Irish Whiskey A beginners guide to the Water of Life
In the 11th century, the Irish monks were living the good life. While their Scottish colleagues were shivering in the highlands, being martyred by the Romans (who had left Ireland alone) and battling the English, Irish monks were partying it up in France and Spain, eating grapes, sniffing perfume, and drinking brandy which was known as Aqua Vitae, Latin for water of life.
When those monks got back to Ireland, aqua vitae transliterated into uisce beatha, and when the English came and whipped Ireland’s ass, as they had Scotland a hundred years before, it became Anglicised to “whiskey.” There were no grapes on this rainy, cool island, and so the Irish used barley, resulting in a honey-hued liquid with a kick.
In answer to that age-old question, yes, Irish whiskey did come before Scotch. Another fun fact: whiskey, which is almost as old as cabbage, has been around Ireland five hundred years longer than the potato. By the early 19th century, Irish whiskey was the most popular alcohol in the world. A grape blight in France meant that the French, deprived of their cognac and champagne, got on the Irish whiskey wagon. At one point there were ninety-three distillers operating in this country the size of the state of Massachusetts, which doesn’t include the small illegal producers of poteen. If Ireland was the 19th century whiskey center, then Dublin was the whiskey capital, producing ten million gallons per year of stuff that was five times more in demand than anything produced in Scotland at the time.
Ironically it was the 1916 Irish revolution that killed whiskey. This country’s defining moment bolstered patriotism while definitively crushing the “other” Irish spirit. After all, when Ireland broke away from Britain, they lost their biggest whiskey market. Distilleries in Ireland closed their doors while the English and other consumers turned to Scotland, whose whiskey brought with it its own poetry, history, and terroir.
In 1900, there were 23 distilleries in Ireland. In 2000, there were three. The few craft Irish whiskeys, were channeled through these three distillers, now located outside of Dublin, which once was the whiskey capital. Meanwhile, Scotland had the previous century to establish itself as the world’s whiskey cradle. Connoisseurs sipped triple cask Balvenie while Bushmills was something that college students to mix with Coke.
But history is cyclical. Now, a hundred years after the event that crushed it, Irish whiskey is making a comeback. During the Celtic Tiger, that hedonistic, money-making decade that began in the mid-nineties, a few enterprising souls decided that it might be fun to operate a distillery. But whiskey, like history, takes at least ten years to take hold. So while the Celtic Tiger came and went, the tech industry was birthed, the Obama administration was replaced by Trump in the States and the gay marriage referendum was passed, Irish whiskey was developing quietly and becoming more complex.
Rebirth & Revolution
Teelings and Roe have reopened in Dublin; Powerscourt is now unearthing its first bottles made from the waters of the Glendalough waterfall. In the meantime, emerging are the handful of whiskeys that Ireland hid away from the rest of the world but quietly preserved – namely the buttery Redbreast and the vanilla-scented Green Spot that once was a favourite of the writer Samuel Beckett. We are poised, it seems, for another revolution, and we wouldn’t miss it. Not for all the whiskey in Ireland.
What you need to know:
Irish versus Scottish, single pot still versus single malt. Oh, and Mel Gibson’s Braveheart.
First, Braveheart. For those of you who do not live here, you may be surprised to hear that Braveheart is considered to be a classic of patriotic cinema, up there with Once, The Commitments, and Michael Collins. Many people would rank Braveheart ahead of those other films. Even though it’s about Scotland. And stars an Australian with anger management issues.
It’s a story of a scrappy hero rebelling against the English bad guys, so one can see how, for an Irish audience, it has ostensible appeal. However, as many Irish people will inform you, the battle scenes of Braveheart were filmed in Ireland with members of the Irish Reserve Army. In fact, the iconic Braveheart moment features Mel against a waterfall, which happens to be the Irish Glendalough waterfall that gave its waters to Glendalough whiskey which will be uncasking in 2018. (Tip: If you’re new to this country and looking for friends, Braveheart is an excellent talking point.)
Anyway, Braveheart is a way of illustrating how the Irish and the Scottish share many things, from their Celtic descent to their tribal histories to their repression by the British, from their Gaelic dialects to the faint traces of brogue that one hears in Kerry and in Ulster. The Irish and the Scots have much in common. The style of their whiskeys is not one.
