Welcome to the splendidly confusing world of Irish Whiskey! Wait, what is so confusing about Jameson and pickle backs, you say? Feel free to strap in as we delve into the nuances of the country that could be considered the first distiller of the British Isles.
During the 19th century, Irish Whiskey was in its heyday. The Irish distillers were turning out whiskey of exceptional quality compared to the Scottish whisky that was being mass produced. Let’s take a minute here to address the age-old question: why are there two spellings for whisk(e)y? Most historians seem to believe that both the Irish and American distillers added the (e) to whiskey to differentiate between the inferior products being produced in Scotland.
Sadly the reign of Irish Whiskey was not to last. Whiskey being produced in other countries gained steam over its Irish counterpart, and then clear spirits such as vodka nearly wiped all brown spirits off the map. Until recently, there were only two operational distilleries in Ireland (and they were owned by the same company). Those were Midleton Distillery in the south, and the Bushmill Distillery to the far north. Thankfully more players have entered the game recently and Irish Whiskey is slowly crawling its way back to the top.
Let’s break down the merits of Irish Whiskey. There are a few rules that must be followed during the distilling process to make the whiskey “Irish.” First, it must be distilled in Ireland. The liquid has to be distilled to 94.8% abv, and it has to be aged in oak casks for a minimum of three years. Aside from those constraints, the distillers have some freedom in how they come up with their whiskey. An interesting fact is Irish Whiskey in not required to be distilled three times, even though quite a few are. The distiller can also use additional casks such as those which have held liquor, wine, or beer.
Irish Whiskey can be put into four categories. They all have unique characteristics which showcase certain flavors and allow the whiskey to drink a certain way:
Single Malt: This has to be made with 100% malted barley and distilled in a pot still. It is also made at a single distillery. The flavors you’ll typically pick up are smooth, sweet and a bit malty.
Single Pot Still: The basic mash bill for this type is a minimum of 30% malted and 30% unmalted barley. This whiskey is also distilled in a pot still and produced at a single distillery. This whiskey is spicy and mouth coating.
Single Grain Whiskey: This is made with up to 30% malted barley, combined with whole unmalted cereal grains. This whiskey is distilled in a column still, otherwise known as a continuous still, and produced at a single distillery. These whiskeys are sweet, light and can be characterized as being floral.
Blended Irish Whiskey: This whiskey allows the distiller to use any grain and distill in any still. It can be made at a single distillery or the liquid can be sourced from multiple distilleries before being blended together. Because there is such a variety as to how this whiskey can be crafted, it can have many different flavor profiles. But typically blended whiskey is extremely smooth and mellow.
Now onto the fun part. Here is a list of my favorite Irish Whiskeys in no particular order:
The Whistler 7 Year Blue Note: This is a fantastic example of a single malt Irish whiskey. It is aged primarily in ex-bourbon barrels and then finished in Oloroso sherry casks. Even though it is bottled at 46% abv, it is still very smooth with a fairly quick finish. You’ll get a touch of salted caramel with a bit of dark fruit on the nose. The finish hints at the wood finish which makes for a pleasant pour. Personally I enjoy this one neat.
Redbreast 12 Year: This is one of my favorite pot still Irish Whiskeys. It packs tons of flavor and has a great mouth feel. A good portion of the distillate used have matured in Oloroso sherry casks, which gives the whiskey its trademark flavor. On the nose you get the spicy and fruity aroma of the wood coming through to a fantastic finish. It is extremely long and will linger on the palate. This is another example of a whiskey that is just wonderful to enjoy neat.
Writers’ Tears: This is a unique Irish whiskey in that it’s a blend of copper pot still and single malt exclusively. There is no grain in it whatsoever, which gives it a unique flavor. It is also aged solely in ex-bourbon barrels. On the nose you’ll get some apple and honey. The palate has some ginger spice and a touch of butterscotch before giving way to a long and elegant finish. I prefer this one in a cocktail. My personal favorite is not for the faint of heart: a whiskey sour. Don’t attempt this cocktail if you are opposed to drinking egg whites.
The Irishman Rare Cask Strength: This whiskey is aged exclusively in ex-bourbon barrels and is bottled at 54%abv. This extremely limited whiskey is rather hard to come by. It’s solely produced in small batches – this year only 2,595 bottles will be released to the world. Each one is specially labeled and hand signed. If you are looking for an exceptional pour, this one is it! Soft bourbon notes greet your nose before the soft oils tease your mouth giving way to drier oak. The finish lasts for days, which is aided by the higher abv. This one is best served with a few drops of water, or with a large ice cube.
Jameson: I think this is a fantastic entry level whiskey. It is young, but at the same time smooth and light. You can find it at just about any watering hole or liquor store. Mixing it with ginger ale would be ideal, but others like to shoot it with a pickle back. This distinctly American trend was officially coined in 2006. For those unfamiliar, a pickle back is a shot of whiskey followed by a shot of pickle brine. This used to be served with an American whiskey, but with Irish whiskey finding a renewed life, Jameson Yellow Label is the go-to shot now.
With St. Patrick’s day just around the corner, I hope you choose to skip the green beer and enjoy a fine pour of Irish whiskey.