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Unburdened by the nerdery that surrounds bourbon, without the regional knowledge requirements of scotch and generally more affordable than both categories, Irish whiskey is an easy-drinking spirit perfect for both whiskey beginners and experts alike.
Generally known as a lighter whiskey without heavy notes of smoke or oaky vanilla flavors, there is still a wide range of Irish whiskeys to be sampled and enjoyed. Some are more suited for cocktailing, others can be sipped solo just as you might a fine scotch or bourbon. And, lucky for us, the category just keeps growing and becoming more available in the U.S. Only a few years ago, the Irish whiskey section of your liquor store may have been limited to just three or four big brands. But now, it’s positively overflowing with bottles marked with different age statements and barrel finishes. Of course, there’s always space on the bar for the old standbys. According to our research, here are some of the top Irish whiskeys to drink right now.
Best Overall: Knappogue Castle 12 Year Single Malt
Region: Ireland | ABV: 43% | Tasting Notes: Apples, Baking Spices, Toast
The signature, entry-level release from independent bottler Knappogue Castle is triple distilled in copper pot stills for a bright, clean start, then aged in bourbon casks for 12 years. The result is a platonic ideal of an Irish whiskey: incredibly sippable, yet nuanced with layered flavors of apples and cinnamon toast.
“It is lighter than most and also sophisticated, making it refreshing to drink in the summer months neat, on the rocks, or as a foundation in a long cocktail where its delicate fruitiness and spice complement almost any flavor profile,” says Kenneth McCoy, chief creative officer at Ward III and The Rum House in New York City. Affordable enough to be your everyday whiskey, poured into a tumbler over a big cube of ice, this bottle is also worthy of special occasions when breaking out the specialty whiskey tasting glass and savoring it neat.
Runner-Up, Best Overall: The Sexton
Region: Ireland | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Roasted Fruit, Grain, Honey
Easy to identify, The Sexton boasts a unique, black-and-gold, angular bottle. Triple distilled in copper pot stills, this Irish whiskey is aged in ex-Oloroso sherry casks for a mellow, honeyed finish. It has tons of roasted pear notes on the nose, which follow through to the first sip. Earthier than many Irish whiskeys, it still has the category’s telltale crispness, making it perfect for sipping on its own either neat or with a cube of ice. This bottle is also easy on the budget, so you can feel free to mix away, pouring it into cocktails like Hot Toddys, Whiskey Smashes, or just a simple Whiskey & Soda with a long twist of lemon.
Best Value: Slane
Region: Ireland | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Caramel, Vanilla, Dried Fruit
Slane hails from the Boyne River Valley, which was once home to many other distilleries, and is one of the few that has revitalized the tradition. Distilled on the grounds housing the old Slane Castle, this Irish whiskey is aged in a selection of three different casks: virgin oak, seasoned whiskey, and Oloroso sherry. It’s bold and layered with flavors of caramel, vanilla, and dried fruit. With its rich history, complex flavor, and pedigreed musical ties (Slane Castle has hosted performances from U2, David Bowie, and Queen), this affordable bottling is a steal.
“It works in a variety of ways,” says Alicia Yamachika, lead bartender at Nobu Honolulu. “The three different casks it ages in all add a little something different to be enjoyed.” Tame the spice with an ice cube or use its heft to your advantage in a cocktail like an Old Fashioned or a New York Sour.
Best Under $50: Teeling Small Batch
Region: Ireland | ABV: 46% | Tasting Notes: Baking Spices, Vanilla, Dried Fruit
The first whiskey distillery to open in Dublin in 125 years, Teeling launched in 2015 with this as its flagship bottling. Extremely smooth and rounded, thanks to some time spent in ex-rum barrels after initial aging in ex-bourbon barrels, this is the ideal whiskey for those who eschew spice in favor of a sweeter spirit. It has notes of baking spices and caramelized sugar on the nose, with flavors of vanilla and raisins on the palate. Typically hovering around $40, this Irish whiskey is a great buy, punching well above its price point. Try it in an Irish Coffee or sip it straight with some dark chocolate for a perfect, after-dinner treat.
