. Buttery toasty oak, baked apple and peppery spice.
Blended Irish whiskey aged 6-10 years and bottled without chill-filtration. “Lord Lieutenant” above the Kinahan’s branding on the label refers to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, who apparently demanded that a vat of whiskey be set aside for him with the letters “LL" signifying his allotment. Buttery fudge, hazelnut, vanilla and caramel with praline and chocolate.
Caskmates is a fabulous example of true collaboration. Ex-American whisky barrels that have twice been used to age Jameson whiskey are sent to the nearby Franciscan Well Brewery in Cork City where they are used to age Irish stout for around three months. The casks are then returned to Jameson and... Toffee, vanilla fudge with underlying freshly baked brown bread, apples, pears and Christmassy spice. Faint aromas of hazelnut, coffee, cacao, lavender and fresh green hops.
Billed as “the first ever single pot still Irish whiskey to be finished in Bordeaux wine casks”, this Green Spot expression was first matured in a mix of ex-oloroso sherry, new American and ex-bourbon casks before finishing in ex-Bordeaux wine casks from Château Léoville Barton for 12 to 24 months. Baked apple and pear, autumn leaves, cinnamon and nutmeg with faint raspberry. Vanilla and Jammy Dodger biscuits emerge with water.
Bottled without an age statement but Teeling Single Malt is drawn from up to 23 year old stocks from the Cooley distillery. Originally aged in ex-Heaven Hill bourbon barrels and finished 14-14 months in five different types of wood: sherry, port, madeira, Cabernet Sauvignon and white Burgundy. Pencil shavings, tobacco leaf, vanilla fudge, melon and green apple fruit, chocolate fudge with lemon zest and clove.
The first of the Redbreast range to be matured solely in oloroso sherry seasoned casks. Mano a Lámh means ‘hand in hand’ in Spanish and Gaelic respectively and the name plays tribute to the Spanish artisans which supply Midelton Distillery with sherry butts. Raisins, sultanas and prunes with earthy pine needle, linseed oil putty, unsalted butter and vanilla with faint mocha coffee and lavender blossom. Water releases dill and lavender.
A vatting of Irish single malt and Irish single pot still whiskies aged in American oak first fill ex-bourbon barrels. Annual release is limited to 2,780 bottles worldwide; each signed and dated by the distiller. Chocolate, fudge and clove spiced oak with coffee and faint aniseed.
Named after Uisce Beatha (pronounced ‘Ish-ka-ba-ha), Gaelic for water of life, this blended Irish whiskey is aged of at least four years in ex-bourbon American oak casks. Honey, vanilla custard, cinnamon, toasty biscuit/macaroon and white chocolate.