Liquid Gold

Why Have We Fallen Back In Love With Irish Whiskey?

It has had a turbulent history, but a younger generation of drinkers into its mixable qualities has bought Irish whiskey back center stage.

05.03.15 4:01 AM ET

At the New Midleton Distillery just outside of Cork, Ireland, three of the world’s largest operating copper stills stand two stories high, visible through floor to ceiling glass windows on the outside.

The hand-hammered beauties hold over 75,000 liters of liquid, Jameson Irish whiskey, to be precise. The company has three more arriving in 2017.

At any given time, Jameson is aging over a million casks of whiskey and loses 29,000 bottles a day to angels' share alone (angels' share is the natural 2-plus percent evaporation of alcohol that occurs while aging in barrels).

Based on these few numbers alone you’d think everyone in the world was drinking Jameson with breakfast. But who is drinking all this Irish whiskey?

Turns out Irish has been on a tear for two decades. And it’s largely because Irish whiskey is consistently better tasting and higher quality than it was back then, says Lew Bryson, author of Tasting Whiskey.

At one point, French liquor giant Pernod Ricard owned two of the largest Irish whiskey brands, Bushmills and Jameson, and “sank large amounts of money” researching how to make the whiskeys better and more consistent, he says.

That investment’s now paying off in spades and allowing Irish whiskey, which in the last century nearly disappeared, to revive and prosper.

Irish whiskey sales in the U.S. alone have jumped by over 500 percent since 2002, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS). It’s the fastest growing category in the spirits industry, and yet Irish whiskey still makes up a mere five percent of the whiskey category.

Though new Irish whiskey labels are finding space on liquor store shelves and 29 new Irish whiskey distilleries are expected to open in the next decade, according to Tim Herlily, U.S. brand ambassador for Tullamore DEW, most of the growth is attributed to large brands who are attracting new, loyal drinkers.

Herlily says Tullamore DEW, which is owned by large liquor player William Grant & Sons, has been growing steadily and currently sells 140,000 cases annually in the U.S.

“Irish whiskey has transitioned from being a shot-with-a-beer to a ‘plus-one’ drunk with a mixer, most notably ginger ale. Irish and ginger has exploded, and made Irish whiskey quite popular,” Bryson says. “That’s taken Irish [whiskey] out of the ‘old white guy; ghetto and into the mainstream. Add in the growing popularity of all things Irish, the explosion of Irish pubs around the world, and you’ve got a great recipe for success.”

In other words, Irish is a go-to for the newest wave of whiskey drinkers for its light, fruity aromatics, smooth taste and mix-ability, and the experience it represents.

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As Herlily puts it: “When you drink scotch, you picture being at home by the fire…plotting the downfall of your enemies. With Irish you picture being at the bar…with friends.”

Irish is no longer being overshadowed by scotch and, unlike scotch, collectors haven’t yet driven up prices in the category, so exceptional bottles are still affordable.

The range of new higher end styles and brands like Redbreast, Bushmills 16, Yellow Spot, Green Spot, and Jameson 18 proves just how tiny the category was until now.

“Irish is no longer a one-brand category. All the majors are made differently as well, which adds variety,” adds Dave Broom, author of The World Atlas of Whisky. “It is also a realization among drinkers that whisky doesn’t automatically mean scotch.”

When you consider Irish whiskey’s history, it really had nowhere to go but up. The Irish masses of the early 18th century actually preferred brandy, and Irish booze was drunk by the lower classes.

But a rudimentary Irish whiskey flavored with roots and herbs was appreciated in Paris and by the end of the 18th century there were 2,000 stills in Ireland to meet newfound demand. Irish whiskey was made traditionally in copper pot stills and as a result, was more widely respected because it required more handcrafting.

A series of unfortunate circumstances eventually crippled the industry. In 1779 a new tax had caused a fourth of all legal distilleries to close down. After Ireland declared independence in 1919, England enacted a trade embargo against it and then Prohibition shut down the United States market.

By the 1960s only a few Irish whiskey distilleries remained and they consolidated into Irish Distillers Ltd., which produced Jameson, Bushmills and Powers.

In 1988, the Cooley Distillery began making the Tyrconnel, Kilbeggan, and Connemara brands to break up the competition. Multiple brands are still often made at one Irish distillery.

Irish whiskey is often distilled three times to give it a lighter flavor, while scotch is mostly distilled twice.

Peat is rarely used in the Irish whiskey—making process, so Irish whiskeys can be easier for new whiskey drinkers to get used to. Irish whiskey can only be labeled as such when it is distilled in Ireland and matured in wooden casks in an Irish warehouse for at least three years.

Like scotch, Irish whiskey is made from barley, but typically a mix between malted (barley is soaked in water and allowed to germinate) and unmalted.

Irish whiskeys made in this style, and which come from a single distillery are known as “single pot still,” and are inciting the most excitement in the category.

“Most of the single pot still whiskeys launched in the US market within the last 5 years, but in small volumes. We sell what we are able to produce, and the demand for these spirits is higher than our current supply,” says Patrick Caulfield, senior brand manager for Pernod Ricard’s Irish whiskey brands, adding that Jameson still makes up a whopping 76 percent of the three million cases of Irish whiskey sold in the U.S.

The region an Irish whiskey comes from is also not as crucial as it is with scotch. Instead, Irish whiskey nuances vary from brand to brand based on their distillation and aging processes. Consequently, an infinite range of styles and flavors is possible.

Yellow Spot is matured in sherry, bourbon and malaga casks, giving it the depth and range of flavors you’d expect from a fine sipping cognac or scotch.

Redbreast 12 is spicy and peppery with a few grassy and grapefruit notes. Teeling’s presents dark, dried fruits and a lingering sweetness from its aging in rum casks.

One of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s independent Irish whiskey bottlings, which it calls 117.3 or “Hubba Bubba Mango & Monstera” to keep tasters from developing bias before tasting it, is another good example.

Distilled three times and aged for 25 years in an ex-bourbon barrel, 117.3 did not take on any of the malty or oakiness one might expect of an older whiskey.

Instead, it offered a pineapple nose, mango flavor and clean mouthfeel reminiscent of the beach. A quick Google search confirmed that bottle numbers with 117 were from the Cooley Distillery. Yet “Hubba Bubba” tasted nothing like its flagship brands.

I didn’t analyze that part too much. Because as Bryson told me, “Irish whiskey is the comfortable clothing, the familiar friend, the comfort food of whiskey. You don’t have to work at it, you just enjoy it.”