It’s time to reacquaint your palate with the whiskies from the land of ‘uisce beatha’ (water of life). You can be forgiven for categorizing all Irish whiskey as Light & Fresh. Irish whiskey production dates back to the 1400s, although recent years have seen the industry dominated by a few large-scale distillers. However, despite being the largest whiskey-producing country in the 19th century, the category has been in decline throughout the last 50 years.
Those distillers’ core products displayed a certain similarity in their flavour profile. The big brands were typically made from blends of malted (unpeated) barley, unmalted barley and other grains, distilled in a mix pot still and column stills – as opposed to the Irish tradition of using exclusively Irish pot stills – all of which contributed to their consistency but at the sacrifice of losing certain flavour compounds and intensity. This in combination with the Irish tradition of triple distilling contributed to the lighter, less assertive character of Irish whiskey.
Irish whiskey is undergoing a renaissance and massive resurgence in popularity, led by a new crop of artisan distilleries. Only 5 years ago, you could count the number of Irish distilleries on one hand, but now you need all your fingers and toes. Innovation, which for many new distillers is a return to traditional whiskey making, is pushing the Irish whiskey category forward. The new energy hasn’t been lost on the country’s biggest distillers, whom themselves are creating new, exciting brands that respect their past but also embrace new ideas. It’s an exciting time for the emerald isle’s whiskey industry.
Let’s take a look at some the new styles and flavours emerging in Irish whiskey.
Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey
Not to be confused with Single Malt Irish Whiskey. This is whiskey made from a blend of malted and unmalted barley and possible other grains that has been distilled exclusively in a pot still. An innovative style in modern context but in reality, a return to the traditions of Irish whiskey making. Expect a richer mouthfeel – a result of more retained essential oils – along with some spicier and fruitier aromas, flavours compared to those made from a combination of pot and continuous distillation.
Flavours: Spice, Orchard Fruit, Tropical Fruit, Malt
Whisky Taste Profiles: Medium & Fruity, Medium & Spicy
Irish Whiskey Recently, there has been a move to Single Malt Irish Whiskey, meaning a whiskey made from exclusively malted barley, distilled in a pot still at a single distillery. Like their Scottish cousins, wide variations in style exist as result of individual choices such as double or triple distillation or how the malted was dried. Typically, given the use of exclusively malted barley, you can expect a richer texture than traditional, entry level, Irish whiskies. Generally speaking, expect a little of classic Irish honey to come through, but depending on maturation techniques and malting preferences, there can be a range of flavours.
Flavours: Honey, Citrus, Orchard Fruit, Vanilla, Smoke
Whisky Taste Profiles: Medium & Fruity, Medium & Spicy, Robust & Complex, Robust & Smoky
Peated Irish Whiskey
While far from traditional, there is a limited amount of peated Irish whiskey. The most well-known, and long the only, is Cooley Distillery’s Connemara Peated Single Malt Irish Whiskey. While far from the over the top smoky, camphor style of Scotland’s Islay – occupying the lighter side of the Robust & Smoky category - there are obvious smoke tones that combine with fresh, honey, grain and bright fruit flavours typically associated with Irish whiskey.
Flavours: Honey, Grain, Citrus, Smoke
Whisky Taste Profiles: Robust & Smoky
New Wood Finishes
All Irish whiskey is by law aged in wood for at least 3 years, but the rise of Single Malt Irish Whiskey and new brands seeking their own unique identities has led a rise of new maturation techniques. Sherry casks finishes are even becoming somewhat passé as distilleries discover new vessels for the final aging of their spirits including but not limited to red wine casks, Port casks, Maderia casks, rum casks and of course ex-Bourbon casks. Jameson, notably, is even finishing whiskies in casks that have been used to age beers such as IPA and Stout.
Flavours: Honey, Raisin, Dried Fruit, Spice, Molasses, Vanilla, Smoke, Red Berry, Blackberry, Coffee, Chocolate
Whisky Taste Profiles: Medium & Fruity, Medium & Spicy, Robust & Complex