The Next Generation of Irish WhiskeysBy Brad Japhe
The consumer trend towards brown spirits has been a boon to whiskey makers the world over. But only one category in particular can claim the luck of the Irish. Over the last decade, whiskey revenue in the Emerald Isle has jumped nearly 20%, according to the Distilled Spirits Council. Even more astounding is the role premium labels have played in driving that growth. Scan the shelves of your local liquor store and you’ll see this next generation of high-end craft; diverse mash bills, robust finishes, an endless combination of blends — many of them commanding stately sums inconceivable just several years ago. It’s an investment that connoisseurs are eager to make, en masse. And why wouldn’t they? Compared to its Scottish counterpart, Irish whiskey is still very much a value category. Here are a few examples that could make even the most devoted of Scotch-drinkers squirm.
IRISH WITH A TOUCH OF SHERRY
In reviving the classic single pot still style, Redbreast has been instrumental to the modern success of Irish whiskey. Their 12 Year remains one of the more elegant liquids available on the market today for under $60 a bottle. With the release of last year’s Lustau Edition, the brand continues to push the category forward. A calculated blend of 12 year old liquid is finished (for an additional year) in specially selected first-fill sherry butts from the Lustau Bodega, in Jerez, Spain. That added maturity is immediately noticeable in a brilliant burgundy pour, resolving itself on the palate in a creamy texture and a stone-fruit finish. The permanent addition to the Redbreast line is as round and complex as any comparably-aged, sherry cask-finished Scotch.
Next Generation of Irish Whiskeys Lineup / Photo Credit: Brad Japhe
To understand how a sherry finish can affect a single grain whiskey, seek out a modestly-priced bottle of Double Barrel from Glendalough Distillery. The 82 proof spirit ages for 3 ½ years in ex-bourbon, before a final half years rest in former Oloroso sherry casks. At $35, its aimed at typical Jameson drinkers, eager to up their game. For the price, it’s a worthwhile entry point into the realm of experimental Irish craft.
DUBLIN’S INVENTIVE DISTILLERY
But when it comes to cooperage, no Irish producer is taking as inventive an approach as Teeling Distillery. Located in the historic Golden Triangle neighborhood of Dublin, these relative newcomers are waiting for their own juice to mature. In the meantime, they’ve sourced some of the island’s finest single grain whiskey and finished it in ex-Cabernet Sauvignon wine barrels. The resulting product has a subdued sweetness that resonates with bourbon lovers. For the Scotch fans, Teeling offers a Single Cask series of malts, each equipped with a significant age statement. Their current 26 Year Old, for example, slumbered exclusively in ex-rum casks. The whiskey offers rich rancio and leather notes with a finish for days. At the distillery, you can hand-pour a bottle straight from the barrel for $395.
NEW IRISH WHISKEY RELEASES
Not to be outdone, Tyrconnell just launched into the suddenly-dense field of premium Irish single malts with its new 16 Year Old expression. Fermented exclusively from Irish barley, and brought to proof with spring water sourced from the distillery’s pastoral surroundings, the whiskey imparts native terroir, easily distinguishable from its Scottish brethren. There’s a dried nut-laden earthiness to a dram, marking it as approachable to newcomers while maintaining appeal amongst experienced drinkers. It hit shelves priced at $100 a bottle.
Slane Castle / Photo Credit: Brad Japhe
Irish Whiskey has traditionally relied upon inventive blending as a way to separate itself as a category. Forging this technique into the future is Slane, a new venture available stateside later this summer. The distillery is currently under construction — adjacent to its namesake castle north of Dublin — and will enter the market with its signature Triple Casked label. Malt and grain whiskies, aged in virgin oak, ex-American whiskey barrels, and Oloroso Sherry butts, are married together, leaving discernible characteristics of all three in the finished spirit. It’s a remarkably robust drinking experience, full of depth, from a bottle set to retail at $30. Release expected in mid 2017 for the U.S.
WHAT LIES AHEAD
Not so long ago, “Jameson or Bushmills?” was a bartender’s only possible response to a request for Irish whiskey. These legacy brands will and ought to remain reliable standbys. But the next generation of craft speaks to an unprecedented excitement surrounding the category. Never before has there been so much to explore within the Irish landscape. Accessible, affordable, unique and complex; it’s no wonder it’s the fastest growing segment of whiskey in America. It turns out luck has nothing to do with it.
Ready to pick up something from the next generation of Irish Whiskeys?