Irish whiskey has been enjoying good times in recent years. During the last decade, the category has boomed: According to Forbes, U.S. sales of Irish whiskey increased by 9% in 2019, and rose over 13% in the five years prior to that. Furthermore, distillation on the Emerald Isle has likewise grown, with more than 30 distilleries making whiskey in 2020, up from only four in 2010.
Unfortunately, there are still a number of falsehoods spread about the spirit from both drinkers and bartenders, so we enlisted Jack McGarry from New York City’s acclaimed The Dead Rabbit to dispel five of the most common myths. He’s not only from Ireland but also knows his stuff—after all, he has been named International Bartender of the Year at Tales of the Cocktail conference. So pour yourself some Irish whiskey and let McGarry clear things up.
1. Jameson Is Catholic and Bushmills Is Protestant
This is one of the myths encountered all the time, since Bushmills is located in predominantly Protestant Northern Ireland and Jameson is produced in the heavily Catholic Republic of Ireland. But “this couldn’t be any further from the truth,” says McGarry. For one, there are only a few distilleries on the whole island, and they tend to swap casks, so your Bushmills may contain some Jameson-made whiskey. For another, the master distiller at Bushmills, Colum Egan, is Catholic while Jameson’s eponymous founder, John Jameson, was most likely Protestant—and Scottish, for that matter.
2. Scotch Is Better Than Irish Whiskey
McGarry hears this one a lot, especially from Scottish bartenders. While there is, of course, no objective answer, there are a few points to consider if you decide to take a side. Scotch has had an advantage in that the selection of single malts and blends available in the United States dwarfs the number of Irish whiskeys (this is also a reflection that there are nearly 100 distilleries in Scotland compared to just over thirty in Ireland.) But that’s definitely changing, with a range of interesting Irish whiskeys like Green Spot becoming available in the U.S. for the first time and other new brands launching products and building their own distilleries.
Another argument for scotch supremacy is that it’s generally distilled twice, while Irish whiskey is usually distilled three times. “Some people say that three distillations makes the whiskey taste too light, but I wholeheartedly disagree,” says McGarry. “What I love about Irish whiskey is how approachable and versatile it is.” Furthermore, not all Irish whiskey is triple distilled, as some distilleries opt for a double distillation.
3. It's Only Good for Shots
Yes, plenty of Irish whiskey is ordered as shots or in Pickle Backs, but it also works in a number of cocktails, including, of course, McGarry’s The Dead Rabbit Irish Coffee. Plus, many of the whiskeys can be sipped neat or on the rocks. “We have a multitude of avenues in which it can be enjoyed, and let’s not forget life is all about variety,” says McGarry.
4. Its Popularity Is Both New and Old
While the popularity of Irish whiskey is exploding lately, the first boom for the country’s distillers was more than a century ago. At the time, the U.S. was flooded with Irish whiskey from the more than 100 distilleries on the Emerald Isle. “It was the biggest whiskey in America at its peak,” says McGarry. But thanks to a number of factors, including trade wars with Britain, Prohibition in the States and two World Wars, the industry was decimated. Fortunately, things have changed over the last 20 years. “It’s back now, and it’s back to stay.”
5. All Irish Whiskeys Taste the Same
We’ll chalk this one up to Jameson’s domination of the U.S. market, but you can now find a large range of Irish whiskeys that feature very different flavor profiles. For example, “we are seeing the resurgence of the classic Irish pot still style of whiskey,” says McGarry, including Redbreast, Green Spot and Powers. There are also Irish single malts like Knappogue Castle and Tyrconnell, which both offer whiskeys that have been finished in sherry or other wine casks. And there’s even the peated Connemara. “So you can clearly see how diverse the Irish whiskey world is,” says McGarry. “The juice speaks for itself.”