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 for Irish Whiskey

Midleton Dair Ghaelach Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey
97 points
$200
Medium amber color. Complex aromas of vanilla-almond and dandelion, lime leaf, blackberry and currant, men’s cologne, and pottery with a glycerous, vibrant, dry-yet-fruity full body and a peppery, massive, endless butterscotch drenched cherries and cola, fresh new Orleans praline and resin, spearmint, baby’s breath and tobacco leaf, allspice, and clove and nutmeg-kissed pastry finish. A gentleman’s club of a dram dripping with mystery, richness, and a perfect balance of power and grace.
Awards: 2017 Best Irish Single Pot Still Whiskey
REDBREAST 12 Year Old Cask Strength Single Pot Still  Irish Whiskey
96 points
$85
Bright golden amber color. Fruity aromas and flavors of freshly sliced apple, browned shortbread pie crust and licorice candy, roses and pear skin, and pineapple and ripe sour cherry with a slightly chewy, lively, dry-yet-fruity medium-to-full body and a hot, complex, very long fluffy honey nougat and fruit cocktail syrup, milk chocolate with roasted nuts, apple crumble and burned orange peel, and sweet butterscotch and green peppercorn finish. A satisfying blend of nuance and indulgence.
Midleton Barry Crockett Legacy Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey
96 points
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.
REDBREAST 21 Year Old Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey
95 points
$150
Golden amber color. Aromas and flavors of sticky buns, peach pastry, chocolate coated toffee, crystalized ginger, cherry stone, pineapple cordial, and celery seed with a round, vibrant, fruity fat body and a nuanced, very long dark chocolate with crystallized violet petals, peanut butter caramel filled pretzel sandwich, orange peel, and coriander finish. A mouthwatering Irish Single Pot Still whiskey that will be difficult to drink in moderation.
Awards: 2018 Best Irish Single Pot Still Whiskey
West Cork 10 Year Single Malt Irish Whiskey
95 points
$39.99
Bright gold color. Elegant, tropical aromas of golden apple and malted milk ball, cinnamon crumble, starfruit and passionfruit, and marzipan and candied macadamia nut with a round, lively, fruity medium body and a peppery, complex, long graham cracker crust and white flowers, rosewood, white pepper, caramelized sweet onion, maraschino cherry pit and ginger candies, and Jordan almonds and tamarind-mint chutney finish. A delicious and sprightly single malt with bright tropicality and long, contemplative finish.
95 points $39.99
Midleton Very Rare 2017 Irish Whiskey
94 points
$155
Golden amber color. Attractive aromas and flavors of caramelized sweet agave, warm straw, sticky toffee pudding with raisins, charcoal, cherry cobbler with caramel, and ripe cantaloupe with a round, vibrant, dry-yet-fruity medium-to-full body and a warming, complex, long chicory smoke, dry rub, dried apricot, gingerbread cookies, orange confection, and white pepper finish. A lengthy and complex Irish blended whiskey worthy of a neat pour.
Awards: 2018 Best Irish Blended Whiskey
Midleton Dair Ghaelach Bluebell Forest Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey
94 points
$260
Light gold color. Aromas of toasted marshmallow, ghee, apricot, saffron, earthy tea, gingerbread, and fresh cut grass with a round, lively, dry-yet-fruity medium body and a warming, interesting, long pear and banana taffies, orange liqueur, wheat thins, and plum butter finish. A potent Irish Single Pot Still Whiskey for contemplative sipping.
Barr an Uisce "1803" 10 Year Old Single Malt Irish Whiskey
94 points
$79.99
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
Powers Signature Release Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey
93 points
$50
Gold color. Aromas of ripe apples, tobacco, ripe honeydew melon, caramel, fig bar, and burnt orange with a round, vibrant, fruity light-to-medium body and a smooth, subtle, very long grilled bread, compound butter, Peychaud’s bitters, allspice, and ginger finish. A terrifically balanced Single Pot Still whiskey with excellent concentration and length; sip this!
REDBREAST 15 Year Old Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey
93 points
$70
Gold color. Inviting aromas of green cardamom, blackberry pie, cedar, and sherry kisses with a round, crisp, dry-yet-fruity medium-to-full body and a peppery, complex, long cinnamon tea, chocolate genache, brown butter, molasses, and soy glazed nuts finish. A distinctive oak presence and rich, spicy character tilt this chewy whiskey in the direction of connoisseurs.