Let’s clear up some myths about Irish whiskey. It’s not all triple distilled. The distilleries use peat. And they don’t just use sherry casks for ageing. In fact, you’ll find Irish whiskey every bit as complex and mature as your favourite Scottish dram. And, just as with their neighbours across the Irish Sea, there are blended whiskeys, single malts and single grains to choose from.
Ireland’s trump card, however, is a whiskey style all of its own: single pot still. It’s made with both malted and unmalted (‘green’) barley, which adds tempting notes of winter spice and fresh apple to the finished spirit.
It is blended whiskey that makes up the lion’s share of Irish whiskey, though – this is a blend of single malt and single grain whiskies, as well as the aforementioned single pot still. The most popular, by some margin, is made by Jameson.
You’ll also find single malts. These are made in exactly the same way as Scottish single malts – at one distillery, with 100% malted barley. Irish single malts are only distilled twice, just as they are in Scotland.
The final style is single grain whiskey, which will harness other grains in addition to barley, such as wheat and corn. Unlike single malt or single pot still, grain whiskeys are distilled in tall, slim column stills, producing a lighter style of whiskey.
If you were wondering why Irish distillers spell whiskey with an ‘e’ (as opposed to Scotch whisky), the reason is historical – and territorial. Back in the 19th century, the big Irish whiskey producers wanted to find a way to differentiate it from Scotch, which they regarded as inferior at the time.
But the history of Irish whiskey goes back considerably further than that. The first record of whiskey being made in Ireland was in 1405 – nearly 100 years prior to the earliest record of Scotch – with Bushmills in Northern Ireland, the world’s first licensed whiskey distillery, established in 1608.
The 20th century was one of the toughest for the industry, which was nearly wiped out in the 1980s, with just two distilleries (Bushmills and Midleton) surviving. Prohibition was a huge blow, as was World War II, which saw many Irish distilleries close – and also saw American troops discovering a taste for Scotch whisky, which by then had a number of big brands making headway across the world. By the 1980s, Irish whiskey had slumped from a 50% share of the world whiskey market to just 1%.
But the Irish whiskey resurgence has been formidable, and today there are more than 30 sites making whiskey in Ireland, with another 20 in the pipeline. This is in part down to major investment from foreign companies, as well as evolving tastes and the public simply falling in love with Irish whiskey again. There are some spectacular bottles available, too, such as The Chosen, a 27-year-old Irish single malt from JJ Corry packaged in a crystal decanter.
Another of the new breed is Teeling, a distillery located in the heart of Dublin that goes against the grain by ageing its whiskey in all kinds of weird and wonderful barrels, from white Burgundy to Madeira and even Cabernet Sauvignon. The results are born out by a string of awards, including two recent gold medals at the IWSC. Founder Jack Teeling says it’s now Irish whiskey’s “time to shine” – so what are you waiting for?