In this seemingly eternally brown-spirits-obsessed world, Irish whiskey is keeping pace with the likes of bourbon and scotch. According to West Cork Distillers founder John O’Connell, Irish whiskey has been growing at a rate of nearly 20 percent annually in the United States and shows no sign of slowing down. Jack Teeling, the founder and managing director of Teeling Whiskey Co., notes the aggressive growth of the category as well. “Irish whiskey now sells over 3 million 9-liter cases per year in the U.S.,” he says.
New distilleries are springing up, established distilleries are expanding their product lines, bartenders are using Irish whiskey to create new and classic cocktails, and consumers are enhancing their knowledge and trying new brands and expressions. “We’ve gone from consumers not knowing more than Jameson Original and maybe if they’re lucky Redbreast 12-year-old to dozens of brands and styles being called for,” says Jillian Vose, the beverage director at New York City’s The Dead Rabbit. “The resurgence of single-pot-still Irish whiskey, the knowledge available to bartenders and spirits professionals, and the growing amount of Irish whiskey distilleries have all been key reasons as to why we’re seeing growth and why we will continue to do so.”
Wash still at Jameson’s Midleton distillery in Ireland
Over the past year or two, new Irish whiskey expressions have hit the market, with consumers showing great interest in trying new barrel finishes or grain blends. From the Midleton distillery in Cork, Jameson released Caskmates, a whiskey finished in stout beer barrels, while Redbreast released Lustau Edition, which is finished in first-fill sherry butts. Tullamore D.E.W. released its new Cider Cask Finish expression for global travel retail and will continue to push its 14-year-old and 18-year-old expressions over the coming year, both of which are finished in port, sherry and Madeira casks.
West Cork Distillers recently released three different 12-year-old single malts that are finished in rum, port and sherry casks and is currently experimenting with “charred barrels with true local Irish ties that we think people are going to love,” according to O’Connell. Teeling released its oldest expression to date, a 24-year-old, in a very limited batch of 1,000 bottles. This is the first release of the distillery’s Vintage Reserve collection of aged single malts in the U.S. Tyrconnell, produced at Cooley Distillery, will release a 16-year-old expression for the first time in the U.S. by mid-March. The limited-edition single malt will go for $100 in select markets around the country.
West Cork Distillers owners and their 12-year-old whiskey
Across the board, it seems that larger well-established distilleries view the rise of new upstarts as a boon for the entire industry. In other words, the expanding interest in the category as a whole will benefit both small and large distilleries and brands. “There’s a certain strength in numbers to innovating as a category,” says Tim Herlihy, the national brand ambassador for Tullamore D.E.W. “And it will undoubtedly help establish single-pot-still Irish whiskey as a category to rival single-malt scotch in years to come.”
That’s not to say that there isn’t a friendly sense of rivalry at play, especially from the perspective of the smaller distilleries. O’Connell believes that his company’s size may actually give them a leg up. “Big brands with deep pockets may have an advantage when it comes to marketing and getting the word out,” he says. “But smaller hand-built distilleries like West Cork are producing some of the best liquid on the market.”
Tullamore distillery in Ireland
Jack Teeling, whose distillery is the first to operate in the city of Dublin in over a century and is now distilling its own juice, also takes the perspective of the underdog. “In order to have a healthy vibrant category of Irish whiskey, you need a range of strong, independent Irish whiskey producers to compliment the larger multinational players who currently dominate the category,” he says.
There’s also Knappogue CastleIrish whiskey, a brand that sources its whiskey from an unnamed distillery and is starting to gain more recognition in the U.S. In addition to its excellent core range of 12- to 16-year-old whiskey, Knappogue has a player in the rare high-end whiskey world with its 36-year-old 1951. Prices usually range from between $2,000 and $3,000 per bottle.
Warehouse at Jameson’s Midleton distillery
Brown-Forman, the company behind Jack Daniel’s, Woodford Reserve and others, has a new horse in the Irish whiskey race. Slane Distillery, located just outside of Dublin, will begin production this July. But starting in April, sourced whiskey will hit the market in Ireland, followed by the U.S., the U.K. and Australia later in the year, under the Slane brand name.
New Irish Whiskey Cocktails
Historically, Irish whiskey has been used in a few cocktails. Although that has fallen out of favor in recent years, it’s starting to make a comeback as distilleries broaden their range and drinkers and bartenders rediscover the spirit’s versatility. “Irish whiskey is triple-distilled, giving it a lighter, smoother style,” says O’Connell. “This gives us and the category a distinct advantage for mixologists looking for a whiskey to build on for cocktails.”
Jack Teeling credits The Dead Rabbit as being at the forefront of reintroducing Irish whiskey as a component of new, innovative and creative drinks. “Irish whiskey as a base for well-crafted cocktails has been on the rise, championed by the likes of The Dead Rabbit,” he says. Vose says the introduction of new and moderately priced Irish whiskey expressions like Jameson Black Barrel and Teeling Small Batch has helped spur the category’s use in craft cocktails. “At The Dead Rabbit, we’ve done savory sours, Manhattans, Old Fashioneds and even Martini variations, flips, nogs, punches—you name it,” she says.
Notable Bars Irish Whiskey Bars
Besides the award-winning Dead Rabbit, which seems to be on everybody’s list of best places to find Irish whiskey (or any other spirit or cocktail for that matter), the experts in the industry have some helpful recommendations. Jameson brand ambassador Killian Lee suggests NYC bars The Wren (“rustic and cozy and offers a fantastic Irish whiskey selection along with excellent cocktails”), The Late Late (“a refreshing, modern take on the Irish bar”) and Genuine Liquorette (“they serve a classic Jameson & Ginger made with their famous Chachunker”).