SpiritsThe Collection

The new era of long–aged Irish whiskey

Single malt Scotch continues to break records, with an increasing array of super-aged expressions coming to market. But Joel Harrison explains why Irish whiskeys half their age might make an even more savvy investment

Words by Joel Harrison

irish whiskey grandfather clock noma bar illustration
The Collection
Illustration by Noma Bar

I remember the first time I tried a Scotch whisky – or any whisky for that matter – aged for over half a century. It was a Highland Park 50-year-old, which was released 13 years ago. For the avoidance of doubt, the half-century age statement embossed on the bottle denotes that the youngest whisky inside must have been distilled in 1960, maybe even before then.

Checking back on notes from the event, I was surprised to see that in the two weeks prior to the launch of this Highland Park Scotch (priced at £10,000 per bottle), I had also sampled a 40-year-old Bowmore (£6,500 a bottle) and a 45-year-old Dalmore (£3k a bottle). One of the reasons this fortnight of tastings resonated with me is that, at the time, Scotch whisky was rarely released at this sort of age. ‘Long ageing’ has been a staple of Scotch whisky marketing since marketing was invented, but this would mostly refer to spirit matured for more than a decade, certainly not for four or five.

Fast-forward to today, and it is rare but not unusual to see Scotch whisky released at ages that would make the 2010 me fall off my bar stool. I was recently in Speyside, Scotland, to try a 70-year-old Glen Grant single malt, distilled in 1953; and two years ago, family-owned whisky bottler Gordon & MacPhail, based in Elgin, released an 80-year-old Glenlivet single malt. Each of these bottles will set you back over £100,000 – quite the departure from those 2010 prices.

The normalisation of extreme age in Scotch shows no sign of slowing down. This year I have already had wind of at least 15 different Scotch whisky releases matured for more than 40 years (including a 54-year-old Highland Park for £39,000). This is genuinely remarkable given the scarcity of this style of super-aged release even a decade ago but also because in the early 1980s the Scotch whisky business was in a serious state of contraction. Twenty Scotch distilleries closed their gates in the 1980s, and seven more fell to the same fate in the early 1990s; during the same period, just two new distilleries opened. The fact that this liquid exists at all is something of a wonder.

And there will be further releases of even greater age still. At a recent event with Gordon & MacPhail, there was the bombastic claim that through their current stocks of maturing Scotch, they could manage to marshal a cask of whisky to eventually be bottled at an astonishing 100 years old – or more.

In Ireland, they sell all the whiskey they make, so very little is left to mature into seriously old age

Scotch has always had a head start when it comes to ageing. A combination of the relatively consistent humidity and atmosphere, coupled with the use of secondhand casks predominantly from American whiskey production means that long ageing is possible. The whisky in cask won’t get too ‘mouthy’, bitter and astringent from the tannins in the oak, because the previous occupying liquid has removed most of these harsh flavours. Neither will the low northern European temperatures in Scotland allow too great a loss through evaporation while in the barrel – the angels’ share, as it is known.

Yet this extreme ageing has set the new tone in the wider world of whisky. Of course, these super-aged offerings really are mostly very tasty and have a patina of age in their flavour profile that can only be achieved through long maturation in cask. Typically, these very old Scotch whiskies carry notes of sandalwood, cedar and cinnamon, wrapped up in an unmistakably ‘dusty’ aroma of old leather and vintage bookshops. But they also turn a tidy profit – just as attractive to distillery owners.

While Scotch might have thrown down the gauntlet for super-aged whisky, its Celtic neighbours in Ireland have picked it up and positively run with it.

The history of Ireland’s whiskey-making is even more turbulent than that of Scotch. Many factors – from wars (both world and civil) through to the politics of Prohibition and beyond – forced a major shrinkage in the volume of whiskey production in Ireland in the 20th century.

