Irish whiskey production used to be bigger and better than its Scottish rivals. Made using both malted and unmalted barley and distilled in a pot still, it became the most popular spirit worldwide. The quality of Irish whiskey was consistently better than the Scotch whisky at the time, which led the Irish to add the extra ‘e’ to clearly state the difference between the brands. At one point there were around 1,000 distilleries in Ireland (although this would include unlicensed operations as well). So, what happened to this booming industry?
The ups and downs of Irish whiskey
In the 19th century, Irish whiskey was available worldwide from Brazil to New Zealand and Canada. The quality remained consistent, but due to the Irish political situation and wars, the spirit was nearly wiped out altogether. Until recently, there were only three distilleries left in Ireland.
Obviously, World War I made exporting Irish whiskey very hard, and once Prohibition began it really was downhill from there. Irish whiskey was known for its high quality, so many bootleggers would pass off their poor spirits as Irish whiskey, lowering the standard and reputation of the industry. In the 1930s, Ireland had a trade war with Britain, which limited exports to everywhere within the British Empire. This was followed by World War II, when yet again exports were stopped.
Meanwhile, the Scotch whisky industry was growing thanks to blended whiskies and continuous distillation. The quality of their whiskies was steadily improving. During WWII Americans got the taste for Scotch and the distillers were more than happy to supply American troops in the UK with stock to take home.
By the 1960s, there were only three Irish whiskey distilleries left. Together they formed Irish Distillers, a group that would work together as a team to keep the distilling going in the hopes of another wave of fame and popularity. Their main focus was on the production of Jameson, and its popularity would later bring more chances for other brands. In 1975 they set up the New Midleton distillery, which would produce different styles of whiskey in one location.
Finally, in 1988, Irish Distillers teamed up with Pernod Ricard, who’d help with the export worldwide, opening the doors again for wider production. In 2005, Diageo, another huge spirits group, bought Bushmills. With the help of these groups, the Irish whiskey category continues to grow and the quality of the products is consistent again.
The Irish Whiskey Association confirmed there were 31 distilleries open at the end of 2019.
How is it made today?
There are a few types of Irish whiskey: single malt, single pot still whiskey, grain whiskey and blended whiskey.
Single malt is produced from malted barley and is usually triple distilled in copper pot stills. Single pot still whiskey is made with a combination of malted and (raw) unmalted barley and is triple distilled in a pot still. This unique style used to be known as pure pot still.
Grain whiskey is made from a variety of grains: malted barley, corn, wheat or unmalted barley. This style is distilled using continuous distillation and is mainly used to make blended whiskey. Blended whiskey is a combination of grain whiskey (column or Coffey still) and single malt whiskey and/or single pot still whiskey. It is the most popular style in Irish whiskey production.
Most Irish whiskey is triple distilled, but this is not a rule. All whiskey must be left to mature for a minimum of three years. There aren’t any rules when it comes to the cask types, which allows plenty of experimenting with various wood types and seasoning. Also, new casks can be used.
Brands to try
There are more and more brands available these days. I went to the lovely Sona from @thespiritedwoman for some advice and recommendations.
The oldest distillery in the world was established in 1608 when the Governor of County Antrim was granted a royal licence for distilling, although the tale of Bushmills dates back some centuries prior to this. Their range includes Bushmills Original (blended whiskey), Black Bush (blended, aged in ex-Oloroso casks) and a range of Irish single malts.
Teeling whisky reopened its doors in 2015, but it was first established in 1782. Their whisky range includes Teeling Small Batch (finished in ex-rum casks), Teeling Single Grain, Teeling Single Malt, Teeling Single Pot Still, a Vintage Reserve range and some limited-edition expressions.
Teeling 24-year-old Single Malt won the world whisky award in 2019, making it the first ever Irish whiskey to be named as the world’s best single malt.
This is one of Sona’s favourite whiskies. She especially recommends the 15-year-old as good value for money. Redbreast was relaunched in 1991 after an absence of six years. Redbreast is pure pot still whiskey and it is aged for a minimum of 12 years in both sherry and bourbon casks, with the exception of Redbreast Lustau, which is aged for a period of 9-12 years.
Dead Rabbit Irish Whiskey
Dead Rabbit Irish Whiskey was created in collaboration with Dead Rabbit Grocery & Grog (an award-winning Irish Cocktail Bar in NYC) and Darryl McNally from The Dublin Liberties. This Irish whiskey is a blend of single malt and single grain whiskies, aged for five years in bourbon casks and finished in small virgin oak barrels.
I have to add Waterford Distillery to this list even if their first whisky (yes, spelled without the ‘e’) is not available until spring 2020. The distillery believes that the type of barley and the specific soil and location where it grows can enhance the flavour of any spirit – the unique taste of terroir. Over 70 farms, 19 types of soil and three methods of farming are involved in providing barley to the distillery. It’s a huge project and demands excellent logistics to separate each individual farm with the intention of capturing the very essence of terroir. Read more about Waterford Distillery here.
Do you have a favourite Irish whiskey brand? Have you visited any distilleries in Ireland?
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