For many North Americans, their only taste of Irish whiskey usually comes from a shot glass after a few beers on St. Patrick’s Day. And that’s a shame. Some of the greatest whiskeys available come from the Emerald Isle, as does the primary ancestry of at least 35 million North Americans.
It wasn’t always that way. In fact, Irish whiskeys were more popular than Scottish, Canadian or even American here just a few generations ago. But the Irish War of Independence (1919 to 1921) hit the industry hard as a near-boycott by the British and Commonwealth nation shuttered many distillers, and Prohibition (1920 to 1933 in the U.S. and 1918 to 1920 in Canada) killed off many more. But cooler heads have prevailed, and Irish whiskies are once again becoming popular, going head-to-head with the best Scotland, the U.S., Canada and Japan have to offer. Here’s a look at 8 of the best Irish whiskeys on the market.
Redbreast 12 Year Old
Not only is this an outstanding whiskey in its own right, but it’s a great way to introduce yourself to the more traditional Irish method of single pot still whiskey making. Unlike many Irish whiskeys, which taste like they could be from Western Scotland, Redbreast has a lighter, less malted taste that is purely Hibernian. While it seems everyone who tastes Redbreast raves about its other-worldly smoothness — as well they should — but its nutty, citrus peel nose, spicy taste and long, dessert-like finish should probably get just as much hype. Resist the temptation to drink this one neat, even if that’s part of your persona, because just a few drops of water can really bring out Redbreast’s complexities.
Tyrconnell Single Malt
If you’re not sure how deep your commitment to getting into Irish whiskeys is, give this lesser-known bargain a try. It’s another Irish whiskey that’s a definite departure from the Scottish norm. Looking for smoke or an alcohol bite? You won’t find them here. Instead, you’ll get an almost bourbon-like smoothness, a sweet, fruity nose that complements its honey and oak flavor. At its price-point it’s hard to beat, no matter what the competition’s country of origin. This is a great bottle to have on the table for a card game, with or without cigars.
Locke’s 8 Year Old
If you’re a dyed-in-the-kilt scotch drinker who might want to stray just a little toward Irish, Locke’s could well be your gateway whiskey. The name of the game here is maltiness. The roasted barley grain are so deeply clear that you’d be forgiven if you thought this 8 year old from Kilbeggan was actually a much older vintage from the Highlands. Other flavors — notably fruit, oak and several grains — also show through to give Locke’s a complexity that belies its years. Serve this to a snooty scotch drinker and watch as he or she tries to identify its provenance.
Knappogue Castle 12
This is a gem worth hoarding. Made by Irish whiskey giant Bushmills, Knappoque Castle is a boutique brand that is harder to find, but well worth the search. As indicated by its color — there are darker white wines — it’s delightfully light as whiskeys go. But in that very lightness comes a wild diversity of tastes that seem endless on the palate. With a nose that teases with apple, barley and honey, it quickly dives into a subtle mix of barley, honey and even red berries on the palate. The best part is that no taste ever seems to muscle out any of the others. And all that flavor comes with a creamy smoothness you wouldn’t expect in so light a whiskey. If there’s a complaint to be had, it’s that the finish doesn’t last. That, of course, just makes you want to start the experience all over again. Although it’s not expensive, this is not a whiskey to be wasted by those who wouldn’t appreciate its complexity.
Powers John Lane Release
While most Irish whiskeys tend to follow tradition perhaps too closely, this dandy is a bit less conservative. Aged in a combination of charred bourbon and Oloroso sherry casks, the result is unlike any other Irish whiskey. The first clues of its wild but controlled nature is its deep, slightly red color and its oak, leather, fruit and smoky nose. And its flavor — full of dark tastes like chocolate, riasins, blackcurrants and coffee — is rich and smooth without the tiniest misstep. And it finishes with strong vanilla. Although not a truly definitive Irish whiskey, it certainly is among the best. Serve it when you would normally break out a high-dollar bourbon, but never before dinner.
Connemara 12 Year Old Peated
If you’d like to try the most Irish of all whiskeys, look no further. Because other types of whiskeys are much more familiar to North Americans, the best way to describe Irish is by comparison. In short, think of American smoothness and drinkability with Scottish depth and flavors. Add is a distinct oily earthiness, and you have Connemara 12 Year Old Peated. Don’t take that label lightly; while several distinct flavours show up — apple and malt in the nose, butter and honey on the palate with a spicy vanilla close — they are all subdued by that smoky peat that reminds tasters of Talisker or Lagavulin. But it’s a lot smoother than either of them.
Midleton Barry Crockett Legacy
If awards mean a lot to you, be aware that this whiskey has more than you can reasonably shake a stick at. And it richly deserves them. Aged in a combination of bourbon and new American oak barrels, Midleton Barry Crockett Legacy has a distinctly American, rather than Scottish, feel to it. Creamy smooth, like a bourbon, it also has a long, vanilla and butter finish. Very complex, with flavors ranging from floral to tobacco, it is not for the uninitiated, nor is it for anyone looking for peat. But it easily justifies its reputation and its elevated price tag.
The Wild Geese Classic Blend
Not all great whiskeys are expensive, and this one is proof. Double, instead of the traditional triple, distilled then aged in bourbon barrels, this delightful blend spars well above its weight pricewise. Right from the first sniff of its nose, it reveals itself as a complicated and enticing drink. It begins with oak, but then has both malt and berries battling for your attention. On drinking, you’ll notice a distinct series of flavors that seem to politely allow one another room to breathe. This is exactly the kind of low-cost but enjoyable whiskey you’ll break out for yourself or your closest friends when your mission is to enjoy, not to impress.