Best Splurge: Knappogue Castle 16 Year Single Malt
Region: Ireland | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Honey, Toasted Nuts, Dried Fruit
Aged for a minimum of 14 years in bourbon barrels and finished in Oloroso sherry casks (aging the liquid for a minimum of 16 years total), this rarified Irish whiskey is luxury in a glass.
With apricots, honey, and toasted nuts on the nose, it shows up soft and velvety on the palate with a long, lingering finish, and it certainly deserves to be enjoyed straight. Rivaling some of the top bourbons and Japanese whiskeys in quality, this is the bottle you break out after a successful dinner party. Plus, at around $100 (or sometimes less), it’s a splurge you can justify.
Best Single Malt: The Tyrconnell Single Malt
Region: Ireland | ABV: 43% | Tasting Notes: Orchard Fruit, Vanilla, Nutty
Named for and originally created in celebration of a victorious 19th-century racehorse (shown galloping across the label), this boldly flavorful whiskey is severely underrated in our opinion. Double-distilled on copper pot stills and crafted from 100-percent malted barley, it recently received a label design refresh and an amped-up ABV—43% versus the original 40%. This extra oomph means the whiskey can stand up to strong flavors in cocktails but don’t be afraid to drink it neat. Try it on its own before adding a splash of water to open up more herbaceous flavors or a fat cube of ice to chill it down and focus on those fruitier notes.
Best for Sipping Neat: Redbreast 12 Year
Region: Ireland | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Baking Spices, Roasted Fruit, Nuts
Extremely easy to drink with barely any burning heat, Redbreast’s 12 Year offering is great for whiskey beginners looking for a bottle to drink neat—and the perfect next step of your Irish whiskey journey.
“Redbreast was the first Irish whiskey that I had that wasn’t Jameson,” says Josh Jancewicz, bartender at Gold–Diggers in Los Angeles. Light, fruity, and flecked with spices like cinnamon and nutmeg, this is also a comfort whiskey for many bartenders.
Runner Up, Best for Sipping Neat: Writers’ Tears Copper Pot
Region: Ireland | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Baking Spices, Pear, Vanilla
It may have a gimmicky name but this whiskey is no joke. A blend of pot still and single malt whiskeys, it’s triple distilled for smoothness.
“I’m a big fan of this whiskey because it was produced in the classic way—high amount of grain in the mash, and distilled in a copper pot,” bartender Anthony Baker (aka “the Professor”). “I feel as though you can taste the historical way Irish whiskeys were originally made. And that is why I like to have this either neat or on the rocks. Every sip allows me to sit back and imagine myself back in the 1500s when Irish whiskey was so delicious that even Queen Elizabeth I had it as her drink of choice.” Pour yourself a dram and think about that novel you never actually finished.
Best for Sipping on Ice: Green Spot
Region: Ireland | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Green Apple, Apricot, Honey
Originally created in the 1800s for merchant company Mitchell & Son using distillate from Jameson’s Bow Street Distillery, the name “Green Spot” comes from the method in which the Mitchells would mark the ages of their whiskey casks. A green spot on a barrel would mean a certain age, while a blue spot would mean another, and so on. The green-spotted barrel won out, and today it lives on as a blend of single pot still whiskeys aged in both ex-bourbon barrels and sherry casks.
“I am a big fan of Green Spot for its light body and delightfully fresh green apple notes,” says Yamachika. Pouring the spirit over a single large ice cube only enhances those crisp, fruity notes, transforming the Irish whiskey into a refreshing drink.
Related: The Best Ice Cube Trays
Best for Hot Toddys: McConnell’s
Region: Ireland | ABV: 42% | Tasting Notes: Pear, Cinnamon, Orange Zest
Though it may seem new to you, the distillery was actually founded in 1776. But the whiskey only recently made its way back to U.S. shores after being banished to the Emerald Isle during Prohibition. While it is extremely sippable on its own, this rounded whiskey plays well with a touch of citrus and can handle the heat of a Hot Toddy (or an Irish Coffee, for that matter).
