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

Redbreast 27 Year Old Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey Batch 1
100 points
The stylish, brooding Irish Single Pot Still Whiskey that will surely be unforgettable for the Whiskey connoisseur; a dapper extrovert that engulfs the senses.
Awards: 2021 Best Whiskey
Midleton Dair Ghaelach Kylebeg Wood Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey
98 points
A powerful yet graceful and flavorful Irish Single Pot Still Whiskey that has a spicy, high-octane mouthfeel without overwhelming the palate.
Awards: 2022 Best Irish Single Pot Still Whiskey
Redbreast 27 Year Old Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey Batch 2
97 points
Inviting balance of sweet and spicy with some serious age, layers of contemplative flavors make this a true Whiskey drinker's dram.
Blue Spot 7 Year Old Cask Strength Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey
96 points
A rich powerhouse of a Whiskey that deserves attention and absolutely delivers with waves of fruity and spicy flavors.
Knappogue Castle 21 Year Old Exclusive Cask Vatting Single Malt Irish Whiskey
96 points
An incredible example of Irish Whiskey; lush and balanced flavors, extraordinarily well done.
Awards: 2022 Best Irish Single Malt Whiskey
Redbreast 21 Year Old Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey
96 points
Pastry dough and dried fruits only hint at the age and complexity of this seriously delicious sipper.
Jameson Bow Street 18 Year Old Cask Strength Irish Blended Whiskey
96 points
A bold and spicy Whiskey to pair with any momentous occasion or your favorite cigar.
Awards: 2022 Best Irish Blended Whiskey
Midleton Barry Crockett Legacy Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey
96 points
A focused Whiskey with sweet and sunny flavors with hints of sea salt; would make a lovely pairing with oysters.
Midleton Dair Ghaelach Bluebell Forest Tree 03 Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey
96 points
A rich and sophisticated Irish Single Pot Still Whiskey that sets the standard for the category.
Yellow Spot 12 Year Old Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey
95 points
A benchmark example of Irish Whiskey and the tremendous class of the pot still category.