Irish Whiskey – Special Report

By Stephen Beaumont for WineAlign

Ask any spirits industry observer and they will tell you that Irish whiskey is one of the hottest categories around these days. They’re right, although by Irish whiskey they really mean Jameson, since the Pernod Ricard-owned powerhouse accounts for the vast majority of Irish whiskey sales in North America, as much as 70 to 80 percent by some estimates. That said, with volume growth in Canada of well over 1,000 percent since 2001, there would seem to be ample room for all comers. And judging by the steadily expanding number of whiskey distilleries operating in Ireland, more than 40 at last count, many of which are now exporting to this country, Irish spirits producers would seem to agree.


Though it might seem hard to believe today, it was not ever thus. As late as the start of this century, the grand total of operating whiskey distilleries in Ireland was three: Midleton, producer of the Jameson, Powers, and other ranges of whiskeys; Northern Ireland’s Bushmills; and the upstart independent, Cooley. The first two, which combined to produce all but a tiny portion of Irish whiskey, were part of the same company, Irish Distillers, which in turn was owned by global spirits giant Pernod Ricard.

That all began to change in the early 2000s, with Bushmills being sold first to Diageo and then to the newly created Proximo Spirits, Beam Suntory acquiring Cooley, and most importantly, several producers, including Cooley founder John Teeling, opening up their own independent distilleries.

During this same period, the redefining of what makes Irish whiskey unique — an evolution started by Teeling during his tenure at Cooley — gained significant pace. Before we get to what Irish whiskey is today, however, let’s take a look at how it was once commonly defined.

From about the 1960s through the 1990s, Irish Distillers were quick to explain that the definitive characteristic of Irish whiskey was that it was distilled three times for a lighter character than the generally twice-distilled Scottish single malts and that none of the malted barley used was peated, the process that gives most Scottish whiskies their smoky character. Additionally, most brands, including the popular Jameson and Powers whiskeys, were and remain blends of column-distilled grain whiskeys and pot-distilled malt whiskeys. The latter are fuller-bodied and significantly richer. When bottled on their own, these are known as pot still whiskeys (sometimes single pot still or pure pot still).

The Old Jameson Distillery

What initiated the change was the arrival of Cooley in 1988, where old-fashioned double distillation was the rule rather than the exception, and peated malt was employed in the Connemara range of whiskeys. This upended the Irish Distillers narrative and set the stage for the massive expansion in distillery numbers that was to follow.

Today, the best-known and best-selling Irish whiskeys continue to be unpeated and thrice-distilled blends and the general flavour profile remains sweet — or at least sweetish — and relatively light when compared to bourbon or Scottish single malts. Irish whiskey can be grain, malt, or blend, single pot still or not, peated or unpeated, and produced by a large multinational or tiny local champion.

While this loss of simple definition can be frustrating to a whiskey novice eager to explore as many distinct varieties of the spirit as possible, it has been a massive boon to an Irish distilling industry that has returned to its pre-Prohibition status of global powerhouse. And a gift to spirits enthusiasts anxious to experience all that Ireland has to offer.

Sidebar: To ‘e’ or not to ‘e’   

One oddity of whisky worldwide is the occasional presence of an “e” between the “k” and the “y.” While it is by no means a hard and fast rule, for various reasons whiskeys produced in Ireland and the United States are generally spelled with the ‘e,’ while those made in Scotland, Canada, Japan, and most new whisky lands are not.

The Whiskeys

Jameson Irish Whiskey

Jameson Irish Whiskey; $38.95; 40%

The standard-bearer for Irish whiskey worldwide is a workhorse of a spirit, brilliant gold in colour with a honey-ish aroma holding notes of baked apple, vanilla, and a hint of toasted oak. On the palate, it is sweet and nectar-like, with ample fruity notes – expect red apple, strawberry, and a touch of lemon zest – drying towards a lightly spicy finish that features hints of cinnamon and black pepper alongside memories of dried fruit. A solid though perhaps not quite exciting spirit.

Jameson Caskmates Stout
Jameson Caskmates IPA

Jameson Caskmates Stout & IPA Editions; $40.95; 40%

Slightly darker than regular Jameson, especially the Stout Edition, these two whiskeys are finished in oak barrels that first held whiskey, then their respective beers, and then whiskey again. The results are mixed, with the IPA edition showing faint hop bitterness that detracts from – or mellows, depending on your perspective – the characteristic honeyed fruitiness of the original, while the Stout Edition augments the same with a touch of sweet roast. At only a couple of dollars more than the original, both offshoots are worthy of the attention of any Jameson fan.

Jameson Black Barrel

Jameson Black Barrel; $49.95; 40%

The rich copper colour of this whiskey reflects its maturation of what the distillery calls ‘double charred’ barrels, but you can take to mean barrels that are more heavily charred than those used for regular Jameson. More important is the higher percentage of pot still whiskey included in this blend, which results in an intensity of roasted caramel and baked apple on the nose, and a rich and rounded body with notes of concentrated vanilla, crème brulée, toasted pecan, and a hint of strawberry jam. The finish is peppery, lingering, and delightfully smooth, making this a definite sipping whiskey.

