Yesterday, I began my serialised guide to Irish Whiskey with a rundown of its turbulent history through some difficult times, becoming the most popular spirit in the world before nearly disappearing altogether in the 20th century! Fortunately, it has been on a road to recovery in the last few decades and is now thriving.
Despite this resurgence, which has made Irish Whisky the fastest growing drinks category in the world, Scotch whisky still comfortably sells 15 times more cases worldwide, and has about as many times more active distilleries too. With Scotch whisky’s dominance since the 1930s, there’s perhaps understandably still some confusion, even amongst whisk(e)y enthusiasts, surrounding the styles of Irish whiskey available.
Fret not, however! In this second instalment I’ll be looking at each style in turn, complete with a number of yummy examples of each!
- Part 1 – The History of Irish Whiskey
- Part 2 – Styles of Irish Whiskey (with yummy examples!)
- Part 3 – New Distilleries, Recent Developments and The Future…
Styles of Irish Whiskey
We’ll start with two types of whiskey you may well already understand if you’re familiar with Scotch whisky…
Made from a mash of 100% malted barley at a single distillery. Triple-distillation is often associated with Irish single malt whiskey and considered traditional as it’s practised at Bushmills, although it’s worth remembering both that Bushmills only began doing this in the 1930s and that double-distillation was common in the 19th and into the 20th century. The same can even be said, to some extent, of the use of peat in Irish single malt. More recent releases from Cooley, such as the Connemara malts (double-distilled and peated), are therefore not without precedent nor without a tradition of their own. Blended malt whiskey, incidentally (a blend of single malts from different distilleries), is something we’re not yet seeing in Ireland, which is hardly surprising as so few distilleries have mature stocks of malt whiskey!
e.g. Bushmills 10 Year Old, Bushmills 16 Year Old, Bushmills 21 Year Old, Connemara Peated, Tyrconnell Single Malt, Locke’s 8 Year Old, The Irishman Single Malt and Teeling Silver Reserve 21 Year Old 1991.
Tasting Note for Bushmills 16 Year Old:
Nose: Honey, yoghurt and tinned stone fruit with raspberry, vanilla and a hint of cigar.
Palate: Spiced and rich with juicy summer fruits and dark chocolate.
Finish: Initial peaches in syrup gives way to a long, chewy finish, with more dark chocolate and red berries.
Overall: Rich and delicious, a perfect combination of bourbon and sherry matured whiskeys finished in port casks.
Single Grain Whiskey
Made with a mash that’s at least partly made up of grains other than malted barley, produced at a single distillery. Usually this means using primarily maize (corn) or wheat, with distillation taking place in continuous column stills. As mentioned yesterday, the Irish whiskey industry fought against the use of continuous stills up until 1909, but would go on to use them to produce grain whiskey for their own blends. Only fairly recently have we seen Irish single grain whiskey releases such as the Greenore range from Cooley and Teeling Single Grain, which is aged in Californian Cabernet Sauvignon casks.
Tasting Note for Greenore 8 Year Old:
Nose: Lemon sponge, honeyed cereal, vanilla and a little caramel. Toasted oak, banana and tropical fruit. Fairly light, but full of flavour – very nice indeed!
Palate: Sweet, smooth vanilla before spicy oak comes in. Touches of menthol and coconut ice.
Finish: Long with maple and pecan, milk chocolate and a hint of salinity.
Overall: A sensational grain whiskey this, top stuff.
And now one you won’t find in Scotland at all…
Made with a mash of both unmalted and malted barley (usually at a ratio of 60:40 or thereabouts) and produced in pot stills at a single distillery. All the single pot still whiskeys currently on the market are produced by Irish Distillers, and are triple-distilled. Previously, this style of whiskey was referred to as ‘pure pot still’ or ‘traditional pot still’, but around 2010 the American Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau took exception to the use of ‘pure’ in the marketing of a beverage. This led to a change in terminology, producing the term ‘single pot still’ that’s now used both at home and abroad.
If this was to be produced in Scotland, for example, it would actually be classified as a grain whisky as it’s not made with 100% malted barley, but this really is a totally different beast to grain whisk(e)y produced in continuous stills as described in the section above. Different styles of single pot still are produced at the New Midleton distillery not by altering the mashbill, but by changing the strength at which the cut is taken during each stage of distillation. Lighter pot still is more delicate, fruity and even slightly herbal whilst heavier pot still is much more robust and can be more leathery. The final expressions are made from a combination of these different pot still whiskeys, which will have also taken on further characteristics during maturation in different casks.
e.g. Redbreast 12 Year Old, Redbreast 12 Year Old Cask Strength, Redbreast 15 Year Old, Redbreast 21 Year Old, Green Spot, Yellow Spot 12 Year Old, Powers John’s Lane Release 12 Year Old and Midleton Barry Crockett Legacy.
Tasting Note for Redbreast 15 Year Old:
Nose: Fruity and tangy at first, but you’re soon enveloped by fudge too, as well as caramel and nuttiness. It’s like a spicy version of the mini Picnic bars you used to get in Celebrations. Coconut hair shine, mango and the blue and pink liquorice allsorts peer in alternately.
Palate: Spicy at first, thick and mouth-filling, with cocoa powder, figs, nutmeg, fruits of the forest gateau, praline and marshmallow.
Finish: Very long and dark with cocoa, peppermint, oak and ginger.
Overall: It’s Redbreast alright, but this one’s particularly deep, dark and intense. You can keep it in your mouth forever, just remember to bring a fork!
Which just leaves the not so small matter of the blends…
Now, the knock on effect here is that unlike blended Scotch whisky, which can only be a combination of malt and grain whiskies, there is also single pot still whiskey to play with! This greater scope sees blends of malt and grain whiskey, such as those from Bushmills, but also blends of single pot still and grain, such as Jameson and Powers Gold Label, as well as any other possible combination. For example, there’s a whiskey called Writer’s Tears from the Walsh Whiskey Company that’s a blend of malt and pot still. They all come under the category of Blended Irish Whiskey.
e.g. Jameson, Jameson Select Reserve, Jameson Gold Reserve, Jameson Crested Ten, Bushmills Original, Bushmills Black Bush, Bushmills 1608, Tullamore Dew, Tullamore Dew 12 Year Old Special Reserve, Paddy, Kilbeggan, Teeling Small Batch, Writer’s Tears Pot Still Blend and who could forget Feckin Irish Whiskey!
Tasting Note for Teeling Small Batch:
Nose: Cut grass and orange blossom. Vanilla, apple pie and blackberries develop, then marzipan, rum and the buttery biscuit base of a cheesecake, perhaps even the whole cheesecake.
Palate: Creamy and wonderfully oily with sweet oak, spicy vanilla and cinnamon.
Finish: Pears, apricots and allspice linger briefly, playing with you.
Overall: It’s seemingly fresh and delicate but is actually deceptively rich and creamy too. A moreish Irish blend bottled at 46%, which suits it just perfectly.
As you can see, there’s a range of Irish whiskey styles, brands, expressions and, importantly, flavours to choose from. That choice may be about to get even better too, as tomorrow I’ll be taking a look at some newly opened distilleries as well as a few more that may be on the horizon! I’ll also attempt to cover the rest of the more recent news and developments in what will be the the final part of my guide to Irish whiskey. Until then!