“It’s smooth, bold, and has notes of citrus,” says Baker. “It actually reminds me very much of a scotch with its high amount of malted barley. And this is why I use it to make my homemade Penicillin cocktails, as well as a good Hot Toddy. The underlying citrus notes go so well with the honey from both cocktails.”
Related: The Best Whiskey Decanters
Best for Whiskey & Gingers: Jameson
Region: Ireland | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Grain, Lemon, Honey
A Whiskey & Ginger made with Jameson is so popular that it has become its own cocktail: the Jamo and Ginger. The Irish whiskey behemoth produces a spirit that’s light, fruity, and extremely accessible with just a hint of earthy cereal notes. It goes well with most mixers, but it’s particularly excellent with ginger ale or ginger beer for more spice. The spirit acts like a squeeze of citrus, bringing brightness to the drink. Plus, you can’t argue with the emotional pull of a classic like a Jamo and Ginger.
“When it comes to Irish whiskey, all of my nostalgia goes to Jameson,” says Ellenwood. “For a long time, that was pretty much the only bottle we ever needed to make sure we had in stock at the bar; it was also the bottle we ran out of the fastest.”
Best Out-of-the-Box: Tullamore D.E.W. Caribbean Rum Cask Finish
Region: Ireland | ABV: 43% | Tasting Notes: Caramel, Pineapple, Cocoa
The Emerald Isle’s signature spirit gets some tasty notes from a more southern island chain. This tropical whiskey from Tullamore D.E.W. is aged in demerara rum casks, giving it some unusual Caribbean island flavors. There are notes of ripe pineapple, cocoa, and caramel in this spirit, along with a hint of coconut to bring the concept home. It’s still undeniably an Irish whiskey, though, with its cereal backbone, bright, crisp flavors, and toasty finish. That said, feel free to experiment with this oddball whiskey in drinks typically made with rum, such as a Piña Colada or a Mai Tai.
Though each of these whiskeys has a place on your bar, our overall favorite remains Knappogue Castle 12yr Single Malt (view at Drizly) due to its versatility. Perfectly at home in a tumbler over ice, it’s also great sipped neat by a fireplace or shaken up into a sophisticated cocktail. It’s a great upgrade for those looking to expand their palates beyond the usual suspects.
What's the difference between scotch whisky and Irish whiskey?
The primary difference between scotch and Irish whiskey is that scotch can only be made in Scotland and Irish whiskey can only be made in Ireland (encompassing both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland). Of course, there’s also the spelling of the word. Irish whiskey is spelled with an “e,” while the Scots leave the “e” out and call it whisky. Aside from those two identifiers, there’s little official difference between the two categories, though you’ll certainly see stylistic distinctions. Scotch is often peated, leaving it with a smoky flavor and aroma—though that certainly isn’t always the case. Irish whiskey, on the other hand, is typically very bright and crisp—but there are always exceptions.
How is Irish whiskey made?
According to the Irish Whiskey Act of 1980, Irish whiskey must be made from a mash of malted barley along with other optional cereal grains. It is then fermented and distilled to 94.8% ABV at most, and aged in wooden casks for a minimum of three years. Irish whiskey can be distilled in a pot still or a column still. It can be blended or sold as a single malt—coming from only one distillery.
What's the best way to drink Irish whiskey?
Irish whiskey is often sipped straight—either neat or over ice—in a lowball glass. It is also great for whiskey cocktails such as Irish Coffee, Whiskey & Soda, Whiskey Sour, Whiskey & Ginger (aka an Irish Buck), and an Old Fashioned.
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Justine Sterling is an experienced spirits writer and cocktail recipe developer. She has been writing about the wide world of drinking—from new spirits to cocktail trends to wines and beers--for over a decade. Her home bar is always stocked with a range of spirits, from the staples to the downright strange, and she has serious opinions about Martinis.
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