Writer’s Tears Copper Pot Irish Whiskey

Writer’s Tears Copper Pot Irish Whiskey; $54.95; 40%

What wordsmith could resist being seduced by a spirit with such a name? Still, it helps that this is also a very good, complex whiskey, bright gold with an aroma that leaps from the glass with notes of fresh stone fruit – apricot and mellow peach – oak, hints of brown spice and just the faintest touch of banana. Lively on the palate, it offers bright flavours of wildflower honey, Medjool dates, fresh apricot, and a suggestion of candied ginger. The finish is soft, smooth, and lingers with a light and fresh sweetness, suiting this to any spirit-forward whiskey cocktail.

Writers Tears Inniskillin Ice Wine Cask Finish

Writers Tears Inniskillin Ice Wine Cask Finish; $102.00; 46% CRITIC’S CHOICE

To date the only Irish whiskey to be finished in an icewine barrel, this golden spirit truly shows its pedigree with a complex aroma of lightly cooked peach, pear, and apricot mixed with heady florals and rich honey. The real delight arrives on the palate, though, with a lush mouthfeel that reveals sweet icewine notes mixed with an intensity of apricot and peach, supporting roles played by vanilla and spice cake. To do anything other than sip this neat would be a waste of very fine whiskey.

Writers' Tears Double Oak Whiskey

Writers Tears Double Oak Whiskey; $64.95; 46%

The ‘double oak’ in this case are barrels that had previously held cognac, used after the initial maturation in bourbon wood. The result is a whiskey slightly deeper gold than the original, with an aroma that is softer, much less oak-influence, and sports notes of baking spice and cooked pear. On the palate, it is both richer and rounder, with a flavour that might be compared to milk chocolate and preserved lemon, although far more harmonious than that description suggests, with lingering dark chocolate and orange on the finish. The ideal makings of an Irish Old Fashioned.

Bushmills Irish Whiskey; $36.45; 40%

Light gold in hue, the mainstay of Northern Ireland’s Old Bushmills Distillery has a delicate, grassy aroma with light and faintly confectionary vanilla notes. On the palate, there’s a sweet and gently lemony flavour segueing to hints of caramelly malted grain and a touch of floral honey, with the grassiness of the aroma reappearing in the second half. The finish has a bit of peppery spice and a long, clean dryness. A moderately complex whiskey for mixing or serving over ice.

Black Bush; $39.95; 40% BEST BUY

A blend with as much as 80% malt whiskey content, this has a rich golden hue and a full and rounded aroma with notes of green melon opening up to spice cake, date, and a hint of desiccated coconut. The body has significantly more weight than does the regular Bushmills, with orange and toffee up front, a spicy and caramelized malt body offering fruitcake notes, and a nutty, woody, and lengthy finish. Tremendous value for the money.

Bushmills 10 Year Old Single Malt; $53.95; 40%

Closer in colour to the light gold of regular Bushmills, this likewise emulates that whiskey with a fresh and delicate aroma of soft, ripe tropical fruit, fresh hay, and floral notes. The body is bright and zesty, with a light yet very full flavour profile that begins with hints of starfruit and vanilla, evolves to a more vanilla-accented mid-palate with floral grain and white chocolate notes, and finishes dry and slightly citrusy. A sophisticated and well-priced ten year old.

The Sexton Single Malt

The Sexton Single Malt; $49.95; 40%

A premium line from Bushmills, intended to ultimately have it own distillery, this sherry cask-aged whiskey boasts a rich gold colour with a full aroma of honey, figs and dates, gentle hints of milk and dark chocolate and a touch of spicy marzipan. The body is dryly honeyed up front, giving way to fruity notes of dates, dried apricots, and golden raisins, a suggestion of brown spice, and a peppery, gingery, oaky finish. Highly expressive of both its malt content and sherry barrel aging.

Redbreast 12 Year Old

Redbreast 12 Year Old; $84.95; 40%

What was for years considered the definitive pot still Irish whiskey, and a bit uncommon for Ireland in its use of an age statement, this deep gold spirit is aged in a combination of bourbon and sherry casks, the latter contributing hints of date and fig to the dense and complex aroma of stewed stone fruit, soft spice, and toasted oak, with just the slightest hint of star anise. On the palate it is rich, mild to moderately sweet, and seductive in its sherry-ish, fruit cake character, with a long, dry, almost gingerbready finish. Definitely a late night, cold weather sipper.

Green Spot

Green Spot; $79.95; 40% CRITIC’S CHOICE

The ‘Spot’ whiskeys have almost legendary status among Irish whiskey enthusiasts – there are also Yellow, Blue, Red, and the latest addition, Gold Spot labels – prized for their long history and careful maturation. This is a blend of 7 to 10 year old pot still spirits, with a bright gold colour and fruity-spicy nose that evokes ripe pear and apple with hints of white pepper. The body brings the fruit immediately to the fore, followed by baking spices, vanilla essence, and a touch of oaky caramel, finishing with a dry pepperiness. Elegant complexity.

