The Rise of Irish Whiskey

July 9, 2019

Tonight, the entire bar is painted in shades of Irish whiskey. Mica-shaded lamps cast a golden glow down the length of the copper-tiled bar top. Even the jazz playing on the sound system lends an appropriately sepia-toned speakeasy backdrop. And every glass glints with the amber hue of whiskey.

“Have you ever considered changing the name of the bar to Whiskey Library?” I ask the bartender at Tribeca’s Brandy Library. (Despite the name, whiskey outsells brandy here.) He just smiles indulgently, and pours me another dram of single malt Irish whiskey. Yeah, you heard me, buddy (something about the hardscrabble history of Irish whiskey always inspires a little tough talk)—single malt isn’t only for Scotch. In fact, Irish whiskey offers a number of excellent bottlings to rival whiskey of any provenance. But the irony is that while Ireland is making plenty of great whiskey, very little of it is staying there. Instead, many of Ireland’s high-end whiskeys are being sent to the U.S., the country’s number-one export market for spirits—including New York, a city densely populated with Americans of Irish descent. Which has landed me here in downtown Manhattan, scanning one of the best Irish whiskey lists in New York.

Growing Fast

Over a glass of The Tyrconnell’s 10-year-old single malt—an Irish rose that spends its final months in casks that previously held Madeira, giving the whiskey a pleasingly nutty, faintly peachy flavor—Brandy Library’s Head Spirit Sommelier, Joel Cueller Flores, describes Irish whiskey’s recent ascent. “Irish whiskey has more accessible and approachable flavors” compared to other types of whiskey, he explains. When set next to challenging Scotch and oft-sweet bourbon, golden Irish whiskies are light and fresh, often fruity and grassy, and with a light hand on the peat, if it’s used at all. Yet, they’re still complex enough to hold a drinker’s interest.

No wonder gentle, drinkable Irish whiskey has been building quite a fan base on American shores. According to the Distilled Spirits Council, Irish whiskey is the fastest-growing spirit category in the United States, with an enviable 23.6 percent increase in volume sales in 2011 alone. Much of that popularity can be traced to a single brand, Jameson, which has developed a following among younger drinkers. While Jameson may have blazed that trail, other labels are paving it gold with aged blends that have matured in port or sherry casks, and unique limited-edition bottlings. Only a month earlier, I’d traveled through Ireland—and frankly, I hadn’t noticed most of these brands on the shelves at pubs and bars. In Ireland, the whiskey offerings were fairly limited, and most people seemed to drink beer or wine, not whiskey. How could this possibly be?

“Yeah, they don’t really drink much whiskey in Ireland,” confirms Tim Herlihy, an Ireland native who relocated to New York in November to become a brand ambassador for William Grant’s Tullamore brand (they call him “Tullamore Tim”). Whiskey doesn’t have the same cachet there that it has in the U.S., he explained. But it wasn’t always that way.

History by the Highball

In its early days, Irish whiskey was widely considered superior to all other European whiskies. Queen Elizabeth I was said to favor Irish whiskey; Peter the Great, Czar of Russia, wrote, “Of all the wines, the Irish spirit is the best.” Even Scottish distillers would export their wares to Ireland and have them stamped as Irish before selling them back at home for a higher price.

What made Irish whiskey so wonderful? Most experts point to the use of round-bellied pot stills for imparting character and flavor during the distillation process. The pot still continues to play a significant part in Irish whiskey’s flavor today. But a key turning point came in 1830 when Irishman Aeneas Coffey developed the column still, allowing distillers to produce in a week what would take nine months to make in a traditional pot still. Though it was cheaper and more accessible, the end product paled in comparison to pot-still whiskey, and prominent Irish distillers of the day dismissed the tasteless spirit that flowed from the column still as “silent spirit.” The Scots, however, were more receptive, and from 1860 onward, they started selling a whole new product: a blend of “silent spirit” and heartier potstill whiskies. Scotch was born.

Unfortunately, the century that followed saw a downward spiral for Irish whiskey, thanks to an unusual confluence of events. The war that eventually led to Ireland’s independence also led to an economic standoff, and the loss of the English markets. Just a decade later, Prohibition meant the loss of America as an export market. It may have seemed like the end of the line for Irish whiskey—but there was still some fight in the industry yet.

Fighting Irish

Threatened with extinction in the early 1900s, the Irish whiskey industry banded together into a single company. Even today, the Irish labels are produced at just three distilleries (Scotland, by comparison has nearly 100 operational distilleries). But the Irish whiskey comeback didn’t truly pick up steam until the “Celtic Tiger” days of the early 1990s, when it began to awaken from its long slumber. 

The Cooley Distillery opened for business and began resurrecting old Irish brands like Tyrconnell—and also resurrected the use of the pot still. Today, the key players are: Bushmills, in Northern Ireland (owned by Diageo); the New Midleton Distillery, near Cork, which produces Jameson, Redbreast (both owned by Pernod Ricard) and Tullamore Dew (owned by William Grant), among others; and Cooley, on Ireland’s east coast, which produces Tyrconnell, Connemara and Michael Collins, among others. Cooley is the youngest and, until its recent acquisition by U.S. spirits company Jim Beam, was the last independent, Irishowned distillery in operation. 

Rounding out the current landscape, some also count micro-distillery Kilbeggan, bringing the tally to “three and a half.” And in September 2012, Tullamore opened its doors as the first new Irish distillery in 60 years, although distillation isn’t anticipated to start until 2014. Since many of the fine aged Irish whiskeys coming to market now were first created during the Celtic Tiger period, the greats wouldn’t have been ready for release until quite recently. After all, the oldest Irish whiskey on the market— Bushmill’s 21-year-old—had to be put down for its beauty sleep in 1991. But most importantly: This means an influx of excellent whiskeys is coming to market.

Going Luxe

Now, Irish whiskey is more than ready for prime time. Consider, for example, the Irish whiskey “flight” offered at Brandy Library to showcase the ever-widening array of flavors in the category. Tipplers can taste their way through amber drams of Greenore 8-year-old, with a corn-heavy recipe that bears comparison to its cornfed American cousin, bourbon; luxe Knappogue Castle 16-year-old, with its aromatic sherry maltiness; or even the surprising smoky notes of Connemara, perhaps the only peated Irish whiskey on the market (and a good transition for those who enjoy peaty Islay Scotches).

“I love all of these,” insists Flores, when prompted to pick a favorite. “If you offer me a glass of any of these, I’ll not turn it down.” It’s no exaggeration to say that there’s never been a better time in recent history for those who love Irish whiskey. The options are wider—and better—than ever before, and it’s taken a luxurious turn. It may not be long before we all start viewing the world through the warm, welcoming amber of Irish whiskey-colored glasses.