Between 1966 and 1987, Ireland was home to just two operational distilleries; only one of these was making single malt, and only one more opened before 2003. Add to this a growing thirst for leading Irish whiskey brand Jameson, a blend that leans on younger whiskeys, and the result is an island whose reservoir of aged stocks is not only low but leaky. By way of example, in 1989 Irish whiskey racked up 2.4m bottle sales globally. By 2020, this figure was up to 132m, largely driven by Jameson. Put simply, in Ireland they sell everything they make, so very little is left to mature into seriously old age.

long aged irish whiskey
Illustration: Noma Bar

No matter how quickly the distillers of Ireland try to fill that reservoir, they are under immense pressure to sell their whiskey once it hits the seven- to ten-year-old mark, and previous stocks of the drips distilled between the 1960s and the early 2000s have already been raided for sale. However, one of the major players to raise the stakes within aged Irish whiskey was John Teeling. In the latter part of the 20th century, he realised the lack of mature stock from an island so famed for its whiskey meant opportunity. Along with purchasing and reopening what is today known as the Cooley distillery, he also invested in a large inventory of mature Irish pot-still whiskey from the Midleton distillery in County Cork and single malt from Bushmills in the north. Cleverly, these casks were released by his sons under the Teeling banner from 2012 onwards, with the brothers also building a distillery along the way.

Bottlings under the Teeling label, such as a 1983 37-year-old single malt (released in 2020 for $5,000 and listing today at around twice that price), showed that Irish whiskey could, despite not tipping over into four decades of age, compete with long-aged Scotch – if you could find the rare stocks, that is.

The biggest producer on the island, Irish Distillers, was brave in launching a 32-year-old version of its Redbreast pot-still whiskey expression in 2018 for €500, a price many thought was high for a non-Scotch product. However, this bottle now sells at auction for three times that price, evidence of just how scarce and in-demand 20th-century Irish whiskey is. More impressively, the company is midway through a series of releases, under the Midleton Very Rare banner, of liquids aged over 40 years.

The Chapters series was launched in February 2020 and is the oldest collection of Irish whiskey ever released, comprising six products across six years. The inaugural issue was a 45-year-old Irish single malt, and each release since has risen in age: the sixth is yet to come but is rumoured to be the first-ever Irish whiskey bottled at 50 years old. The most recent entry in the series, the 48-year-old Chapter 4 released in 2023, weighed in at €50,000 and quickly sold out.

irish whiskey in glass with ice illustration by noma bar
Illustration: Noma Bar

Not to be outdone, stalwart distillery Bushmills has been digging into its older stocks and issuing a series of unusual aged whiskey as part of the Causeway Collection, which has seen up to 33-year-old whiskey released in 2023 for £1,245. This year, the distillery has added a 25-year-old and a 30-year-old to its core range, priced at £800 and £1,900 respectively.

The rush to release old Irish whiskey has also attracted the attention of The Last Drop, a small outlet that provides a platform for rare and interesting liquid treasures from around the world. Founded in 2008, it aims to curate the world’s most remarkable spirits. Only 31 different expressions have been released by the company so far, and previous releases include a 1947-vintage Cognac and a 50-year-old blended Scotch. Its latest discovery is perhaps its rarest. Release no.32 will be a single-malt Irish whiskey in partnership with Louise McGuane of whiskey bonder JJ Corry. This bespoke liquid was carefully blended by famed Irish whiskey blender Helen Mulholland from a selection of rare casks, using whiskey distilled at a historic Irish single-malt distillery. The youngest whiskey in the composition is 32 years old, and the resulting blend is finished in an ex-Oloroso Sherry butt. Fewer than 650 bottles will be released, at £2,250 each.

It seems that the successful path laid down by Scotch whisky for extra-old expressions is one that Ireland is embracing. As demand for Irish whiskey continues to explode, distillers will no doubt have an eye on the future now, hatching plans for longer- aged releases. However, the stocks from the middle to the end of the last century will naturally be very constricted. And this is where the real opportunity lies for collectors, investors and curious drinkers alike, for Irish whiskey from the 20th century is far more scarce than whisky from Scotland and, currently, has a price tag that is softer and more approachable. My guess is that it won’t stay this way for long. And with good reason, because these whiskeys are quite remarkable.