These days, it seems everything Irish is golden. The emerald island itself is undergoing an economic renaissance that has made it the darling of the EU and some call it the Celtic Tiger.
Every industry in Ireland is becoming including restaurants, hotels, pubs, and more importantly the exports of Irish whiskey. Today, Irish whiskey has become the world’s fastest growing brown spirit. Needless to say, this popularity originates from the substantial marketing efforts of IDL (Irish Distillers Limited); and smaller distillers are benefactors.
Practically all consumers enjoying Irish whiskey for the first time state that it is smoother and more pleasant than Scotch whisky, both characteristics emanating mainly from Coffey- still- distilled products. Previously, Irish whiskey was aged for three years as the law requires, but today many distillers surpass this period by a few years minimum. As a result of longer aging and better selection of barrels, Irish whiskey overall has undergone a “ taste revolution “ many people seem to like. Small distillers are also using pot stills, at least partially to impart more flavour to their products.
Interestingly enough, a century ago, Irish whiskey was considered to be the world’s foremost whiskey, toppled from grace while Scottish whiskies started their march to popularity not only in the British Empire, but in many European and South American countries.
Ireland’s historians believe their country to be the birthplace of whiskey. The resources for creating whiskey are widely available (barley), crystalline spring water and an alcoholic beverage tradition dating back to the 6th century when Christian monks brewed primitive beers from wheat. Folklore tells us that distilling goes back 1000 years and it may be plausible since whiskey really is nothing more than distilled beer.
English King Henry II’s returning soldiers in the 12th century, described how much they enjoyed the local libation of Ireland, an intoxicating lubricant uisce beatha, Gallic for “ water of life “. Uisce beathe eventually evolved into whiskey.
Most of the 19th century was the Irish whiskey’s halcyon day, when it was the gold standard of whiskey. Then a series of internal and global events precipitated the bubble to burst.
Ironically, it was an Irishman who caused one of the first fractures in Ireland’s whiskey industry. Aeneas Coffey, an Irishman working for the English government as an inspector in Scotland, advanced the technique of continuous distillation with the introduction of the patent still (a.k.a. Coffey still) This steam-powered three-column still can distil huge volumes of mash in a single operation at less cost and much faster than pot stills.
Scottish distillers were quick to perceive the economic and commercial advantages of the Coffey still and invested heavily in it.
When Andrew Usher invented the “ blended whisky “ Scottish distillers reduced their costs significantly and by the 1890’s Scotch whisky was outselling Irish whisky.
World War I and the 1919 –1921 Irish war did not help matters, but the worse was that Irish distillers were oblivious of the pending repeal of the Prohibition in the U S A (1933), whereas their Scottish counterparts were well prepared.
Most Irish whiskey today is distilled in Coffey stills and comes out at 80 percent ABV (alcohol by volume) to be diluted to 60 percent for aging which occurs mostly in American white oak 55 US Gallon barrels previously used for Bourbon aging. Some distillers use oloroso sherry casks, others port. The minimum aging period by law is three years but most distillers surpass it by many years. After blending, the whiskey is diluted to 40 – 43 percent ABV.
There are three Irish whiskey varieties; grain whiskey (mostly derived from corn), malted barley pot-still-distilled, and pure pot-still (a combination of malted and unmalted barley distilled in copper pot stills). Irish distillers use unmalted barley for less pronounced biscuit flavours, and for malting heat moisture is used.
Irish whiskeys tend to be super-smooth, less assertive in taste, and finish with a pleasant freshness.
The most important distillers of Ireland are: Irish Distillers Group (owned by Pernod-Ricard a French liquor conglomerate); John Jameson and Sons Ltd. (founded in 1780); John Power and Sons ; Tullamore Dew, Bushmill (holder of the oldest distillery licence in the world dating back to 1608), Tyroncell, Coonemara, Mulligan and Co.
Below, please find the finest Irish whiskeys money can buy:
Bushmill’s aged 12 years Distillery Reserve
Bushmill’s Malt 16 years
Coonemara Cask Strength 59.6 percent ABV
Jameson Limited Edition aged 15 year
Jameson 12 years old
Magilligan Single Malt Irish Whiskey 43 percent ABV
Tullamore Dew 12 years old
The Tyroncell Single Malt
Black Bush Irish Whiskey 43 percent ABV
Jameson 1780 12 year old Single Malt
Midleton Very Rare (an outstanding and rare whiskey worth every penny)
Article contributed by Hrayr Berberoglu, a Professor Emeritus of Hospitality and Tourism Management specializing in Food and Beverage. Books by H. Berberoglu