Roe & Co Irish Whiskey

Roe & Co Irish Whiskey; $49.95; 45%

This is spirits giant Diageo’s re-entry to the Irish whiskey market, many years after their selling of Bushmills. Distilled at a new facility directly across the street from the company’s Guinness brewery, it is a blended whiskey with a deep gold colour and a fresh, lively aroma filled with bright citrusy florals and fresh vanilla. On the palate, it is sweet, round, and fragrant, with a creamy mouthfeel suggestive of clotted cream, a fresh apricot-ish fruitiness, and a peppery spice and candied fruit finish. Rich and round and equally suited to mixing or enjoying straight over ice.

Tullamore D.E.W.

Tullamore D.E.W.; $37.95; 40%

A brand with almost two centuries of history – the ‘D.E.W.’ refers to the initials of late 19th century distillery manager, Daniel Edmunds Williams – the whiskey was produced for decades by Irish Distillers until it was bought by Scotland’s William Grant & Sons in 2010 and a new distillery built in Tullamore. The present day whiskey is light gold with a grassy, almost hay-like aroma boasting citrus notes and medium weight body that’s bright and faintly cereally, with prickly spice notes and hints of milk chocolate on the finish. A natural for highballs.

The Legendary Silkie Irish Whiskey

The Legendary Silkie Irish Whiskey; $52.65; 46% CRITIC’S CHOICE

Distilled on the northern Donegal Peninsula, this blend of double and triple distilled whiskeys blended with grain whiskey and a touch of peated malt is seemingly an amalgam of all the changes Irish whiskey has experienced over the past few decades. Quite light of hue, its aroma is equal parts lightly peaty and gently briny, with notes of pound cake and a hint of canned peaches. On the body, it offers a candied pear sweetness up front, a gently smoky, biscuity, quite lightly citrusy mid-palate, and a lingering, warming finish with a suggestion of dark chocolate. Suitable for creative cocktailing, but I like it just fine on its own.

Glendalough Double Barrel Irish Whiskey

Glendalough Double Barrel Irish Whiskey; $48.95; 42%

This is definitely an Irish whiskey of a different stripe, the full body and weight of which might have you thinking more of Kentucky than County Wicklow, where it is distilled. The combination of bourbon and sherry cask maturation gives this medium gold spirit a very rich, vanilla-fuelled aroma with notes of nutmeg and plum pudding, and just a touch of lemon zest. The mouthfeel is fuller than almost any other Irish whiskey you’ll find, with butterscotch, shortbread, a touch of almond, and a hint of black cherry, ending with peppery spice and burnt citrus oil. Impressive on its own, versatile for mixing.

Kilbeggan Irish Whiskey;

Kilbeggan Irish Whiskey; $36.95; 40% BEST BUY

With now a distillery to call its own, albeit not one nearly large enough to produce all of the 168,100 cases it is said to have sold in 2020, this over two century old brand has been repatriated to its ancestral home. Double distilled to a rich gold colour, it has a somewhat cereally aroma with notes of vanilla and spiced honey. On the palate it offers honey, citrus, and a hint of white chocolate in a body that carries more weight than you might expect at this price, with a fairly short but pleasantly spicy finish. A solid spirit for pretty much any way you might wish to enjoy your whiskey.

Powers Gold Label; $39.95; 40%

Powers was once the whiskey of choice in Dublin, and still is in some quarters, until Irish Distillers elected to largely ignore it in favour of Jameson. Unseen for years outside of Ireland, it is now back with a new look in two expressions, this being the classic blend. Deep gold in colour, it has apple and Japanese pear on the nose, alongside hints of cinnamon and clove, while the taste moves evenly from a honey-ish palate entry to creamy flavours of milk chocolate, sultana raisin, and steadily growing white pepper and cinnamon, finishing with off-dry toffee notes. Arguably the boldest Irish whiskey available in this price range.

Powers Three Swallows;

Powers Three Swallows; $59.99; 40%

Although birds are depicted on the label, legend has it that the ‘swallows’ referred to what the Powers family’s trio of coachmen had to buoy themselves against the cold – three swallows from a hip flask. A single pot still whiskey, it is slightly lighter in colour and definitely so in character when compared to its blended label-mate, with a more floral and nuanced aroma of dried fruit and shortbread, flowery herbs and baked pear. On the palate, it brings the complexity of orange marmalade, vanilla, milk and dark chocolate, toasted walnut, and a bold, lingering, spicy finish. A late afternoon or early evening restorative.

Teeling Small Batch Irish Whiskey

Teeling Small Batch Irish Whiskey; $51.95; 46% CRITIC’S CHOICE

The small print informs you that this is finished in rum casks, unusual for Irish whiskey but an approach that is gaining ground in Scotland. It is also immediately evident in the aroma of the bright golden whiskey, which combines identifiably Irish notes like honey and fresh fruit with rum barrel-derived accents of spicy molasses and cooked vanilla. The body is among the sweetest in the Irish segment, with rich candied fruit up front, a mix of drying spice, mature oak, and dried orange peel in the mid-palate, and warming and peppery dried stone fruit on the finish. A frankly brilliant example of blending and barreling.

Click here to find great Irish Whiskey at your local LCBO