About Irish Whiskey

The Scots most likely learned about distilling from the Irish (though they are loath to admit it). The Irish in turn learned about it, according to the Irish at least, from missionary monks who arrived in Ireland in the seventh century. The actual details are a bit sketchy for the next 700 years or so, but it does seem reasonable to believe that monks in the various monasteries were distilling aqua vitae ("water of life"), primarily for making medical compounds. These first distillates were probably grape or fruit brandy rather than grain spirit. Barley-based whiskey (the word derives from uisce beatha the Gaelic interpretation of aqua vitae) first appears in the historical record in the mid-1500s when the Tudor kings began to consolidate English control in Ireland. Queen Elizabeth I was said to be fond of it and had casks shipped to London on a regular basis.

The imposition of an excise tax in 1661 had the same effect as it did in Scotland, with the immediate commencement of the production of poteen (the Irish version of moonshine). This did not, however, slow down the growth of the distilling industry, and by the end of the 18th century there were over 2,000 stills in operation around the country.

Under British rule Ireland was export oriented and, along with grains and assorted foodstuffs, Irish distillers produced large quantities of pot-distilled whiskey for export into the expanding British Empire. Irish whiskey outsold Scotch whisky in most markets because it was lighter in body. It is said that in the late 19th century over 400 brands of Irish whiskey were being exported and sold in the United States.

This happy state of affairs for Irish distillers lasted into the early 20th century when the market began to change. The Irish distillers, pot still users to a man, were slow to respond to the rise of blended Scotch whisky with its column-distilled, smooth grain whisky component. When National Prohibition in the United States closed off Irish whisky's largest export market, many of the smaller distilleries closed. The remaining distilleries then failed to adequately anticipate the coming of Repeal (unlike the Scotch distillers) and were caught short without adequate stocks when it came. The Great Depression, trade embargoes between the newly independent Irish Republic and the United Kingdom, and World War II caused further havoc among the distillers.

In 1966 the three remaining distilling companies in the Republic of Ireland—Powers, Jameson, and Cork Distilleries—merged into a single company, Irish Distillers Company (IDC). In 1972, Bushmills, the last distillery in Northern Ireland, joined IDC. In 1975 IDC opened a new mammoth distillery at Midleton, near Cork, and all of the other distilleries in the Republic were closed down with the production of their brands being transferred to Midleton. For a 14-year period the Midleton plant and Bushmills in Northern Ireland were the only distilleries in the country.This sad state of affairs ended in 1989 when a potato-peel ethanol plant in Dundalk was converted into a whiskey distillery. The new Cooley Distillery began to produce malt and grain whiskeys, with the first three-year-old bottlings being released in 1992.Irish whiskeys, both blended and malt, are usually triple distilled through both column and pot stills, although there are a few exclusively pot-distilled brands.

Irish Pure Pot Still Whiskey is generally labeled as such. Otherwise, Irish whiskeys are a mix of pot and column-distilled whiskeys. Irish Malt Whiskey is likewise so designated. Standard Irish Whiskey is a blend of malt and grain whiskies.

Top Picks and Reviews for Irish Whiskey

21 Year Old Single Malt Vintage Reserve Irish Whiskey
Brushed amber copper color with an olive cast. Layered aromas and flavors of dark raisin toast, honey butter, lightly smoked peat, dried peaches, and leather with a dry-yet-fruity medium-full body and a complex roasted whole nut, dried flower, honeycomb, and delicately smoky mineral accented finish with noticeable wood tannins. A very complex, long-aged Irish whisky for contemplative sipping and cigars.
98 points $199.99
Date Tasted: in our Chicago tasting lab
12 Year Old Cask Strength Irish Whiskey
Gold color. Musty aromas of mocha and vanilla, caramelized fruits and nuts, spice cake, and leather with a body and a warming, elegant, very long toffee, dried tropical fruits, sweet and peppery spices, and limestone finish. A powerful cask-strength Irish whiskey with a tons of fruit and spice.
Date Tasted: in our Chicago tasting lab
Rarest Vintage Reserve Irish Whiskey
Pale amber color. Complex aromas and flavors of caramelized roasted pecans, honey pastry, dried fruit, suede, brown spices with a supple, dry-yet-fruity and a very long and evolving, complex raisin chutney, passionfruit, creamy vanilla, and pepper accented finish. A superb marriage of grain and oak.
Date Tasted: in our Chicago tasting lab
Barry Crockett Legacy Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey
Clear gold color. Creamy, fruity, spicy aromas and flavors of peach custard and granola, pineapple buttercream, spicy praline, and orange cola and blossoms with a round, vibrant, fruity medium-full body and a warming, very complex, very long orange and pineapple marmalades and panettone finish. A fantastically robust and fruity Irish whiskey.
Date Tasted: in our Chicago tasting lab
21 Year Old Irish Single Pot Still Whiskey
Brilliant golden amber color. Attractive, fruity aromas and flavors of caramelized tropical fruits, melted vanilla toffee, granola in cream, and sarsaparilla float with a silky, vibrant, fruity medium-to-full body and a warming, complex, very long apricot cobbler, sweet spices, and nuts and oak finish. A sensationally vibrant and spicy Irish whiskey with well balanced long aged wood tones.
Date Tasted: in our Chicago tasting lab
12 Year Old John's Lane Release Irish Single Pot Still Whiskey
Dark light gold color. Fruity aromas and flavors of caramelized fruits and nuts, chocolate frosting, and rich baking spices with a vibrant, fruity medium-full body and a warming, elegant, long spicy fruit cake and minerals finish. A rich, spicy Irish single pot still whiskey that is sure to please.
Date Tasted: in our Chicago tasting lab
Barr an Uisce "1803"
10 Year Old Single Malt Irish Whiskey
Gold color. Nutty aromas and flavors of honey roasted nuts, caramelized peaches and figs, muesli, and clay with a silky, bright, fruity medium-to-full body and a tingling, complex, creme brulee, spicy pie crust, and minerals finish. An elegant, nuanced Irish whisky with a great combination of fruit and spice.
94 points $79.99
Date Tasted: in our Chicago tasting lab
13 Year Old Single Malt Irish Whiskey
Golden amber color. Delicate, creamy, fruity spicy aromas of cola, cherry chutney, and white toffee with a satiny, lively, fruity medium-to-full body and a warming, interesting, medium-length alpine honey lozenge, peppery spices, nuts, and minerals finish. A tasty and refreshing Irish whisky with a lots of appealing flavors.
94 points $99.99
Date Tasted: in our Chicago tasting lab
Knappogue Castle
14 Year Old Single Malt Irish Whiskey
Old gold color. Rich aromas of honeyed raisins, blossoms, and buttery fruit custard pastry with a silky, fruity-yet-dry medium-to-full body and a long, grainy, nut, pepper and dried fruit driven finish. A lush, flavorful Irish whiskey that will shine with cigars.
Date Tasted: in our Chicago tasting lab
The Irishman
Single Malt Irish Whiskey
Rich amber color. Bold aromas of toasted fruitcake, praline, and creme brulee with a supple, fruity-yet-dry medium-full body and a lush, warming finish with notes of sweet baking spices, roasted chestnuts, pepper, grain husk, and mineral ore. A fantastic sipping whiskey.
Date Tasted: in our Chicago tasting lab