Irish Whiskey - History, Regions & Production Techniques

A Complete Guide to Irish Whiskey

For anyone who is familiar with or enthusiastic about whiskey, it should come as little surprise that the popular spirit has major roots in Ireland. After all, Irish whiskey is easily one of the most popular whiskeys on the market and — after rebounding from a decline in popularity during the early 1900’s — one of the fastest growing spirits in the world. It’s also a major part of Irish culture and has long been seen as one of the most iconic exports associated with the region. 

Even the word itself is derived from the Gaelic “uisce beatha,” a phrase that translates to “water of life” — something that speaks to the way that the people in Ireland take pride in their whiskey and the vital role it plays in their history and social tradition. The drink boasts a long and storied history, from its creation at the beginning of the early-Renaissance to its current reign as one of the most popular beverages on earth, and notable bottles and distilleries that make up the industry.

Irish Whiskey History

No one knows for certain when or where whiskey first originated, but a widely circulated belief credits Irish monks with bringing distillation to Europe after picking up some 11th-century perfume-making techniques in the Mediterranean. The first known record of Irish whiskey was in 1405 in the Annals of Clonmacnoise, a chronicle of Irish history that covers notable events stretching from pre-historic times to 1408 AD. This is where the earliest utterance of the phrase “uisce beatha” can be found, meaning Irish whiskey is first known to exist about 90 years ahead of its Scottish competitors — making it one of the earliest known distilled beverages in all of Europe.

Of course, this original version of Irish whiskey was very different from the one that’s sold today, something it owes to the distinct way in which it was produced — the drink would often be flavored with a mixture of herbs and would never be aged before consumption. And while small-batch, home-distilled Irish whiskey was a thing throughout the 15th and 16th centuries, production on a major scale began in earnest in 1608, when Old Bushmills opened the first licensed whiskey distillery in Ireland (after founder Sir Thomas Phillips was granted permission to do so by King James I).

In the years after the Bushmills Distillery opened, Irish whiskey production would only increase, though in many cases it was done without record. This is largely due to a tax that was introduced by the Royal Crown in 1661. Because the new law required Irish whiskey producers to register and pay taxes, many opted to instead produce their products unregistered and illegally — an act that many lawmen (often landlords who provided housing for these very operations) kept quiet.

While they were perhaps late to the party, the 1800’s saw Scotland outpacing Ireland’s whiskey production thanks to their discovery of the column still in 1831, a larger alternative to the more traditional pot still that allowed for a much higher yield. As far as quality is concerned, however, the whiskey being made in Ireland using pot stills was highly regarded, rapidly growing in popularity throughout this time. By the early 20th century, anyone drinking whiskey in the United States was most likely drinking Irish whiskey.

There were some setbacks, of course. Being the most widely consumed whiskey in the U.S. wasn’t very profitable during the country’s prohibition of alcohol, for example. The popularity of Irish whiskey in the UK, as well, was put to an abrupt end by the Irish War of Independence. The industry faced a decline, with many of the remaining distilleries (James, Powers and Cork Distillers) then joining forces to start the Irish Distillers Group. With the opening of the New Midleton Distillery in 1976 — where most popular Irish whiskey brands currently distill their product — the beginnings of a comeback were in place.

After the 1988 purchase of Irish Distillers Group by Pernod-Ricard, a French alcohol company known for their distinctly flavored liqueurs, Irish whiskey business began to boom once more, solidifying the style’s dominance in the industry and paving the way for new distillers to push the medium forward.  A recent example of this is Dublin’s Teeling Whiskey Distillery, which opened in 2015. It was the first Irish whiskey distillery to open its doors in Ireland’s capital in over 125 years.

Production Techniques for Irish Whiskey

Generally speaking, there are three types of Irish whiskey that are produced. The highest quality is made entirely with malted barley, while the lowest is made entirely from grain. Somewhere in the middle, blends using both are also made, with higher malt content signifying a better tasting batch. Grains need to be pressure cooked before the fermentation process because their starches need to be broken down and converted to sugar. When using barley nowadays, a distillery will typically buy the product already malted and custom suited to their needs. In the early days of the industry, however, distilleries would malt the barley by steeping it in water, then rapidly dry it once the germination process needed to stop. Then, after the milling process, the grain or malted barley is mashed — or mixed with hot water — to reduce the mixture to a sweet water called wort. The wort is then cooled and mixed with yeast to begin the fermentation process.

In Ireland, pot still distillation has historically been the most common. This method begins with the wort being placed in a large copper pot to be heated. Because alcohol evaporates at a lower temperature than water, the vapor rising from the mixture in the pot will have a higher alcohol content than the actual liquid. This vapor then makes its way up the neck of the pot still, where it is then routed to a cooling unit to be gathered. Most major Irish whiskey makers boast a triple distillation process, which makes sense when one considers that many of these whiskeys are made in the same New Midleton Distillery.

Alternately, cheaper Irish whiskeys, often grain-based or blended, currently use the same column still distillation that had Scotland out-producing Ireland in the 1800’s. The main benefit of this method is that it allows producers to continuously distill batches of whiskey by speeding up the evaporation process, but it comes at a cost--the flavor is simply not as good. This is why high-quality Irish malt whiskeys are always made using pot stills. Blended whiskeys that are made only on pot stills are referred to as Single Pot Still Whiskey, noting a better quality than blended whiskeys that use the column stills during production.

