Irish whiskey is on a tear. According to the Distilled Spirits Council, more than 4.9 million cases of it were sold in the United States in 2019 (the most recent year for which there's data), generating $1.1 billion in revenue. The bump is especially impressive at the high end, where premium and super-premium Irish whiskey have grown a staggering 1,185% and 3,468%, respectively, since 2003.
Amid the most well-established names, the Jamesons and the Bushmillses of the industry, lots of newer distilleries are trying to make their mark. Consider this: In 2010, just four distilleries produced and sold Irish whiskey; by December 2019, that had surged to 32, according to Drinks Ireland / The Irish Whiskey Association, which tracks these producers.
Each of these producers is looking for a way to make its whiskey and identity memorable. Waterford, for example, emphasizes the provenance and terroir of its barley; with this latest bottling, the company has gone a step further with organic certification. Others, like The Busker and Hinch, are leaning on cask-finishing, including fortified wines such as sherry from Spain and marsala from Italy. Still others, like Grace O’Malley and Proclamation, two bottlings from the same blender, Paul Caris, a former winemaker, focus attention on historically minded backstories: a seafaring female pioneer and a document declaring Ireland’s independence, respectively.
Taken all together, these whiskeys paint a portrait of a country with a diverse range of spirits to try. These are nearly a dozen newcomers that celebrate Ireland and its rich heritage.
This quartet of whiskeys launched in the U.S. in July 2020 and includes three traditional whiskeys (Single Grain, Single Malt and Single Pot Still), all produced under one roof at Royal Oak Distillery, located on an 18th-century estate in County Carlow. The Busker Blend combines all three, matured and finished in three different casks: bourbon, sherry and marsala, the latter an Italian fortified wine not often seen in whiskey finishes.
The first Irish whiskey named for a woman, specifically a legendary 16th-century Irish pirate queen, this blended whiskey contains one of the highest malt contents in the blended whiskey category, at 46%, for “smooth complexity,” according to the producer. The whiskeys comprising the blend range from three to 10 years old and were aged in a range of barrels, including French oak, ex-bourbon and ex-rum casks.
Look for a trio of Irish whiskeys from this newly created distillery, debuting in late 2020. The lineup includes a Small Batch bottling matured in ex-bourbon casks; a 5 Year Double Wood, meaning it’s first aged in ex-bourbon casks, followed by a second maturation in virgin American oak barrels for a minimum of one year; and a 10 Year finished in oloroso sherry casks. Two additional bottlings, a Single Malt and Pot Still, are expected to follow in 2021.
A blend of grain and malt whiskeys, this newcomer, new to the U.S. in October 2020, honors the 1916 Proclamation defining Ireland’s independence. The label design also reflects the physical attributes of the original Proclamation, with blind embossing and fonts that were specially redrawn to emulate those of the Proclamation.
The second release from the Dublin distillery, new in October 2020, is a peated whiskey matured in ex-bourbon and ex-sauternes wine casks. The producer describes the flavor as “barbecue smoke” and claims that triple distillation distinguishes this whiskey from peated Scottish counterparts. That said, triple-distilled peated scotches do exist, but this is likely intended to create a lighter-bodied spirit.
This distillery is serious about its barley, and the liquid in this bottle, available as of October 2020, is distilled from organic Irish barley grown by a small group of organic farmers. Billed as the first-ever certified organic Irish whiskey, it has already won an award at the 2020 National Organic Awards. Look for more from this indie distillery; this bottle is part of Waterford’s Arcadian Series, which “celebrates radical growers and alternative philosophies, including heritage grains and unusual growing methods,” according to the producer.