Irish Whiskey: A Revival of an Old Tradition

Irish whiskey is experiencing a revival after spending decades in the shadow of its Scottish counterpart. The abundance of traditional mash bills, innovative finishes, peat embracing, and the ancient stock has helped Irish whiskey achieve new heights.

There Has Been a Major Revival of Irish Whiskey

Sales of Irish whiskey have increased dramatically over the past decade, leading to a dramatic increase in the number of distilleries in operation in Ireland, from four to nearly forty. Craft distilleries sprang up throughout Ireland after the country’s economy tanked in 2008, taking over buildings that had been used for other purposes (such as bakeries, sawmills, woolen mills, breweries, jam factories, and even prisons). There was even a church there. Within a decade, Dublin was revived as the world’s most vibrant whiskey metropolis, and in 2019, one million tourists visited Ireland’s distilleries.

Blended expressions were the backbone of the Irish whiskey industry during its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, and today, Irish blends like those popularized by Jameson, Bushmills, and Tullamore DEW continue to be at the forefront. But now, for the first time in Irish whiskey’s long history, distillers are working to create a spirit with far more nuance and variety than ever before. Here are just four areas in which Irish distillers are aiming for breakthrough success with their whiskey—and that’s just scratching the surface of what’s going on in the Emerald Isle right now.

Whiskey Made on a Single Pot Still

Three versions of single pot still Irish whiskey—from kilbeggan, drumshanbow. And tilling—made it onto Whiskey Advocate’s Top 20 Whiskies of 2020 drawing list. It’s a look that’s typically associated with Ireland but hasn’t caught on elsewhere quite yet. Many new distilleries in Ireland have recently burned their stills, so get ready for a flood of new single-pot still whiskey.

Tilling, West Cork, Glendalough, The Irishman, Tullamore DEW, Tyrconnell, The Whistler, and Jameson are just a few of the many Irish distilleries that regularly push the boundaries of whiskey finishing. Finishes for Irish whiskey can originate from a variety of sources, including virgin Irish oak and casks previously used to age port, rum, or even tequila, thanks to the whiskey’s technical jargon.

Irish Whiskey

Even though Ireland has large reserves of peat, it has traditionally been seen as the enemy of Irish whiskey because it represents Scotland. And the Irish have always had a strong connection to the land, cultivating turf for use in fires. The open fire in the middle of the room and no fireplace would have meant that you and I would have been beaten, says Alex chasco, Master Distiller at Tilling Distillery in Dublin.

Ultra-aged whiskey was formerly thought to be a specialty of Scotland and Japan, but Irish whiskey is beginning to change that perception. There are now only a handful of working distilleries and an extremely limited supply of Irish whiskey due to the industry’s demise in the middle of the twentieth century. Rare though really ancient casks may be, it is yet fascinating to see the increasing demand for older Irish whiskies (those aged at least 25 years).

There Was a “Lost Century” for Irish Whiskey

“They were very dark days,” William Lavelle, director of the Irish Whiskey Association, recalls. When I was a kid, there were hundreds of whiskey makers on this island, but by the 1980s there were only two remaining.

According to Lavelle, the 1980s marked the beginning of a turnaround for the Irish whiskey business, which he calls “a lost century” because it was then that the French spirits giant Pernod Ricard acquired Irish Distillers, the owner of the Bushmills, Jameson’s, and Paddy’s brands. The company has put its tremendous international clout behind Jameson’s brand, which has subsequently become the most popular Irish whiskey in the world and is expected to sell over 10 million nine-liter cases in 2018.

John Teeling was planning his Irish whiskey revolution about the same time that Pernod was scooping up Irish Distillers. In 1987, the Irish professor converted a potato alcohol facility into the monopoly-busting Cooley Distillery, using two columns of stills. The distillery gained notoriety for producing high-quality whiskey, and in 2011, it was sold for US$95 million to Beam Inc. (now Suntory).

There is a New Generation of Irish Whiskey Distillers

“Like any industry, it has required investment, vision, and ambition,” he argues. However, human beings are necessary in the end. An additional tide of gamblers has hit Irish whiskey in the recent decade. Irish businesses have been at the forefront of a movement to restore distilleries to their native communities.

Jack and Stephen Teeling, John’s sons, are two such businesspeople; in 2012, they bought shares from Cooley from the sale agreement with Beam and opened the Teeling Whiskey Company in Dublin. Robert Caldwell, a worldwide brand ambassador for a whiskey distillery, attributes the success of Irish whiskey to the spirit’s ability to bridge the gap between the more traditional whiskey industry and the more experimental craft whiskey scene.

Whiskey is a drink with a long and storied history, and Irish whiskey has all three in spades. On the other hand, the worldwide demand for whiskey is through the roof. Producers all around the world, from Australia to Taiwan to Israel, are redefining whiskey in ways that defy common perceptions. Irish whiskey is hardly an exception to that rule… We hope to push the boundaries of the category by exploring new flavor combinations. That’s helped whiskey attract a younger and more female clientele than it otherwise would have.

There has been a resurgence in the production of Irish whiskey as producers strive for new heights of success. Irish whiskey has risen to new heights thanks to the wide availability of traditional mash bills, unique finishes, peat embracing, and ancient stock. As demand for Irish whiskey has grown over the past decade, the country’s distillery count has skyrocketed from four to almost forty, with craft distilleries springing up all over the island.

A new generation of Irish whiskey distillers with capital, vision, and ambition is bringing distilleries back to their hometowns, diversifying the sector away from blended expressions. A suitable drink for individuals who value the drink’s rich history and want to satisfy the global demand for whiskey, Irish whiskey may be found at the intersection of the more traditional whiskey sector and the more experimental craft whiskey scene.