It’s bad enough that Americans commemorate the solemn celebration of the death of Ireland’s patron saint by going out and getting hammered, but doing so by drinking something not even made in Ireland is just a bridge too far. So this year on St. Patrick’s Day, I urge you to set aside the Shamrock Martinis and green-dyed Bud Light and celebrate the Emerald Isle by drinking its most delicious and unique booze: Irish whiskey.
By doing so, you’ll be participating in one of the most impressive liquor success stories of the new century: Irish whiskey sales have been seeing huge growth for the last two decades. US consumption more than doubled from 2010 to 2015, and then grew by another 20 percent last year alone. And since 2002, American sales of the highest-priced “super-premium” Irish whiskey are up a whopping 3,456 percent.
There’s a reason for the frenzy around Irish whiskey lately, and it’s that the spirit proves that “there is such a thing as elegance and ease with whiskey,” says Flavien Desoblin, owner of New York bars Copper & Oak and Brandy Library.
The latter has offered one of the world’s widest selections of brown spirits of all kinds since 2004, with about 1,500 bottles in total currently, including close to 400 Scotches, 200 American whiskies and 40 Irish whiskies. “It’s light, easy and fruity,” Desoblin says. “We use Irish whiskey a lot to introduce people to whiskey in general—especially people whose only prior experience was a big bourbon or a smoky Laphroaig.”
It’s appropriate that Desoblin uses Irish whiskey to introduce people to whiskey in general: It was the first type of whiskey ever made, as well. Irish monks were the first to bring distillation technology to the British Isles, around 1000 AD, and likely started distilling the local grain crop almost immediately. The earliest known written reference to whiskey comes from an Irish historical chronicle called the Annals of Clonmacnoise, which reports that a local chieftain died from drinking too much of it around Christmas in 1405. By contrast, the oldest known Scottish reference to whisky comes from 1494. The world’s oldest still-operating whiskey distillery is the Irish Bushmills, first licensed in 1608. The word “whiskey” even came into English by way of Ireland: Distilled spirits are called aqua vitae, “water of life” in Latin, which translates into Irish Gaelic as uisce beatha; uisce became whiskey, and a category was born.
It’s appropriate that Desoblin uses Irish whiskey to introduce people to whiskey in general: It was the first type of whiskey ever made, as well.
Despite its medieval beginnings, Irish whiskey didn’t reach its modern form until 1832, with the invention of the Coffey still. An Irish distiller named Aeneas Coffey created an improved design for a column still, which can operate continuously and produces a more refined and consistent spirit than a pot still, which works one batch at a time. Irish whiskeymakers embraced the new invention and the lighter, easier-drinking whiskey it produced, and the current style of Irish whiskey developed: A mix of malted and unmalted barley (sometimes with other grains like corn or rye), distilled three times for a sweet and gentle style very much in contrast to Scotch, which is typically distilled only twice in a pot still and is more assertive in its flavor.
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. Kilbeggan is distilled only two times, and Connemara is a peated single malt, much like Scotches from Islay. There are several single pot still Irish whiskies, which eschew the Coffey still and have a deeper grainy flavor, including Redbreast, Powers and Midleton. And some new distilleries are following the path of American craft distillers and making a wide variety of different whiskies, like Teeling and Glendalough.
The recent explosion in Irish whiskey comes after a long dark period for the category. The bloody Irish War of Independence and Civil War coincided with the beginning of Prohibition in the US, and both together nearly killed the industry. There were dozens of operating distilleries at the beginning of the 20th century but barely a handful by its middle. In 1966, three of the leading brands—Jameson, Paddy and Powers—closed their separate distilleries and consolidated into one company with a single distillery.
Ironically enough, it was Jameson that helped trigger Irish whiskey’s current revival, too. In the mid-1990s, Jameson started advertising itself as a spirit for shots. Freed from its stuffy reputation, it caught on among college kids and vodka drinkers, and the Irish whiskey revival was on. Jameson is still by far the most popular brand, representing almost 70 percent of worldwide Irish whiskey sales, but it’s pulled the rest of the category along behind it. And now that those frat boys who discovered Jamo during the Clinton administration have grown up, they’re starting to have a more sophisticated understanding of Irish whiskey in general. “Jameson for Irish whiskey is like Hennessy for cognac. There’s a whole category that this one brand isn’t necessarily representing.” Desoblin says. “Jameson used to be the shot, but I think 10 years from now when you say Jameson, it won’t have such a negative reputation.”
Thanks to all that growth, Irish distilleries are exploding, too. According to a report from last year by the Irish Whiskey Association, there were just four operating distilleries in Ireland in 2013 but sixteen by 2016, with another thirteen in the works. Some of the newbies include Slane, a $50 million distillery from Jack Daniel’s owner Brown-Forman that broke ground in 2015; Connacht, opened last year by a team of three Americans and an Irishman; and a new £25 million distillery in Dublin planned by world’s largest spirits company Diageo after it sold Bushmills to Jose Cuervo in 2014, which should be operational by 2019.
What keeps Desoblin hooked on Irish whiskey, he says, is that “it’s a great way to understand maturation.” Because the distillate itself is usually lighter in body and flavor, it contributes less to the final product, letting what barrel-aging adds take center stage. “Irish whiskey aged in used bourbon barrels shows the delicate character of American oak,” Desoblin says, “but if you transfer that to a sherry butt, you get a very clear impression of that cask instead.” Many Irish distillers today are finishing their whiskies in a variety of casks, from wine to sherry to rum and even beer.
Okay, ready to start drinking? Here are a few Irish whiskies to try:
BUSHMILLS 16 YEAR SINGLE MALT
“This one’s been my favorite for a long time,” Desoblin says. The rich spirit spends 16 years in ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks, and then is finished in port barrels for a few months, giving it fruitiness and a bit of acidity along with a lovely ruby-red color.
YELLOW SPOT SINGLE POT STILL
Desoblin recommends this 12-year-old whiskey, only launched in the US a couple years ago, for bourbon or Scotch drinkers looking to try Irish. “The juice is beautiful. One of those ‘wow’ moments,” he says. It’s both sweet and complex, tasting like fresh-baked cookies and butterscotch. You should also keep an eye out for Yellow Spot’s more affordable little brother, Green Spot, which is almost as delicious.
POWERS GOLD LABEL
Of all the entry-level, classic Irish whiskies, Desoblin likes Powers the best, calling it “brilliantly made.” It’s matured only in used American oak casks, which means vanilla, honey and a bit of cinnamon dominate the palate.
JAMESON RAREST VINTAGE RESERVE
Desoblin may not love Jameson’s standard bottling, but he’s a big fan of the distillery’s higher-end whiskies. This one is at the very top of the range, a blend of grain and malt whiskies matured in port barrels that was twice named Irish whiskey of the year by Malt Advocate. It can be hard to find, but the chocolate-covered-cherry notes it provides are worth seeking out.
TULLAMORE D.E.W TRILOGY
Released last year, this 15-year-old made up of three different styles of whiskey—pot still, malt and grain—aged in three different barrels—bourbon, oloroso sherry and rum. It gets caramel notes from the rum cask, nuttiness from the sherry and vanilla spice from the bourbon, which all combine for a deliciously complex flavor.