The Irish have been inventors of many things – the binaural stethoscope, the concept of boycotting, the cream cracker, but maybe most notably, whiskey, the so-called “water of life.”
What is whiskey? Simply put, whiskey is the product of a mash made from malted and unmalted barley that is then fermented and distilled. It’s a spirit that has stood the test of time – and travelled far! The Scottish have Scotch whisky, the Americans have bourbon, and the Japanese are now also known as quality whiskey producers too.
Read on to learn more about what distinguishes Irish whiskey from the rest.
In short, whiskey is a distilled spirit made from grain and left to mature in wooden casks for years. From humble beginnings, there are now many variations for making and maturing whiskey.
Grains such as barley, wheat, rye and corn are used and often mixed and matched for varying tastes.
All whiskey is matured in wooden casks that a cooper makes. Different woods are experimented with for the wooden barrels, giving the whiskey a distinct flavour. The most popular wood for maturing Irish whiskey is white oak.
One of the first references to whiskey was made in the Irish Annals of Clonmacnoise in 1405. It was written that a chieftain died after “taking a surfeit of aqua vitae.” What does that mean exactly, and what does it have to do with whiskey? “Aqua vitae” is the Latin equivalent of the Irish “uisce beatha,” meaning “water of life.” Otherwise known as…whiskey.
There is little written evidence of early distilling in Ireland, as oral traditions were seldom written down. In 1556, the English parliament introduced a law which meant whiskey could not be produced without an official license in Ireland.
Such a law wasn’t easily enforced outside of The Pale (Dublin), and there was a huge market for whiskey in Ireland. So the solution was easy – instead of obtaining that expensive official license, many rural distillers produced their wares under the radar, creating a drink now known as Irish poitín. This is likely another reason why many distilleries didn’t want to keep a written track of their now-illicit exploits.
By 1661, a tax was applied to every gallon of whiskey produced. As well as this, producers now needed to pay and register as an official distillery. However, the masses continued production underground to avoid heavy taxes. Thus this created a distinction between parliament whiskey (legal) and poitín (illegal).
Poitín (pronounced potch-een) means ‘small pot’ in English – notable nicknames being ‘moonshine’ or ‘mountain dew’. Why did they name it this? Illicit distillers made their unregulated poitín in small pot stills as they were easier to conceal from the law – and less of a loss if they lost a batch due to a raid.
Decline in Popularity
From the late 1700s to the mid-1900s, demand for Irish whiskey was as great as ever. However, further levies, wars, famine and the temperance movement in the US put additional strain on its success.
This gave Scotch whisky an opportunity to overtake the Irish as the favoured whiskey globally. Scottish distillers embraced the Coffey Still, while the Irish were bound by tradition. This aversion to change by the Irish made Scotch cheaper and more accessible for importing.
The distillers were unable to keep up. The impact saw the number of registered distilleries in Ireland dwindle from around 1,200 registered distilleries to less than 200 by the early 1800s.
By the 1960s, three big names in Irish whiskey – Powers, Jameson and Cork Distilleries Company – decided to join forces to form the Irish Distillers.
A slow resurgence has occurred since. Distilleries that had closed their doors have been reopening and revitalising Irish whiskey. The Irish Distillers relaxed the laws around what makes a whiskey Irish, allowing for more experimentation.
From only two distilleries operating, the lowest operating rates in Ireland in the 1980s, to over 40 currently in operation, there are very exciting times ahead for Irish whiskey as it makes its comeback.
Our distillation process makes Irish whiskey stand out from the rest of the crowd. While most other types are distilled twice, Irish whiskey is most often distilled three times. This gives it a much smoother taste than other types of whiskey.
Irish whiskey was traditionally produced in a copper pot still using malted barley. This was standard practice until the introduction of a tax on malted barley in 1795 inspired savvy distillers to bring unmalted barley and other grains into the mix to bypass the levy. This resulted in a spicier flavour – and more money in the pockets of distillers.
There are a few rules a spirit must pass before it can make the grade of being called an Irish whiskey:
There is no wrong way to enjoy a sip of the strong stuff, but there is a best practice for getting the most out of the flavour.
Choose the correct glass
The tulip glass is recommended for tasting whiskey. The bulbous bottom with its narrow top allows the whiskey to breathe and send its aromas to the top of the glass.
Inhale the aroma
After decanting your chosen whiskey into your glass, add a drop of water and give it a quick swirl. This “opens up” the whiskey, releasing its aroma. Now, you’re ready to inhale deeply and experience the scent at its best.
Appreciate the taste
Lastly, taking a small sip, allow the whiskey to roll around your mouth for a while. Allowing all the subtle tastes to reveal themselves before drinking it down.
Let us take you on a virtual journey of the best Irish whiskeys so you’re well-prepped with conversation points for your trip to Ireland. From north to south, this guide will spotlight nine of the most iconic, delicious or must-taste of all Irish whiskey. Intricately tied to Irish landscape and tradition, whiskey tasting is an experience best included on any itinerary.
