Irish Whiskey 101
Before you go telling that story about how you almost met Bono at the airport AGAIN, let’s pour a glass and learn a bit about lovely Irish whiskey.
March 18, 2021
It’s hard to claim that the best-selling spirit of the 21st century is flying under the radar, but it kind of feels like irish whiskey snuck up on us. It certainly doesn’t carry the pomp and circumstance of scotch or bourbon. No, this whiskey is hospitable and welcoming, straight from the pubs of Ireland. It’s whiskey for telling/embellishing stories and singing songs with friends. It didn’t come to steal the spotlight by burning your throat. Today, we’ll take a deeper look at this friendly Irish spirit. St. Patrick would be proud.
Brief Irish whiskey history
Irish whiskey’s story is a rollercoaster, generally alternating between feast and famine. Irish monks used Arabian perfume distillation technology to build pot stills, creating a very strong malted barley alcohol that they called “uisce beatha”, or “water of life”. Chances are this didn’t have the accessible smoothness of Jameson, but we’ll never know for sure. Medieval monks seemed to love it.
The first Irish whiskey boom
Irish whiskey took off big-time in the 18th century. Monarchs like Queen Elizabeth I and Peter the Great of Russia were on board as proponents of this smooth stuff. As the years went by, Irish distillers resisted both heavy British taxation as well as changes in distillation technology - they loved the pot still and mostly stuck with it.
Prohibition almost ruins everything
By the 20th century, the USA, with its large share of Irish immigrants, was a key market for Irish whiskey. Between 1920 and 1933, Prohibition almost doomed Irish whiskey, with just a few distilleries hanging on.
Resurgence of Irish whiskey
It’s not in the Irish DNA to quit, even when you’re behind. In 1966, the last of the Irish distillers got together and created Irish Distillers Limited to give themselves a fighting shot. They fought through some lean years, but by the 1990’s demand for Irish whiskey was off the charts again. Since 2000, Irish whiskey has been the fastest-growing spirit in the world. Talk about Irish spirit.
What’s the oldest Irish distillery?
We’ll let you decide
Bushmills got a royal distillation permit from cool dad King James I back in 1608, but the actual distillery wasn’t built until 1784. Think about that time gap the next time you feel bad about procrastinating. They’ve been operating nonstop since then.
Started in 1757, Kilbeggan has a legit claim as the older distillery, but with an asterisk: they closed down in 1957. However, they came roaring back in 2007, so you might have to just have to taste their award-winning whiskey and decide for yourself.
Scotch vs. Irish whiskey
Irish whiskey tends to be smoother and more approachable. There are two main reasons for this. First, Irish whiskey usually gets distilled three times compared to scotch’s two. Extra distillation makes for a smoother product overall. Second, Irish whiskey rarely uses smoky peat to dry their malt, so it usually lacks the intense smokiness that some scotch has. There’s no law saying that you can’t make amazing, smoky Irish whiskey with peat - see Connemara - it’s just not the main Irish style.
Which is better, scotch or Irish whiskey?
That’s between you and your tastebuds, mates. Irish whiskey has a cool, casual feel to it that contrasts a bit with scotch’s signature intensity, so it really depends on personal preference - and the occasion.
Other Irish whiskey FAQs
What kind of barrels does Irish whiskey age in?
Irish whiskey and scotch have a lot in common, too. They both age for at least three years in wooden barrels - often bourbon and sherry, but you can find plenty of different configurations. The barrels are key to both flavor and color.
What does Irish whiskey taste like?
Irish whiskey is generally smooth and light in flavor, which isn’t to say that it’s bland. Common flavors are honey, vanilla, butter and wood with a touch of sweetness.
How to taste Irish whiskey
The sensations can be complex, but the art of enjoying Irish whiskey boils down to three main things.
Nose: What do you smell when you swirl your whiskey in the glass? Taste What flavors do you get right away? Finish: Breathe out through your nose after your sip. Wait a moment and see what other flavors come to mind. How long does it last? That’s the finish (but you can have another sip).
What’s a good Irish whiskey for beginners?
Jameson and Bushmills have a healthy rivalry. They’re both old, big league distilleries making killer whiskeys, and these heavyweights have been in direct competition for centuries. There’s also the small matter that Jameson hails from the Republic of Ireland whereas Bushmills is from Northern Ireland. All politics aside, both are great intro irish whiskeys.
How are Jameson and Bushmills different?
Jameson is the flagship Irish blended whiskey, making it a good place to start. It’s easy for sitting and sipping without pretension. It has a floral, sweet nose, gently sweet fruity flavor and a nice honey/baking spice on the finish.
Bushmills has more of an herbal aroma with hints of vanilla from the oak. That vanilla comes through in the flavor too, but there’s a nice buttery character to go along with a citrus tang. Which whiskey’s better? That’s your argument to make, mate!
If you’re looking for another option, Powers is a very popular whiskey in Ireland proper. At 43.5% ABV it’s a bit more intense than Jameson or Bushmills. You can expect more notes of spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and clove throughout, so reach for this one as you get more adventurous in your tastings.
What’s a really good Irish whiskey?
Jameson and Bushmills are extraordinary whiskeys for the money, but after you’ve scratched the surface, Green Spot is indeed a step up. A single pot still whiskey aged for 7-10 years, it has great complexity. A malty nose with hints of tropical mango leads into smooth - but noticeable oak character with some floral notes. The finish is still silky smooth in that satisfying irish style.
Longer aged Irish whiskey
Longer aging periods make for more complex whiskeys. Both Jameson and Bushmills have great older options (for a premium). Redbreast 12 Year is a great starter here, with lots of great depth from aging in sherry casks.
What’s a good whiskey for Irish coffee?
We love buttery, chocolatey Slane for this one. Check out our recipe! If that doesn't feel like your thing, a smooth, warming Irish whiskey finds a home in tons of cocktails. We’ve got plenty of ideas for you.
Whether it’s St. Patty’s day or not, Irish whiskey’s certainly one of the pillars of the pub. You can bring that pub feel home tonight with Drizly!