Ireland’s affinity for spirits has long been the stuff of legend. Liquor’s origins on the Emerald Isle date to at least the 12th century. In fact, the word “whiskey” is actually an Anglicized pronunciation of part of the Gaelic phrase uisce beatha (literally: water of life). Like their neighbors to the northeast, the Irish began distilling spirits from barley and water. Unlike the Scots, they created a product that’s sweeter, less earthy and eminently more drinkable.
At its most basic, Irish whiskey is essentially distilled beer, notes Matt Wingo of Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits beverage distributors. “Some distillers use a little corn, but barley is what primarily grows in the British Isles,” he says. Irish whiskey is distinctly different from its nearest relative, scotch, thanks to a different method of creation. Scotch bears the flavors of smoked peat, which isn’t part of the Irish recipe.
Traditionally, Irish whiskey is distilled three times, whereas scotch goes through the process only twice. That’s because the Irish developed a process that uses some unmalted (unsprouted) barley. The reason for doing so was an economic one: The island’s British rulers placed a tax on malted barley. “The unmalted grain gives a sharpness, so it has to be distilled a third time,” Wingo explains. “But the end result is a lighter, sweeter, brighter product with a lot more honey notes.”
But Irish whiskey isn’t as sweet as its American counterparts, like bourbon; it has a subtlety that lends itself both to sipping and to inclusion in mixed drinks. “Usually the first thing that people say about Irish whiskeys is, ‘Oh, that’s very smooth,’” says Amanda Kuykendall of the Asheville Yacht Club. “And it doesn’t linger like some bourbons.”
But it still works well in cocktails. “You can absolutely mix with Irish whiskey,” Wingo says. “But you have to respect it as the primary spirit in the cocktail because it can get lost.”
That balanced character is a hallmark of Irish whiskeys, from the commonly available and highly popular ones like Jameson (controlling about 80 percent of the Irish whiskey market) to premium brands like Mitchell & Sons’ Green Spot (rare but sometimes found on ABC shelves for around $100) and Red Spot (rumored to be making an appearance locally in 2019). Kuykendall recommends Jameson as a good entry point for those wanting to begin an exploration of Irish whiskeys; she mentions Bushmills and Tullamore D.E.W. as well.
Our favorite from among about a dozen Irish whiskeys tasted is Powers Signature Release, found for about $45 locally. “That one’s a sipper,” Wingo says.
Age statements aren’t common on Irish whiskeys (or on most spirits sold anywhere but the United States, for that matter). And most Irish whiskeys are a blend of several varieties, distilled through different methods. That blending allows a consistency of product. Still, Wingo says with a smile, “there’s no substitute for age; age brings a depth of character.”
Jameson whiskey is partially finished in fortified-wine barrels, adding to the sweetness and complexity of the spirit. Another major Irish distillery, Bushmills offers a variety called Black Bush that is completely finished in sherry barrels.
With a goal of expanding the range of flavor profiles within the category of Irish whiskey, distillers have begun creating varieties that get some of their flavor and character from the finishing stage. While Irish whiskeys are all aged in new American oak barrels, some distillers transfer the spirit to other barrels for the final stage.
Jameson sends some of its barrels to breweries, which return the empty vessels after their beer is made. Irish whiskey is then added to the “flavored” barrels, creating spirits that take on the character of IPAs or stouts (we can personally vouch for the rich flavor profile of the Jameson Caskmates Stout Edition, widely available locally). “That one has a longer finish with a cocoa roundness,” Wingo says. “It makes a killer Irish coffee.”
Bushmills makes yet another Irish whiskey that’s finished in casks that previously held Caribbean rum. That, too, is a delightful product, albeit one that perhaps isn’t immediately recognizable as Irish whiskey.
Perhaps the most popular mixed drink using Irish whiskey is Irish coffee. The origins of the cocktail remain a matter of contention, but most agree that Stanton Delaplane, a travel writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, was instrumental in the popularization of the drink in the early 1950s.
But there are plenty of other inventive uses for Irish whiskey. Kuykendall mentions a slightly odd one, a shooter called the Pickleback. “Just take a shot of Jameson and chase it with dill pickle juice,” she suggests. She also recommends the breakfast shot (see recipe). “That one comes out tasting like pancakes,” she says.
Despite the trend of tinkering with flavors, tradition remains a strong influence for distillers of Irish whiskey. “You don’t want to change something that has been around for 300 years,” Wingo says.