The Irish invented whiskey. A bold claim, but take a cursory look on Google and you too will glean that Irish monks were the first distillers of grain. After the Moors shared methods of distillation, educated men of faith translated then practiced what had been preached on the Emerald Isle, creating the first versions of Irish whiskey. The techniques were subsequently taken to Islay and then on to the Scottish mainland.
The whiskey was good and the rest of the world agreed, up until the 19th century it was the go-too giggle juice for any discerning drinker. But then along came the Irish temperance movement to spoil all the fun, followed by American prohibition, which killed off a crucial export market. Meanwhile, scraps with the British dented another yet another income stream. Then there was the Irishman Aenus Coffey, a man who patented the Coffey still, or column still, a technology that sped up distillation. The Irish rejected Coffey, preferring their traditional pots, so Coffey went to Scotland and helped make his technology a mainstay of the whisky industry there. These elements all contributed to fall of the Irish whiskey industry, which would collapse in 100 years, with more than 2000 distilleries reduced to a handful.
With that in mind it’s reassuring to see the Irish whiskey clawing its way back. In the last decade, new distilleries have bounded onto the scene, all promising a resurgence in the native spirit. As a generalisation, we think of Irish whiskey as soft, sweet and smooth, but as you would expect, there is mastery in distillation and wood management that presents us with a wide array of styles and flavours. As a side issue, it’s whiskey with an ‘e’ – a spelling anomaly or the correct spelling, depending on your view of history.
So, if you’re celebrating St Patrick’s Day, rather than reaching for a pint of stout (an English invention) and a green wig (made in China), we recommend you indulge in something a truly native Irish whiskey instead.
Six Irish whiskies to sample
This Cork-based distillery is the beating heart of Irish whiskey with as many as 20 different distillates coming out of the facility, including Jameson. There are four pot stills on the go, a three column still and a two column still in operation, there’s huge scope for variety in the ‘new make’ whiskey here. Wood policy is also innovative, careful selection of both American and European oak impacts on the wide range of flavours, but they also employ new wood for premium blends to bring in a rich sweetness and warm spice. Jameson blends are a useful way to learn about Irish whiskey and a simple serve with some soda will ease any naysaying newbie into the category. Explore the range and you’ll find plenty for the connoisseur to consider, The Select Reserve Black Barrel (Waitrose, £35.75) being exceptional value for money. A blend, it includes a proper dose of pot still whiskey with maturation in first fill bourbon and sherry casks giving it a sultry rich quality up front and a dry sherried finish.
Head north for the other big Irish player, and one of the oldest distilleries in the world, the folks at the (especially) Old Bushmills Distillery have been licensed to make whiskey since 1608. They run pot stills, while bringing in grain for blends. The Black Bush blend is predominantly malt, rested in sherry casks, and as well as a fine example of the distillery style (Sainsbury’s, £21).
Roe & Co.
Further evidence of the revival, this is a whiskey yet to even have its own distillery. Plans to convert the power station at St James’s Gate, home to the Guinness Brewery are afoot, in the mean time this is a blend whiskies from around Ireland rested in first fill American oak and carefully blended. With a sweeter profile with a touch of ripe pear, it’s designed to work in mixed drinks (Master of Malt, £29.45).
John Teeling opened this distillery in 1998 establishing the first new whiskey distillery in Ireland for more than a century. As well as pots and columns, the whiskey is now owned by Suntory and includes a peated malt (Connemara) and single grained The Greenore 8 year old (Drink Supermarket, £31.89) is a rare find in a single grain whiskey, with a touch of citrus but also banana on the nose and a surprisingly sweet and smooth white chocolate finish, so grab a bottle whenever you can. It slides across the tongue like a sexy snake, which might’ve riled St Patrick.
Teeling Whiskey Company
Having kick started a distilling revolution, the Teeling family now owns its own facility in Dublin. Teeling Whiskey Company’s Emerald gem is the single malt, incredibly priced considering it offers up whiskeys aged for up to 23 years and a complex maturation combination in sherry, port, Madeira, white Burgundy and Cabernet Sauvignon casks (Tanners, £46)
If you’re after a Northern Irish single malt then try Dunville’s Very Rare 10 Year Old Irish Whiskey from the Echlinville finished in Pedro Ximénez casks. (£49.95, Master of Malt).
Tom Sandham and Ben McFarland are the Thinking Drinkers and will be celebrating St Patrick in their Sessions drinks tasting in London’s Museum of Comedy on March 15. They will also perform their critically acclaimed comedy theatre show at the Chipping Norton Theatre on March 17 and a London’s Underbelly Festival on the Southbank on April 14. For all details visit www.thinkingdrinkers.com