For starters, single malt versus single pot still. Single malt defines Scottish whisky, which the Scots spell it without the “e”, and which means that it is made from the malted barley from one place. Hence, Scottish whisky is rooted to terroir. Irish whiskey, on the other hand, is made from grain that comes all over the country, which was historically funneled into Dublin distilleries. Moreover, because of the malt tax, the wily Irish used a blend of malt and unmalted barley. This became known as Pure pot still, or as it’s known today: Single pot-still. Note: even now, the blend of malted and unmalted barley gives much of single pot-still whiskey its light, caramel tones.
Moreover, you are not going to get a lot of peat and smoke from Irish whiskey, unless you go for the Connemara Peated. Traditionally, the best Irish whiskies will be smooth and sweet with tinges of vanilla and honey, not unlike the best of bourbons, which, like Irish whiskey is a contender for the future while its history is firmly rooted in the past.
Here’s a few of our favorites:
Connemara Peated Single Malt
The most famous of the peated Irish whiskeys. Known for its notes of malt, apple, and smoke. Also one of the few single malts among Irish whiskeys.
Powers John’s Lane
A single pot still whiskey that has been aged for 12-14 years in bourbon and sherry casks. Experts swear by its hints of dried fruit, but they also say this is the way that Dublin whiskey must have tasted in its heyday 150 years ago.
Glendalough 13 Year Old Irish Whiskey
Oak-y, dried fruit, with hints of toffee.
Jameson Black Barrel
Yes, Jameson’s is not just to be mixed with your Coke. Black Barrel is aged in sherry and bourbon casks, and has notes of butterscotch and chocolate.
Teelings (Small Batch and 24 year old malt)
Teelings is the first Dublin distillery to open its doors after a hundred years. The Small Batch is light tasting and has shades of honeydew and walnuts.
There are less than 1000 bottles of the 24 year old single malt, which is quite a bit more pricey. Aged in bourbon and Sauterne casks, it has notes of oak and fruit.
Bushmills Black Bush
Aged in sherry casks, there are notes of fruit, walnut, honey, and spice, not to mention the very affordable price.
Aged in a bourbon cask and finished in Madeira casks, expect sweet and malty flavors.
Knappogue Castle, 12 year single malt.
One of the few single malt whiskies in Ireland, with notes of cream and white chocolate.
There are not a lot of old Irish whiskeys out there. The label calls it “very special.” This whiskey has lived longer than Queen Elizabeth II’s reign. At approximately $1600 a bottle, with its dried fruit and spice, it tastes like a dark, delicious and well-seasoned rum, or an expensive, aged Christmas pudding,
Along with Redbreast, it is one of the artisanal whiskeys from the past century that has survived. Samuel Beckett used to order it by the case. It is light and drinkable, reminiscent of a bourbon. Taste the history, also with the notes of pears, vanilla, and honey. Most people prefer Green Spot to the more expensive Yellow Spot, which is thinner and sweeter.
With Greenspot, this is the other artisanal whiskey to survive. Slightly oily, sweet, with notes of dried fruit and ginger, this is the original, luxurious Irish whiskey. A whiskey connoisseur once described the flavor as “the boyfriend you want to come home to after a long, cold day.” Redbreast 21 is darker and spicier, older, and more expensive.
In the end, it is all about what kind of boyfriend you prefer.
Where to drink?
You can of course drink whiskey anywhere, but these are a few places where you will be guaranteed a large variety of whiskies and a knowledgeable bartender.
Bowes Whiskey Bar, 31 Fleet St, Dublin 2, (01) 671 4038
L. Mulligan Grocer, 18 Stoneybatter, Arran Quay, Dublin 7, (01) 670 9889
Mary’s Bar and Hardware, 8 Wicklow St, Dublin 2, (01) 670 8629
Palace Bar, 21 Fleet St, Temple Bar, Dublin 2, (01) 671 7388
The Rag Trader, 39 Drury St, Dublin 2, (01) 672 7696
Darkey Kelly’s Bar, Fishamble Street, Christchurch, Dublin 2. +353 1 679 6500
Where to buy?
L Mulligan 13 Clarendon St, Dublin 2, (01) 567 2256
Celtic Whiskey Shop 27-28 Dawson St, Dublin 2, (01) 670 6441
Distillery Store At “The Temple Bar, 45 Temple Bar, Dublin 2,(01) 675 9744