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The rise and rise of Irish whiskey

Historically, premium Irish whiskey has been rare. Yet today, there is an increasing demand for high-end, well-aged – and extravagantly priced – bottlings. Joel Harrison looks at how the Emerald Isle turned the corner to yield one of the most sought-after spirits around

Words by Joel Harrison

The Collection
Workers at the Jameson distillery in Dublin gearing up for the Irish whiskey boom of the late 1800s

In 1871, the Distillers Company Ltd put out a fundraising pitch for a potential new distillery in Dublin. ‘The demand for Dublin whiskey is estimated to be more than fivefold that of Scotch at present,’ it said, in a bid to entice investors. While there may have been a touch of hyperbole around the claim, the Distillers Company would – eventually – prove a good investment; in 1986 it was bought by Guinness, a business that is today the global drinks giant (and owner of Johnnie Walker, among countless other brands) Diageo. Not even the Distillers Company would claim that it was ‘Dublin whiskey’ that drove such growth, however – and it would take even longer for the spirit that was booming as a good-time drink in the mid-19th century to mature into today’s posh pour. The journey to that point has been something of a rollercoaster ride…

midleton irish whiskey
Premium offerings from distilleries like Midleton are changing the Irish whiskey landscape

In the early 1800s, whisky-making developed from a farmhouse endeavour into a fully fledged business. But whereas Scotland built itself a network of small, often rural distilleries (by the end of the 19th century, it boasted more than 130), Ireland focused on a handful of very large, urban producers with enormous production capacity. In the mid-1800s, the ‘big four’ Dublin distilleries of William Jameson’s Marrowbone Lane operation (later the Dublin Distillers Co), John Jameson & Son’s Bow Street Distillery (home to the Jameson brand), George Roe & Co, and John Power & Son ruled the roost. Along with a handful of smaller Irish distilleries, their output at the time was highly regarded and accounted for one gallon in every seven made across Great Britain and Ireland.

But cold economic winds were to blow through the world of distilling in the first part of the 20th century, the result of huge oversupply, the Great Depression, World War I, and the onset of Prohibition in North America. The downturn led to the closure of 40 Scottish distilleries – and Irish whiskey was not immune either. Along with the same bleak economic headwinds, Ireland also had to contend with the 1916 Easter Rising and civil war, all of which had a major impact on the island’s whiskey production.

powers irish whiskey
Powers, Midleton and Jameson can all trace their history back to the early days
(photo: Irish Distillers Pernod Ricard)

By 1960, Ireland had lost 26 of the 30 distilleries that were previously operational, leaving, once again, just four across the Emerald Isle. This time, they were more evenly split across the country: Bushmills in County Antrim, Northern Ireland; Jameson and Powers in Dublin; and Cork Distilleries Company in the south. The latter three merged in 1966 to form Irish Distillers, consolidating production at a new distillery in Midleton, County Cork and leaving Dublin dry in terms of whiskey-making.

Unlike Scotch or Cognac, whiskey from Ireland had never been able to assert a premium presence within the drinks world, helped and hindered in equal measure by an Irish diaspora with a reputation for ‘the craic’ and the decidedly blue-collared thread woven into the tapestry of American society, the drink’s main export market. It wasn’t until the end of the 20th century that demand started to build towards the relative powerhouse that it has become today – and that Dublin Distillers had envisaged in its pitch 150 years previously.

Whiskey has become an ambassador for Irish luxury around the world, with the pot-still style assuming the status of a cultural emblem

By then, Ireland as a country was growing in stature. The euro would be introduced in 2002, the Celtic Tiger was in full roar, and the Emerald Isle was shining bright. Whiskey became an ambassador for Irish luxury around the world, with the potstill style in particular establishing itself as a cultural emblem.

Devised as an innovative way to circumnavigate a historic 1785 tax levied by the British Crown on malted barley destined for Irish whiskey production, the pot-still style of whiskey employs a mix of both malted and unmalted barley. The leading practitioner was Jameson, a brand that found favour as a smooth, easy-drinking whiskey. Unlike blended Scotch, which combines single malts encompassing a range of flavours, including smoky characteristics, Jameson was a blend that drew on the unique flavour of Irish pot-still whiskey and grain whiskey.

teeling irish whiskey pot stills
At Teeling, sales of Irish whiskey have risen from five million cases a year in 2010 to 14 million in 2021

Pot still is also the flagship style produced today at the Midleton distillery. Bushmills, by contrast, located on the northern coast near the Giant’s Causeway, has consistently maintained the use of only malted barley, producing a single malt style of whiskey. What Bushmills and Midleton have in common, however, is that both have always employed triple distillation for their spirit, adding an extra stage in the production over the mostly double-distilled Scottish single malts. And it is the smoothness gained from triple distillation for which Irish whiskey is best known, with the mixture of malted and unmalted barley in pot still adding layers of creamy texture and a delicate finesse, driving its popularity with consumers.

