Irish Whiskey Primer


One of the fastest-growing spirits gains popularity for its soft, creamy taste.

One of the fastest-growing spirits gains popularity for its soft, creamy taste.

Whether a winter’s night toddy or looking ahead to St. Patrick’s Day, Irish whiskey is one of the fastest-growing spirits categories in the U.S., but it is often misunderstood. The category includes a range of whiskeys with widely different flavor profiles—some are blends and others are single malts or single–pot still whiskeys.

The base-level bottlings of Jameson, Michael Collins, Tullamore D.E.W., 2 Gingers, Paddy, Kilbeggan, and Bushmills Irish whiskeys are all a blend of more neutral, column-distilled corn whiskey with richer, more flavorful, pot-distilled whiskey made from malted or unmalted barley.

These blends—and Irish whiskey in general—are soft, creamy, light, and easy to drink. They have no harsh kick and most are sold at 40 percent ABV, so there isn’t much alcohol burn, either. Irish whiskeys are a great introduction to brown spirits for the rum and vodka drinker, and they mix superbly well with ginger ale, or served as shots with a beer chaser.

Older blended Irish whiskeys may become richer in flavor, but are no more challenging to drink. Irish whiskey brands that offer high-end versions of their products with a minimum age statement—Powers Special Reserve 12, Tullamore D.E.W. 12, Jameson Limited Reserve 18—are a nice step up, and are best appreciated on their own without mixers, or with a chaser of beer or ginger beer.

The most-popular brands of Irish whiskey sell unblended (all pot-distilled) variants at a higher price point, with the notable exception of Jameson. These unblended whiskeys are called either single-malt or single-pot still whiskey.

Single-malts are distilled from all-malted barley made at one distillery, just like scotch whiskey. Single-malts made at Bushmills are triple distilled, while those made at Cooley (Knappogue Castle, Connemara, Tyrconnell) are double-distilled. We expect a lighter flavor from more distillations, but with the mild aging climate of Ireland, all these whiskeys are soft.

The single-malts from Bushmills are aged in barrels that previously held bourbon, sherry, port, or Madiera, and you can really taste the influence of the other wines. Tyrconnell, too, emphasizes cask finishing, which adds rich wine notes to the soft whiskey flavor. They make nice dessert and digestif sippers. Fans of Glenmorangie scotch will probably enjoy these brands.

The largest outlier in Irish whiskey is probably Connemara, a peated Irish single-malt whiskey. (“Peated” is shorthand for “smoky” in whiskey.) Tipplers who like Islay whiskies (Laphroaig, Ardbeg, Bowmore, Lagavulin) are likely to enjoy Connemara.

At the Midleton distillery in Cork, they make both the blended Jameson line and “single-pot still” (formerly known as “pure-pot still”) whiskeys. As opposed to single-malt Irish whiskey, single-pot still whiskey is distilled from both malted and un-malted barley. This gives all the products that come out of Midleton an apple flavor and a pleasantly oily texture.

Some of the single-pot still whiskey is used in Jameson, and it makes up the entirety of single-pot still Redbreast, Green Spot, Yellow Spot, Power’s John Lane, and Midleton Barry Crockett Legacy. The Redbreast in particular should appeal to the macho scotch- and bourbon-drinking customers, while the Legacy should appeal to customers who ask for the most-expensive thing on the menu.

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