Want to learn more about Irish whiskey? Check out our guide from whiskey expert Ronan Collins below, then read our features on the best whiskies to buy, best Scotch whiskies and our favourite English whiskies. Cocktail lovers should explore our favourite whisky cocktails to make the likes of old fashioneds, whisky sours, sazeracs, manhattans and more.
Irish whiskey: an introduction
The last few years have seen an exciting renaissance in Irish whiskey, with distilleries old and new producing some of the world’s best spirits. From just four to more than 30 and counting in the space of 10 years, if the boom in new distilleries is anything to go by, then the Irish whiskey category is coming back stronger and better than ever.
With new brands coming to market every month, it can be difficult to know exactly who is nailing it and what you should even be looking for when it comes to choosing the right bottle from the Emerald Isle.
What you need to know
All Irish whiskey must be aged for a minimum of three years in wooden barrels such as oak in Ireland (including Northern Ireland). There are currently four spirit categories in Irish whiskey:
Single malt: made by one distillery, distilling 100% malted barley in a pot still. Typically giving notes of toasted oak, biscuits and malt chocolate.
Single grain: made by one distillery, distilling no more than 30% malted barley with the majority unmalted cereals (typically corn, wheat or barley) and distilled in a column still. This style usually gives light floral notes of sweet grain and honey.
Single pot still: made by one distillery, distilled from a minimum of 30% malted barley and a minimum of 30% unmalted barley with up to 5% cereals added. This is classed as the most traditional style of Irish whiskey. It’s classically a heavier style with flavours that can range from baking spices and vanilla to rich Christmas cake.
Blended: a combination of two or more styles of Irish whiskey blended together. A very exciting classification of whiskey which allows brands space to create stunning blends.
As Irish whiskey is not strictly held to maturing in oak casks, there has been a huge surge in exciting cask ageing outside of the whiskey norm. Another point to keep in mind is that while a lot of brands will triple distil their whisky, it is not a legal requirement, and is instead a style that adds to the adventurous nature of the category.
Not sure where to start? Check out our pick of some of the most category defining and innovative Irish whiskeys out currently. As a lot of brands are testing the water with products, you might have to be quick to snap up a new Irish whiskey gem.
Best Irish whiskey to buy
A favourite of newbies and connoisseurs alike, Green Spot is a seven to 10-year-old whiskey boasting an elegant and rich body with notes of baking spices, crisp green apples and chewy toffee, showcasing the single-pot-still category very well. It’s also a great whiskey for an old fashioned, making a beautiful sweet and balanced cocktail.
A corn-heavy triple-distilled Irish whiskey aged exclusively in French oak ex-cabernet sauvignon casks from California, expect sweet marmalade flavours and a dry red wine finish. Made for a highball drink on a hot summer’s day.
From the skilled brewing and distilling Lyons family, The Original is a Dublin blend of malt and grain whiskey with smooth notes of vanilla, caramel and oak. Part of this whiskey has been distilled in their stunning St. James’s Church distillery.
Whiskey bonding refers to the practice of sourcing spirit from other distilleries to be matured, blended and bottled. Once widespread in Ireland, the art of bonding had all but died out until a few years ago, when it made a comeback thanks to modern whiskey bonder J.J Corry.
From a 400-bottle second batch, The Flintlock showcases J.J. Corry’s blending and bonding skill, having created what is effectively an alcoholic vanilla ice cream with helpings of luscious syrupy pear notes and a long finish. Enjoy as a treat to kick off a bank holiday weekend in style.
Aged in first-fill American oak barrels before being finished in seaweed charred casks, this single malt boasts unique sweet maritime flavours, white pepper and an umami finish.
A small-batch, triple-distilled peated Irish whiskey with balancing notes of sweet smoke, stewed orchard fruits and rich malted biscuit. A continuation in the Bill Phil range and limited to 600 bottles, this is a gem in the Irish whiskey world.
The world’s biggest selling Irish whiskey and for good reason. It is a vanilla-filled smooth and approachable whiskey aged in ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks. Jameson is still one of the best all-round whiskeys pound for pound for every occasion.
A premium, blended cask-strength Irish whiskey bottled and bonded by the fantastic Killowen Distillery and made up of single pot still, peated malt and grain whiskey which has been finished for 45 days in French oak sauternes casks. Try this straight up in your favourite whiskey glass with a touch of water.
Aged for a minimum of 10 years in ex-bourbon and oloroso sherry casks, Bushmills 10 is the benchmark of Irish single malts. It brings to the palate lashings of malted biscuits and honey, and is great in a manhattan.
As the oldest permanent expression in the Redbreast family this does not disappoint. Each component has been matured for at least 27 years in a ruby port, oloroso sherry and bourbon casks which creates one of the most astounding whiskeys in the world. Notes of blackcurrants, fresh stone fruit, nutmeg, honey, raisins and the list goes on. A whiskey saved for a special occasion that will definitely make it even better.