As Jameson established itself as the market leader, its success created a demand for this more premium style. Since the start of this century, pot-still whiskey brands such as Redbreast have gained a reverential following among whiskey enthusiasts, despite – or perhaps because of – their relative scarcity. Green Spot, an equally elusive pot-still whiskey, became much acclaimed by drinkers, if rarely seen; Midleton Very Rare, another blend that draws heavily on the pot-still style, appeared as an annual high-quality limited-edition release, though often at a price that proved prohibitive to many.

midleton irish whiskey
Midleton, whose annual premium releases are today a major event in the global whisky calendar, traces its history back to more modest beginnings
(photo: Irish Distillers Pernod Ricard)

Aside from a few smaller Irish whiskey brands using spirit made at Bushmills or Midleton, and the own-label Bushmills whiskeys themselves, the majority of classic brands – including Redbreast, Green Spot, Midleton and Jameson – are owned by one single company: Irish Distillers. Seeing an opportunity to focus on its single-pot-still whiskeys, in 2011 Irish Distillers launched its Single Pot Still Whiskeys of Midleton range, a collection of four versions of popular brands from its portfolio. Thrown into the spotlight were Green Spot, Midleton’s Barry Crockett Legacy, Powers’ John’s Lane and a new version of the much-loved Redbreast 12-year-old.

The past decade has seen this range grow, with a particular focus on Redbreast and the Spot range. Redbreast has a flock that includes not just the 12-year-old but a cask-strength version, too; a 15-year-old; a bottling that draws on whiskey matured in Sherry casks from the famed Lustau bodega; and 21- and 27-year old expressions. There have even been Dream Cask releases of single casks over the past few years, reaching prices that some of the auction-grade single-malt Scotch houses would be proud of.

The trailblazing releases from Irish Distillers, Teeling and Bushmills have all set the scene for a new golden age in Irish whiskey

More exotic in personality still is the Spot range. Historically, it wasn’t just distillers such as John Jameson that put their name to bottles of whiskey. Wine merchants would often purchase whiskey spirit to mature in their own former wine casks, and one such business was Dublin-based family firm Mitchell & Son. The Spot range takes its name from the system used by the Mitchell family, which marked the different ages of maturing whiskey on their cask ends with a dab of coloured paint.

Today, the Spot range is made up of a seven-year-old Blue Spot (matured in ex-bourbon, Sherry and Madeira barrels), a 12-year-old Yellow Spot (matured in wine casks from Málaga), and a 15-year-old Red Spot (drawn from ex-bourbon, Sherry and Sicilian Marsala wine casks). The classic Green Spot, meanwhile, which is usually matured in both ex-bourbon barrels and Sherry butts, has seen limited-edition releases made in partnership with famed Bordeaux winery Château Léoville Barton, as well as one matured for 12 months in casks that previously held the bold red wine of Napa Valley’s equally renowned Chateau Montelena.

teeling irish whiskey
Teeling made its name bottling whiskey from smaller distilleries before branching out into distilling

With Jameson’s launch of a limited-edition single-pot-still, the journey has now come full circle. The small-run, 15-year-old release is the first Jameson-branded single-pot-still whiskey to be released since the turn of the century, with the 50cl bottle priced at €300 a go. Just 2,220 bottles have been made available, solely through an online ballot.

Just as a rising tide floats all boats, so other producers have benefited from this premiumisation. Teeling has built a fine reputation on bottling whiskey produced at the small number of Irish distilleries that were operational during the latter half of the 20th century. The family from which the company takes its name opened its own distillery in 2015, becoming the first whiskey-distilling operation to open in the city for 40 years. Its collection includes a 37-year-old single malt that will set you back a cool £7,500.

old bushmills distillery
Bushmills stands apart not only for being based in Northern Ireland but for favouring single malt over pot-still whiskey

Not to be outdone, Bushmills – a stalwart of the Irish whiskey scene – has now joined the premium scene. Although granted a licence to distil in 1608, Bushmills’ current whiskey-making facility dates back to 1885, after the previous distillery was destroyed in a fire. For decades, the brand focused on its core bottlings of Black Bush, a blended whiskey, and the range of single malts aged for 10, 16 and 21 years. Recently, however, after years of diffidence, the distillery decided to delve into its warehouses and release a series of luxury bottlings under the Causeway Collection banner. Offerings so far include the 27-year-old ex-bourbon single-cask release (€650 a bottle), a 1995 vintage ex-Marsala cask releases (€410), a 1995-vintage ex-Málaga wine cask (€475) and a 30-year-old that originally hit the shelves at €700 a bottle but is now changing hands for twice that. The latest release in the collection is a 1991 vintage matured in former Madeira casks; it is sold exclusively through The Whisky Shop in the UK at £695 a pop.

It is hard to believe that, only a decade ago, Ireland boasted just three distilleries. Now there are in excess of 30 in operation, with more to come. The trailblazing releases from Irish Distillers’ single-pot-still range, the well-aged whiskeys from Teeling and the stellar examples of single malt in Bushmills’ new Causeway Collection have all set the scene for a new golden age in Irish whiskey.

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