One of the most famous whiskeys in Ireland and abroad, Bushmills is conveniently located a stone’s throw from the iconic Giant’s Causeway. There are many delicious options to choose from in the Bushmills range. Given its status as the oldest licensed distillery in the world, it’s also a must-see when touring the gorgeous Causeway Coastal Route.
The flavour of its whiskeys is influenced by water drawn from the River Bush – the water that passes over volcanic basalt bedrock before reaching the distillery. The same type of rock makes up the columns at the nearby Giant’s Causeway.
For a smooth taste with fresh citrus and soft woody notes, the 10-year-old single malt is a go-to. For something a little more hard-hitting, the 21-year-old single malt is matured for a further two years in Madeira casks after first maturing for 19 years in bourbon barrels. This results in a rich, fruity flavour with hints of hazelnut and chocolate.
But, the most iconic of all the Bushmills range is Black Bush – a blended whiskey made of malt that’s matured in Oloroso Sherry casks and then blended with a grain whiskey. It is beautifully sweet and smooth to drink, with deep fruity aromas on the nose. And it is best enjoyed neat over ice.
It’s possible to stop by the distillery during some downtime on our Hiking the Causeway Coast and Donegal tour.
Killowen Distillery is one of Ireland’s youngest and smallest whiskey producers, located against the backdrop of the breathtaking Mourne Mountains in Co. Down. They are both traditional in their production as well as experimental.
Their 6-year-old Rum and Raisin offering is matured in dark rum casks and boasts a pure flavour of raisins, apples and pears. The distillery has also dipped into the peat smoke of their Scottish counterparts with their 11-year-old single malt, matured in Oloroso Sherry casks for a complex taste. To experience both to their fullest, they are best enjoyed neat with a small drop of water.
Killowen whiskeys are released in limited batches, so move fast if you want to try them out. They are available online via their website and various online stockists across Ireland. Or why not drop in yourself on one of their famous distillery tours?
Meander the mystical Mountains of Mourne on a private tour of the region that can be catered just for you.
Although in production from 1857, the name Redbreast didn’t come to fruition until 1912. In honour of their namesake, in 2021, they created Robin Redbreast Day to raise money and awareness of the decline of the Robin Redbreast and the global bird population in general.
The Redbreast 12-year-old Cask Strength is one of the finest examples of a natural single pot still whiskey with its even blend of malted and unmalted barley, triple distilled in a copper pot still. And they don’t add water to the final product to compensate for the Angel’s Share lost during the maturation process. The taste is a perfect marriage of dried fruit and assorted spices with the sweetest hints of vanilla.
As the distillers say themselves, the best way to enjoy Redbreast is with someone else!
Made in Midleton, Co. Cork, the distillery is a stone’s throw from Cork City, Fota Island Resort and Ballymaloe Cookery School and Farm. Looking for an epic Irish adventure?
Kick off your bucket-lister Wild Atlantic Way bike trip in Cork with a toast of Redbreast in the region it’s produced.
From humble beginnings and premises to now exporting to 70 countries worldwide, the West Cork Distillers are one of the new generation producing whiskey. The founders are cousins and descend from a long line of distillers, so they are determined to maintain their heritage and support the local community through employment.
West Cork Distillers Bog Oak Charred Cask is matured in sherry casks before finishing in charred bog oak sourced from their local surrounds of Glengarriff. The resulting taste is one of intense cracked pepper and spices, giving way to a sweet fruity finish.
One of their blended whiskeys is the IPA Cask – a nod to the ever-growing and popular craft beer scene in Ireland. This blend of grain and malt matures in bourbon casks before finishing in a cask that once held Blacks of Kinsale IPA. The roasted nut flavour is complimented well by slightly hoppy hints.
The distillery can be found in Skibbereen, Co. Cork, a village in one of the most picturesque areas of Ireland. Wild West Cork has some of the most stunningly rugged scenery in Ireland.
Hit the roads on a self guided bike trip through Cork and Kerry, fuelled by one of West Cork Distillers’ smooth and flavourful whiskeys.
The title for the best-selling Irish whiskey in the world unmistakably goes to Jameson, with over 10 million cases sold worldwide in 2021.
It was established in 1780 on Bow Street in Dublin by John Jameson. It is now made in Midleton, Co. Cork, where all barley used in production is strictly sourced from within a 50-mile radius of the distillery.
The most famous offering from Jameson is its blended original. A mixture of pot still and grain whiskeys, it is triple distilled for perfectly palatable smoothness.
A new face among the brand is Jameson Cold Brew – ideal for lovers of both coffee and whiskey. It has all the intensity of Arabica coffee perfectly blended with the oak and vanilla flavours of the pot still whiskey.
Jameson is found across Ireland, but for a special experience, sip this whiskey in Cork, the county of its creation, where all of the barley is locally sourced, on a guided island-hopping tour of Cork & Kerry.
Much like the other new distillers who have set up camp across the country, Glendalough Whiskey was born of a conversation among friends. A group who wished to rebuild the heritage of Irish distilling.
They set up a distillery near the spiritual heart centre of Wicklow National Park – Glendalough Monastic centre. Roughly the halfway point of the long distance Wicklow Way walking trail, Glendalough is a place associated with being the ‘garden of Ireland’ and also where 6th century St. Kevin founded a monastic settlement. St. Kevin is the very man upon their label.
