Throughout most of the 19th century, Irish whiskey was the most popular whiskey in the world, vastly eclipsing scotch and bourbon. Then around the turn of the century, a series of events including the Irish War of Independence, trade wars and American Prohibition all but destroyed the industry, leaving only a few distilleries left. Today, Ireland is home to one of the fastest-growing whiskey scenes in the world, as distillers open new spots and reclaim their history. These are six exemplary Irish whiskeys for anyone looking to get into this historic spirit.
Nestled under the Galley Head Lighthouse in Cork county on the southern coast of Ireland, Clonakilty Distillery comes from a family of farmers—eight generations and 300 years of dairy farming. Now, the family is making whiskey. It will be a few years for the spirits coming out of this place to be distilled there, but for now, they’re sourcing high-quality juice from other distilleries and finishing it in their oceanside warehouse, the only kind like it on the island. A more gentle cut and easy-handed filtration give this whiskey a delicate, floral aroma but a bold palette. It’s light, golden and inviting with notes of straw, honey, plus just a touch of smoke.
Sitting on the River Moy in West Ireland, Connacht Distillery is an Irish- and American-owned operation, the first of its kind. The distillery makes a variety of spirits, including an Irish-American whiskey called Brothership and Ballyhoo grain Irish whiskey (an exclamation of joy or victory), which launched in 2018. The lightly-golden Ballyhoo first gives off notes of stone fruit before moving into a more botanical, herbaceous profile. It’s a warming, comforting spirit best shared with friends.
The Quiet Man is appropriately named. It starts off strong, with plenty of butterscotch, tamarind and slight sweetness carried by a silky mouthfeel, but finishes smoothly and quietly, with a lingering heat with tannic notes like coffee. The distillery is located in Derry, in Northern Ireland. Once a prolific center of whiskey making, the city’s production eventually dwindled to nothing. The Quiet Man, in the center of town at the old Ebrington naval base, is looking to restore the city to its once great whiskey height.
Located in the rural Tipperary county, Tipperary Distillery uses malted grains right from the co-founder’s farm, which has been in the family for more than 200 years. Similarly, the water used to cut the single-malt whiskey comes from wells on the land. The resulting spirit is the color of honey, with wafting notes of raisins and dried dates, and musky Irish moss, allspice and star anise in the glass. It’s a bit astringent, so a touch of ice helps open up some of the complexity without watering it down, though it’s perfectly acceptable to drink neat.
Named for the Irishmen who came to America and became champion boxers, Prizefight is as bold and challenging as the name would suggest. Made with Irish malt and grain, it’s aged in rye barrels from America that give the mellower spirit an extra kick and spice. And like a good fighter, it has legs to stand on, with oak and caramel clearly coming through.
Back in the golden age of Irish whiskey production, Dublin was the premiere producer of the spirit in the country. But when the crash came, Dublin lost all of its distilleries, including Teeling, which was founded in 1782. Then in 2015, the same Teeling family started a distillery in the city, the first in 125 years. Its flagship whiskey is the small batch, an exemplary spirit full of vanilla, cinnamon, dried herbs and fruit, with a creamy mouthfeel.