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
100 points
$585
Amber color. Aromas of candied lemon and ginger, echinacea, toasted caraway seed, caponata, and sarsaparilla with a velvety, vibrant, dryish medium-full body and a warming, very complex, endless cola, eucalyptus, Chinese 5-spice, exotic woods, and creme brulée finish. 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
The Tyrconnell 16 Year Old Single Malt Oloroso & Moscatel Cask Finish Irish Whiskey
97 points
$100
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
$208
Golden amber color. Woody aromas and flavors of dried figs, spiced chocolate, toasted almonds, thyme, and oak with a chewy, crisp, dry medium-full body and a warming, appealing, long finish with notes of vanilla-caramels, grilled peach, and apple crumble. An oak-centric Irish Blended Whiskey with power and potency.
Awards: 2021 Best Irish Blended Whiskey
Redbreast 21 Year Old Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey
96 points
$260
Gold color. Aromas and flavors of floral honey, flan and nougat, and spiced nuts in a cedar bowl with a supple, bright, dry-yet-fruity medium-to-full body and a layered, very long finish revealing suggestions of dried tropical fruits, rich brown and peppery spices, granola with vanilla cream, and BBQ rub. A most-deserving Single Pot Still whiskey that delivers deliciousness with every sip.
Midleton Dair Ghaelach Bluebell Forest Tree 03 Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey
96 points
$356
Golden amber color. Aromas and flavors of salted almonds, basque cake, thyme, and lavender with a satiny, vibrant, dry medium body and a warming, interesting, very long finish that shows impressions of leather, brown sugar, black tea, orange peel, and black licorice. A rich and sophisticated Irish Single Pot Still Whiskey that sets the standard for the category.
Limavady Single Barrel Irish Single Malt Whiskey
94 points
$49
Golden amber color. Aromas and flavors of peach, starfruit, spiced caramel, butter cookies, and hints of grapefruit with a velvety, vibrant, dryish medium-full body and a peppery, very complex, very long finish conveying impressions of toasted scones with honey, baked apples, roasted nuts, and toasted sourdough. A complex Irish Single Malt with big impact and big elegance.
Awards: 2021 Best Irish Single Malt Whiskey
Powers Johns Lane 12 Year Old Single Pot Still  Irish Whiskey
94 points
$65
Gold color. Aromas and flavors of honeyed dried stone fruits and apple pie filling, fruit punch, frosted cereal, and raisin soda bread with a slightly chewy, fruity medium-to-full body and a tingling, refreshing, long finish revealing notes of ginger-fig cookie, minerals and copper, and anise and spice. An artful dance of bright fruit and dry minerals makes this an interesting and worthy sipper.
Jameson Coopers Croze Irish Whiskey
94 points
$71
Gold color. Candied aromas and flavors of pistachio creme, banana pudding, caramel, and earl grey tea with a round, crisp, dryish full body and a silky, breezy finish with notes of crushed nuts in toffee and maple. An ultra-smooth, luxuriously aromatic Irish Blended Whiskey that delivers.
Redbreast 12 Year Old Cask Strength Irish Single Pot Still Whiskey
94 points
$117
Golden amber color. Aromas and flavors of chai latte, red apple, butterscotch pot de creme, chocolate-covered toffee, tobacco, and roasted peanuts with a satiny, vibrant, dry medium-to-full body and a peppery, nuanced, long finish. A nutty and palate-pacifying Irish Single Pot Still Whiskey that delivers.
The Tyrconnell Single Malt Irish Whiskey
94 points
$44.99
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