There was a time not all that long ago when Irish whiskey was the most popular liquor in the world. Sadly, a number of factors – including two World Wars, the Irish War of Independence, Prohibition in the United States, and Irish distilleries’ refusal to accept the speedier production capabilities of the Coffey still – led to its downfall. Today, only three distilleries remain in Ireland, responsible for all of the Irish whiskey featured in this article, and all that can be found on liquor store shelves across the world.
But after decades of struggle, Irish whiskey is making a comeback in the United States and abroad. The number of brands is growing and stores are stocking more and more varieties. Best of all, Irish whiskey is still inexpensive compared to scotch or even most bourbon of similar quality. Basic, blended whiskies from Ireland are perfectly drinkable, even neat, and can be had for eighteen to twenty-five bucks a bottle.
Most Irish whiskies are made from malt that’s dried in kilns, rather than open peat flames, which means the resulting liquor lacks the aggressive smoky quality that’s often found in scotches. What you end up with instead is a smooth, drinkable whiskey that’s light on the palate and subtle in its flavors. Experienced drinkers of other whiskey varieties sometimes find this boring, especially at first, but it’s really a matter of learning to appreciate the subtlety, and experimenting with the variations that are available to find the one that’s right for you.
To that end, I’ve chosen six entry-level, reasonably priced Irish whiskies. All six of these products are blends – you have to move a step up in price to find single malts – but they’re all very drinkable and a great way to introduce yourself to the scene without breaking the bank. For each whiskey I’ve also included a step up or alternate choice that you might enjoy. Like other whiskies, moving up in price tends to deliver substantial rewards in terms of flavor and smoothness. So if you find yourself enjoying a particular blend, it’s definitely worth seeking out a single-malt or extra-aged version.
Here are my tasting notes:
When people think of Irish whiskey, most of them think first of John Jameson, the eagle-murdering, kraken-wrestling, swarthy drunken lunatic (at least, according to the commercials) who founded his distillery in 1780. In keeping with its reputation as the default, Jameson is enjoyable without being overwhelming in the flavor department.
The nose is soft and spicy-sweet, with not too much alcohol burn. A sip brings notes of sweet vanilla, nuttiness and spice. Jameson is a very smooth whiskey, which means it’s quite at home being sipped neat in a snifter. It’s also a great choice on the rocks, adding the “Irish” to an Irish coffee, or used in one of the few cocktails that call for Irish whiskey.
Step Up: Try Jameson Black Barrel ($38), a blend of their regular whiskey with a rare sweet grain variety. With lots of caramel and spice, this entry reminds me of an Irish take on bourbon. I have to admit, I’m a little smitten.
One of the oldest Irish whiskey brands in the world, Bushmills can trace its origins all the way back to 1608, and the distillery itself hails from 1784. After Jameson, Bushmills is probably the most-recognized Irish whiskey brand in the United States, and in my opinion the basic Bushmills blend is a bit better than standard Jameson.
Smooth and sweet, the nose holds notes of fruit, spice, and the tiniest hint of smoke (not at all like a peaty scotch – it’s just a whisper). As the bouquet develops you find some vanilla and oak, which both carry over heavily into the taste. There’s lots of vanilla up front on the tongue, along with a slightly syrupy honey quality that really coats the mouth. The whiskey finishes long, warm, and spicy.
Change of Pace: Bushmills makes an “Irish Honey” version of their blended whiskey that costs about the same as the original. It’s much sweeter, with obvious honey notes. I wasn’t a huge fan (though I could see it working in cocktails), but my wife thought it was interesting, calling it, “kind of between a mead and a whiskey.”
Michael Collins is a product of the Cooley Distillery, which opened in 1987 and is currently the only Irish-owned, independent distillery in Ireland. Named after the Irish revolutionary leader, Michael Collins whiskey is a blend of malt and grain whiskeys. I found the nose to be quite sweet up front, with honey and fruit notes that opened up into spice after a few minutes. The taste is soft and sweet, with flavors of vanilla and honey, and a warm, medium-length finish.
Step Up: Michael Collins Single Malt is aged ten years and is the one of the few peated whiskies to be found in Ireland. It has a nice, extremely subtle smokiness.
A new entry into the market, Concannon is a name that will be more familiar to wine drinkers than whiskey aficionados. A California vineyard that grows a wide variety of grapes, they decided to contract the Cooley Distillery to produce an Irish whiskey that’s aged in their former wine barrels, in addition to more traditional used bourbon barrels.
The result is unique among the whiskeys I tasted. The nose is slightly grassy and woody, with light fruit notes and less of the honey or caramel that you find elsewhere. On the tongue, Concannon has a fairly thin mouth-feel, with a great deal of oak and earthy spice in the taste that’s balanced by a hint of sweetness. The finish is short and soft with very moderate burn.
Change of Pace: In keeping with the “different” take on Irish whiskey, Greenore is made predominantly with corn, which gives it a sweet flavor reminiscent of many American whiskies. The 8 year version runs about $45.
The D.E.W. in the name represents Daniel E. Williams, a man who began as a worker at the Tullamore distillery and eventually worked his way up to general manager. Often overlooked next to Bushmills and Jameson, Tullamore D.E.W. was recently acquired, and is in the midst of an aggressive new marketing blitz that includes new packaging and a focus on the company’s roots.
Just after pouring, I found Tullamore D.E.W. to have the most outright alcohol in its nose of any of the whiskies I tested for this article. This dissipated quickly however, leaving a unique and citrusy bouquet that developed caramel notes over time. On the tongue the liquor is thin, with lots of dried fruit and a slightly buttery flavor giving way to a short, warm finish.
Step Up: Redbreast 12 Year is produced at the same distillery as Tullamore D.E.W. At $65 it’s a splurge, but it’s just an outstanding whiskey, whether you’re comparing it against other Irish brands, scotch, or high-quality bourbons and ryes.
The Kilbeggan distillery opened for business in 1757 and is still running today, cranking out Irish whiskey barrel by barrel. Specifically: used bourbon barrels, which is what the majority of Irish whiskies are aged in. This imparts a bit of mellow caramel to most of them, but in Kilbeggan’s case this is minimal. The nose is mainly grassy and floral, with a vanilla note coming in later. The whiskey’s silky on the tongue and not as sweet as several of the other entries in this article. The grassy notes continue, combining with a nice spiciness that spreads out to a medium-length finish.
Step Up: Connemara is distilled by the Cooley distillery, which also produces Kilbeggan. Like Michael Collins 10 Year it is a peated single-malt whiskey, which means it has a bit of smokiness to it. A bottle of the 12 Year will set you back around $90 … so start saving!