Glendalough places a lot of emphasis on the choice of wood for their barrels. Their Irish Oak finished pot still is notable in that it uses virgin Irish oak for its barrels – meaning nothing else has been held in the barrel before the whiskey. They use sustainable practices to fell wood from the local area. All of this effort leads to a smooth, vanilla-tinged flavour with a full-bodied toasted oak finish.
Wicklow is an incredible place, offering majestic mountains and heathery hills on the doorstep of Dublin. Hike the Wicklow Way, including a visit to Glendalough monastic site, refuelled on your trek with the whiskey of the same name.
Founded in Dublin in 1791 by James Power, Powers Whiskey is firmly one of the giants of Irish whiskey.
Compared to the newer distilleries across the country, Powers have kept things pretty traditional, with their single-pot still whiskeys all maturing in Bourbon casks. They don’t chill-filter their whiskey before bottling, so it maintains a lot of the character and full-bodied flavour developed during the maturation process.
The triple-distilled Gold Label is their most famous offering and is widely available for purchase online and in stores worldwide.
Considered one of the most popular Irish whiskeys, Powers was the brains behind the tiny bottles of booze you find in hotel rooms. They called it the Baby Power, enabling locals to try it without having to fork out for a full bottle.
Although their operations have moved to Cork, the Powers Quarter tour exists in Dublin city for those wanting to delve more into the history of this formidable presence in Irish whiskey.
Travel Ireland from coast to coast, hitting several of Ireland’s national parks, such as Wicklow, Connemara and Killarney. Relax in deluxe-grade accommodations and warm up from your journey with a Powers hot whiskey!
Situated in Ardara, Co. Donegal, on the west coast’s Wild Atlantic Way, Sliabh Liag Distillers boasts a brand of whiskeys called Silkie. A silkie, or selkie, is a legendary mermaid-like being featured throughout Irish and Celtic folklore and mythology, particularly associated with Donegal. (Want to know more? Read our Irish folklore series about the selkies). The naming of their whiskey is a testament to Sliabh Liag Distillers’ preservation of the old ways and stories.
Their Legendary Silkie Whiskey was awarded gold in the best-blended whiskey category at the World Whiskey Award. It’s a triple-distilled single malt, peated for a smokey palate. It’s very soft to drink and reveals zesty orange with a wholesome apple and pear finish.
A tasty way to imbibe this spirit is the Silkie Rua cocktail – 50ml Silkie Irish whiskey, 2 dashes of orange bitters and topped up with ginger ale.
Whether you’re interested in Donegal’s whiskeys, myth or rugged landscapes, it’s a phenomenal region to discover. Join our Causeway Coast and Donegal trip to wander the wilds of Donegal, warming up with a glass of Sliabh Liag whiskey.
Along the shores of Lough Gill in Co. Sligo lies the maturation facility for Athrú Whiskey, a magical region immortalised by the words of famed Irish poet W.B. Yeats.
The creators of Athrú whiskey have taken traditional distilling techniques and merged them with state-of-the-art technology for their production. Their output is a luxury product of hand-crafted copper stills.
Their 14-year-old whiskey is named Knocknarea, after the mountain and burial place of Queen Maeve. Its chestnut colour lends to its brown sugar and caramel taste. Sticking with it, you will experience a tobacco-like finish. It’s best had neat over ice.
Want to visit the laid-back coastal region of Sligo? Try out our private biking and yoga trip, easily customised for you and your group and plenty of chances to taste Sligo’s local whiskey.
Very much in the heart of Ireland, Tullamore Dew is produced in Tullamore, Co. Offaly. Founded in 1829, the ‘DEW’ comes from the name of a stableboy who started work at the distillery aged 15 and later became manager at age 25: Daniel Edmunds Williams.
One of the most exciting outputs from Tullamore Dew is the Cider Cask Finish. A limited edition product, it is light and refreshing. Despite its maturation in cider casks, the hints of apple are subtle, and there’s no tartness.
According to the distillers themselves, the best way to enjoy Tullamore Dew is with a pint, per the Irish tradition of having a pint with a ‘half one’ alongside it. They want to reinvigorate this tradition – although it never truly went away. To do so, pair a shot of Cider Cask Finish whiskey to sip on with a beer or stout of your choice and enjoy!
Kilbeggan is the only distillery in Ireland that can contest the oldest distillery title held by Bushmills. Although it received a license in 1608, Bushmills didn’t register as a distillery until 1784. Kilbeggan was registered and licensed in 1757. And it has a phenomenal tale of perseverance and community spirit behind it.
In 1953 the distillery shut down. After watching it fall into disrepair under new ownership, the local people established the Kilbeggan Preservation and Development Association. Fundraising took place, and they were able to purchase a caretaker’s lease in 1982, enabling them to reopen the doors and continue the tradition that made it beloved in the first place.
The first whiskey released after reopening was the Small Batch Rye. In a throwback to the late 1800s, rye was more popular with distillers to use in their mash. The taste provides a comforting warmth, combining soft cream and clove with a tinge of ginger. The finish lingers with its heat and candy flavours.