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 Knockrath Forest Irish Single Pot Still Whiskey
97 points
Amber color. Aromas of crisp peanut candies, butterscotch, roasted almonds and walnuts, leather, and spiced wine with a round, vibrant, dry medium-to-full body and a warming, massive, endless jamon iberico, oolong tea, caramel latte, and toasted hazelnut biscotti finish. A truly delicious Irish Single Pot Still Whiskey with an elegant and persistent finish of delicate herbs and cured meats; outstanding and conversation-worthy.
The Tyrconnell 16 Year Old Single Malt Oloroso & Moscatel Cask Finish Irish Whiskey
97 points
Gold color. Aromas and flavors of honeycrisp apple, fresh tangerine, wild strawberry, pastry dough, and golden raisin with a satiny, lively, dryish light-to-medium body and an effortless, complex, very long finish with suggestions of rosehip tea, butterscotch, acacia, and jasmine finish. A journey for the senses that traverses every inch of the palate.
Jameson Bow Street 18 Year Old Cask Strength Irish Whiskey
96 points
Light amber color. Aromas of toffee, rum-raisin ice cream, spice cookies, candy corn, and pecan praline with a velvety, vibrant, dry medium body and a graceful, intricate, long orange marmalade on fudge cake, jamon serrano, salted Marcona almonds, buttered brioche, wildflower honey, and sage finish. Excellent depth of flavor and memorable length, this rich and layered Irish Blended Whiskey objectively overdelivers for the category.
Redbreast 21 Year Old Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey
96 points
Amber color. Aromas and flavors of salted Marcona almonds, palo cortado sherry, raisins, chocolate ganache, caramel, and leather with a round, vibrant, dry medium-to-full body and a peppery, very complex, very long finish with notes of yuzu marmalade, lime leaf, tobacco, peppery rye, galangal, and coconut-drizzled caramel. A stunningly complex Whiskey with a powerful crescendo of flavor that lifts the imbiber to new hedonic heights; an exceptional dram.
The Tyrconnell Single Malt Irish Whiskey
94 points
Light gold color. Aromas of honeyed pears, cola, cinnamon-dusted raisin, spice drops, and toasted croissant with a velvety, vibrant, fruity light-to-medium body and a smooth, appealing, medium-long flan with caramel, nutmeg, sponge cake, and sea spray finish. A delicious Irish Single Malt whiskey with a spectrum of spice flavors and a lengthy finish.
94 points $44.99
Midleton Very Rare 2017 Irish Whiskey
94 points
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 finish with accents of 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
Kilbeggan Small Batch Rye Irish Whiskey
93 points
Gold color. Fruity aromas of ripe peaches, shortcake, baked pineapple, candied ginger, and bread pudding with a satiny, vibrant, dry light-to-medium body and a warming, intricate, very long marmalade, melon, seeded dinner rolls, white peppercorns, lilac, and grilled tartlettes finish. A fantastic Irish Whiskey with lively fruit aromas and a complex, blossoming palate; engaging.
The Legendary Silkie Dark Irish Blended Whiskey
93 points
Dark gold color. Aromas of grilled meyer lemons, incense, dates, iodine, black olives, and wheat crackers with a satiny, crisp, dryish light-to-medium body and a sleek, delightful, medium-long mesquite, bananas flambé, and marjoram finish. A peated Irish Blended Whiskey with unique flavors; a worthy dram sipped neat or mixed into thoughtful stirred cocktails.
93 points $42.99
Kilbeggan Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey
93 points
Gold color. Aromas of candied apricot, peach tea, ginger, honeyed biscuit, and hints of lavender with a slightly chewy, vibrant, dryish medium-to-full body and a smooth, subtle, long chocolate covered malt ball, carob, and whipped cream finish. A vivacious Irish Single Pot Still Whiskey with undulating high notes of peach and ginger with sultry, chocolatey undertones.
Redbreast 12 Year Old Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey
93 points
Amber color. Aromas and flavors of chocolate wafer cookies, carob, raisins, cherry stone, and spiced shortbread with a supple, lively, fruity medium body and a tingling, long finish that exhibits nuances of roasted nuts, toffee, hints of cured meats, and herbed black olives. A deliciously complex and balanced Irish Single Pot Still Whiskey with notes of dried fruits and toffee complimented by savory hints of olive and prosciutto; a must-try.