After the whiskey has been distilled, it is ready for maturation. Most commonly, casks made of American oak hold the liquid until it is ready for bottling.

Notable Active Irish Whiskey Distilleries

Of the many currently active Irish whiskey making distilleries, here are some of the most dynamic, as well as some of the best to visit while in Ireland.

Old Bushmills Distillery: The oldest of all the Irish distilleries is located on the Northern tip of Ireland, in County Antrim, and remains a popular attraction to this day. Old Bushmills is also still a producer of excellent whiskey, and a bottle of their Distillery Reserve 12-year-old Single Malt — available only on premises — makes for a perfect souvenir.

Tullamore D.E.W. Visitor Centre: The Tullamore D.E.W. Visitor Centre is close to Dublin and offers a look at one of the most modern looking distilleries in Ireland.

Kilbeggan Distillery: A producer of fine blended whiskeys located just west of Dublin, this historic distillery closed in 1957, only to re-open in 2007.

Jameson Experience: This County Cork-based distillery owned by Pernod-Ricard is where a wide range of popular Irish whiskey brands — including Jameson, of course, but also Powers, Midleton and Redbreast — are made. The old Jameson distillery is also housed on premises to see, but the original building that housed the distillery — situated north in the Dublin area — still functions as a museum (it closed as an active distillery in 1971).

Teeling Whiskey Distillery: As mentioned earlier, this Irish whiskey distillery is fairly new — the first in Dublin in over 125 years — and it does some fairly interesting things with grains and malts to deliver a great-tasting whiskey.

Irish Drinking Songs

Of course, an overview of Irish whiskey would be incomplete without mentioning the country’s famed drinking songs — and there’s perhaps no example of the form more beloved than Whiskey in the Jar. This traditional Irish song is told from the perspective of a man who was wronged by his lover, and on a given night at a bar or busy thoroughfare in Ireland, it isn’t unusual to overhear this tune being sung to the rafters by a group of pub-crawlers. The song has also seen numerous popular interpretations in a wide range of styles, including traditional 60s-era folk (The Dubliners and The Highwaymen versions) and heavy rock and roll: Thin Lizzy and Metallica have famously covered the song as well, though the title in those versions has been altered to Whiskey in a Jar.

Shopping for Irish Whiskey

When shopping for Irish whiskey, you may come across an overwhelming number of options. Below is a list of affordable Irish whiskeys and some more expensive options that should provide some helpful guidance.

Classic Affordable Irish Whiskey Options: The standard, triple-distilled versions of Jameson, Bushmills, Tullamore Dew, and Powers are liquor cabinet staples and it shouldn’t be hard to see why. While they won’t stand out from the pack on any “best Irish whiskey” lists, they’re sure to satisfy most palates and wallets. All of these whiskeys sell in the $20-$30 price range and can be easily found in most stores selling liquor.

Powers Gold Label: A denser, fuller-bodied version of Powers’ flagship, this Irish whiskey works well when balanced with bright-flavored citrus but is perfectly delicious all on its own.

Green Spot Irish Whiskey: Just north of $60, this whiskey is of exceptional quality for the price. It tastes great on the rocks but works just as well with cocktails.

Tullamore D.E.W. XO Caribbean Cask: For what is certainly one of the more unique Irish whiskeys you’ll find on the market, Tullamore Dew finishes their product in a rum cask for a flavor that boasts notes of bold, tropical fruit.

Teeling Single Grain Irish Whiskey: A new kid on the block, Teeling is one of the most exciting brands in the current Irish whiskey moment. By using high craft and top-of-the-line equipment, they’ve created a memorable grain-based Irish whiskey that has notably been aged in wine barrels.

Jameson 12-Year-Old Special Reserve: This is a top-shelf classic and a must-try for anyone who loves the smooth taste of Jameson.

Redbreast 15-Year-Old: Whether you opt for the 12-year or 15-year, you’re bound to enjoy a superlative drinking experience with Redbreast. These fine bottles may cost a pretty penny but they’re worth it.

Serving Your Irish Whiskey

Most esteemed Irish whiskey distilleries will suggest drinking their product neat or on the rocks to taste the well-rounded bouquet of flavors, and they’re not wrong. A top-shelf bottle of Irish whiskey — say, a Redbreast 15 Year, or a Jameson 12 Year Reserve — is best served in either an Old Fashioned glass or a snifter. And because you want to have full control over the flavor of your Irish whiskey (something fast melting ice cubes can get in the way of), it’s advisable to grab some ice cube trays to make large ice cubes. It’s the best way to serve a drink cold without having to worry about it becoming quickly diluted by water.

Of course, affordable Irish whiskeys that float below the $60 range will make mixing more appealing, and great tasting Irish whiskey can work well in any number of classic cocktails. And when you’re pulling from your cocktail recipe handbook, chances are you’ll see many different types of glassware suggested based on the style of drink. For that Old Fashioned, you’ll need an Old Fashioned glass. For the perfect Manhattan? A coop glass (preferably chilled in the freezer) offers a refined delivery system for an upscale classic. 

These specific styles of glasses are used for a reason - their shapes allow for a comfortable feel while subtly enhancing the flavor of a fine cocktail or drink. For all your whiskey glass needs, Whiskeyglasses.ca is dedicated to providing high-quality glassware at an affordable price. From simple rocks glasses to playful tumblers to sophisticated snifters, you’ll find what you’re looking for.