How a once-celebrated spirit bounced back from near extinction—and the best high-end bottles to buy now.
Scotch didn’t always rule the whisky world. Roughly two centuries ago, Irish whiskey shone across Britain and its colonies as the brown spirit of choice. This wasn’t the wan, shootable Irish whiskey of today’s dive bar drink specials, though; it was an all-together different animal—a uniquely Irish recipe with a rich, smooth flavor. Now, after enduring decades of scorn and near extinction, Irish-style whiskey is returning to its refined roots and reclaiming its place on the top shelf.
Whether it was the Scots or the Irish who invented whiskey is still up for debate, but back in the 1700s, the neighboring countries’ spirits were more like siblings than the cousins they are today. A number of distillers had facilities in both countries, and single malts distilled from malted barley reigned supreme in both locales. When the Crown introduced a series of malt taxes in the 18th century, Irish distillers quietly rebelled by sneaking unmalted barley into their mash bills. The practice gave birth to the quintessentially Irish ‘pure pot still’ style, a term that refers not to the spirit’s triple distillation in copper pot stills but to its entirely unique grain blend. The unmalted barley gave the whiskey a spice kick and a rich, oily texture; the style’s signature triple distillation method helped mellow it. Compared to typically peated Scottish single malts, Irish whiskeys were approachable and charming—and just right for the American palate.
As the world’s largest consumer of whiskey, the U.S. made up the top export market for Irish whiskey. To keep up with demand, the number of distilleries in Ireland more than doubled in the early 19th century, and the stills themselves ballooned, increasing their capacity. Then came Prohibition. Not only did the movement sharply curtail demand in the U.S., but because Yankee bootleggers couldn't mimic the peat in Scotch, they labeled their cheap, adulterated grain whiskey ‘Irish,' irrevocably damaging the spirit's reputation. Meanwhile, back at home, the First World War and Irish War of Independence took their tolls, too, and Ireland's strained relationship with the British Empire hobbled whiskey exports.
The real death knell for traditional Irish whiskey had already rung almost a century earlier, with the invention of the continuous still in 1830. Designed to be faster and more efficient than the pot still, which had to be run in batches, the new technology was embraced by Scottish distillers for the manufacturing of lower-priced, high-volume blended whiskeys. Irish distillers initially rejected the invention, going so far as trying to have it banned in the late 1800s. Despite their best efforts to preserve the single pot style, it all but faded away.
By the 20th century, to the dismay of purists, the continuous still had been widely adopted in Ireland. The bland spirit it produced was blended with pot still and malt whiskey to create a basic, easy-drinking style that people came to associate with Irish whiskey. Not that too many people outside Ireland were drinking the stuff: Scotch, which GIs had acquired a taste for during WWII, was enjoying its time in the spotlight. The number of distilleries in Ireland dwindled to four. In a gambit to save a dying industry, three of them (Jameson, Powers, and Cork Distilleries) merged in 1966 to create Irish Distillers; the fourth (Bushmills) joined a few years later.
The distillers resolved to stage Irish whiskey's comeback and made Jameson the face of it. Parent company Pernod-Ricard threw all its marketing brawn behind the flagship brand and, sure enough, Jameson's sales rose from fewer than 500,000 cases in the 1990s to some 5 million cases last year. The industry thrived once again, but was driven by light, inexpensive blended whiskey—the kind you shot rather than savored. High-end Irish whiskey was considered something of a unicorn. Until now.
A handful of distillers never stopped making pure pot still—recently rechristened single pot still—whiskey. Irish Distillers absorbed a few of them, like Redbreast and Green Spot, long ago. But it wasn't until Irish whiskey found its way back onto consumers' radar that Pernod-Ricard turned its attention to its cache of single pot still whiskeys, betting on the idea that once people get a taste for the entry level spirit, they’ll inevitably want to trade up.
Their gamble seems to be paying off. “Before, consumers only knew one brand name and there wasn’t a perception of an Irish whiskey category," says Tom O’Connor, V.P. of Global Procurement and Operations at Castle Brands, whose portfolio includes the acclaimed Knappogue single malt Irish whiskeys. "Consumers are becoming more engaged, sophisticated, and ready to explore offerings [that] are also attracting sophisticated drinkers from other categories, like Scotch.”
Since 2002, Irish whiskey sales have swelled more than 600 percent, according to the Distilled Spirits Council, with the most premium brands (predominantly single malt and single pot still expressions) growing by more than 3000 percent. As a result, Irish whiskey has become the fastest growing segment in the market.
The craze has inspired the resurrection of several historic brands, including single pot still Yellow Spot and single malt Tyrconnel. What’s more, the number of Irish distilleries has tripled in the last five years, with more than two dozen craft distilleries already in the works (although it will be years before their whiskey is ready).
“I honestly think Ireland's distilling landscape will look radically different in six years as the tide from these new operations starts to flow into bottles on shelves," says Fionnán O'Connor, author of 2015’s A Glass Apart: Irish Single Pot Still Whiskey. "The resurrection of single pot still, Ireland's only uniquely Irish category, will thankfully play a tremendous role in that revival as it really does offer a gambit of flavors and textures that are simply not available in other styles. Ireland may have some fantastic malts up its sleeve... single pot still whiskey, however, is really just ours."
As we eagerly await what's to come for Irish whiskey, there is already plenty to savor now, from single malts to single pot still whiskeys to premium blends even a purist can appreciate. Finally, fine Irish whiskey is back in business. Here, a short list of the very best top-shelf bottles to drink now. Cheers, to a bright future.