Irish whiskey couldn’t really be any more popular. During the last decade, the category has just exploded. According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, sales increased by 17.5% in 2013 alone—and that’s after rising nearly 400% between 2002 and 2012.
But unfortunately, we still often hear a lot of falsehoods about the spirit from both drinkers and bartenders. So to help dispel five of the biggest myths, we enlisted Jack McGarry from New York City’s acclaimed The Dead Rabbit. He’s not only from Ireland but also definitely knows his stuff—after all, he has been named International Bartender of the Year at Tales of the Cocktail conference. So keep his advice in mind as you gear up for St. Patrick’s Day.
1. Jameson Is Catholic and Bushmills Is Protestant
This is one of the myths we encounter 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, because there are only a few distilleries on the whole island, they trade casks. So your Bushmills may contain some Jameson-made whiskey. That’s not to mention that the master distiller at Bushmills, Colum Egan, is Catholic and that John Jameson, the founder of his eponymous brand, was likely Protestant—and Scottish, for that matter.
2. Scotch Is Better Than Irish Whiskey
McGarry hears this one a lot from Scottish bartenders. While there is, of course, no right 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 America dwarfs the number of Irish whiskeys. (This also reflects the fact that there are nearly 100 distilleries in Scotland compared to just a handful 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 and/or 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 with that,” says McGarry. “What I love about Irish whiskey is how approachable and versatile it is.”
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 New
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.”