Words by M. Carrie Allan, Special To The Washington Post
Legend says St. Patrick drove all the snakes out of Ireland. What drove out the distillers? It once had more than 1,000 distillers, though, ranging from those running tiny farm stills making poitin (think Irish moonshine) to some of the largest distilleries in the world. Yet between that time and the 1940s, a series of trials and tribulations all but crushed Irish whiskey, dropping the number of commercial distillers in the country to three.
How the category not only survived but also staged a comeback is a story that should have whiskey lovers raising an appreciative dram. New distilleries are popping up around the country, there is talk of a boom and many young makers are preserving the best traditions while exploring new directions. John Teeling, who in the late 1980s, after years of planning and work, ended Irish Distillers’ longtime monopoly when he launched Cooley Distillery. His sons, Stephen and Jack, went on to launch Teeling Whiskey, initially using stocks of Cooley’s whiskey, after Cooley sold to booze giant Beam Suntory in 2012. Teeling is the first new distillery in Dublin in 125 years.
Now, says Stephen Teeling, “we’re trying to revive some of the heritage and innovative ways in which Irish whiskey is made going back generations,” while also trying to make it relevant for newer whiskey consumers by innovating with different grains (the mash bill) and aging in different types of casks.
Irish whiskey, Teeling says, “went from 60 percent of the world’s whiskey market to just 1 percent in the ’80s. It was just devastating. . . . But since Pernod Ricard has come in and a few other new innovations, Irish whiskey has been the fastest-growing grain spirit in the world, really blazing a trail.
Writer, Lew Bryson, points out in his book Tasting Whiskey: ‘As soon as you say try to define Irish whiskey, you notice exceptions. Not all Irish whiskeys are triple-distilled, not all Irish whiskey is blended. ‘Knock your head against it long enough, and you’ll realize the glib answer is the correct one: Irish whiskey is whiskey that’s made in Ireland,’ Bryson writes.
But he says Irish is a great place to start getting into the whiskey world. “Well over half of Irish whiskey is drunk straight,” he says. “I think there’s a direct reason for that: It’s the approachability of the whiskey. ‘Smooth’ is an overused term, but you can’t avoid it when you talk about Irish whiskey.”
Along with Jameson, Tullamore D.E.W. and Bushmills are two hugely popular lighter Irish blends. But if you want to go a little deeper in your Irish whiskey explorations, try some of these:
Redbreast 12-Year-Old Single Pot Still (40 percent alcohol by volume): The classic pot still Irish – a big, rich, spicy whiskey full of dried fruit notes, nuttiness and a sherry note from the Oloroso casks it’s aged in.
Teeling Irish Single Grain (46% ABV): Bourbon lovers might be particularly interested in trying this one, which has a 95 percent corn mashbill. Aged in ex-California Cabernet wine barrels, it has lovely vanilla, dried fruit, pepper and toffee notes.
Glendalough 13-Year-Old Mizunara Finish Single Malt Irish Whiskey (46%): This whiskey spent most of its years in ex-bourbon barrels but was finished in rare Japanese Mizunara oak; the result is a long, nutty, almost chocolaty finish – just beautiful.
Tyrconnell 16-Year-Old single malt (40 ABV): Lovely almond and roasted pineapple notes. Tyrconnell whiskeys are known for green apple and citrus flavors, which come from the even climate and double distillation.
Green Spot Single Pot Still (40% ABV): Spicy, honeyed, caramelly – another classic Irish pot still whiskey.
Knappogue Castle 12-Year Single Malt (40% ABV): It’s mellow and fruity with notes of vanilla-butter and a bit of clove and other spices.
Connemara Peated Single Malt (40% ABV): The rare Irish whiskey that dries its barley using peat. It combines the honeyed, mellow spice character Irish whiskey is known for with a smoky peat note that it definitely isn’t.
The Dead Rabbit Irish whiskey (44% ABV): Produced in partnership with Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry, the founders of New York City’s much-loved Irish bar, this is a nice blend of Irish single malt and grain whiskeys, with a good hit of vanilla and spice.
Featured Image: Zima Balazs, Teeling Distillery