Irish whiskey is most often distilled from barley and is produced in Ireland. The distilling process in Ireland traces back to King James in the 1600s when the crown first issued permission for distilleries to operate.
Since then, the popularity of Irish whiskey has ebbed and flowed with time. Irish whiskeys have experienced a resurgence in popular culture in the last five years. Distilleries are scattered across the island from Cork to Dublin to Letterkenny.
When first sampling Irish whiskey, especially if you are usually a bourbon drinker, the taste, smell, and mouthfeel might be subtly different, but Irish whiskey is a delicious spirit for drinking straight, on the rocks, or neat.
Notably, the aging process can enhance the spirit’s flavor, so we tried 12-, 15-, and 16-year single malts for this project! We sampled many whiskeys from various distilleries to compile this list of the best Irish whiskeys.
Mark Edwin Andrews and his wife purchased a 15th-century castle to restore the then ruin to its former glory.
Knappogue Castle is a historic and storied distillery producing some of the top-rated Irish whiskey on the international market. The castle is located on the western side of the island.
Knappogue Castle 16 Year Single Malt is aged at least fourteen years in bourbon barrels, and then for the last two years, the aging process occurred in Oloroso sherry casks.
The specific combination of two barrels and the blending of bourbon barrels and sherry casks adds nutty and complex notes to the single malt whiskey. Indeed, the Wine Enthusiast magazine awarded the single malt 94 points.
Tullamore Dew is named after Daniel E. Williams (D.E.W.), the original distillery owner.
In the 1960s, the distillery merged, and now Tullamore Dew is produced at Midleton Distillery in Cork, Ireland. It is the second highest-selling Irish whiskey brand internationally, with over 1,500,000 cases sold in 2020.
The triple-distilled whiskey is aged in bourbon and sherry casks for a rich and oaky flavor profile. Once poured, the whiskey smells like honey, apples, dried fruit, and toffee. The honey and apple are very present in its taste with added notes of nutmeg.
It is a bit more earthy than other Irish whiskeys. The medium finish is mostly toffee and spice, leaving the drinker ready for another sip.
Jameson has two distilleries, one in Cork County and one in the heart of Dublin, Ireland.
The Jameson Black Barrel is a specially crafted blend of single-pot whiskey that has been aged in charred barrels. Charring is a method for activating barrels to intensify the final taste of the whiskey.
Jameson Black Barrel is distilled three times, and the barrel used to age whiskey is twice charred. It smells like caramel and butterscotch with a touch of spice.
After the first taste, toffee and fruit flavors are immediately apparent, but a woody and cinnamon flavor develops. The whiskey finished with a lasting oaky taste.
Knappogue Castle 12-year-old is made with malted barley and is triple distilled.
The distillery uses traditional, onion-shaped copper pot stills to make the Irish whiskey. Then, it is aged in oak casks for twelve years.
This iteration of Irish whiskey is my favorite from Knappogue Castle because of its versatility and drinkability.
The aroma of the whiskey is of pepper and spice, while the taste offers some fruity balance to the distinct spiciness. The smooth finish keeps whiskey lovers coming back for more. The 12-year version is also crafted and matured at the refurbished castle in Cork County, Ireland.
James Power was an innkeeper from Dublin who established a distillery at his public house In 1791.
Then, throughout generations, the Power family has continually distilled the delicious Powers Gold Label.
The "gold label" has a unique history. The Powers distillery was one of the first in the world to bottle their whiskey, so the gold label, used originally, is a continual reminder of the distillery's lasting legacy.
Once poured, the whiskey smells like warm sugar, and the taste is distinctly honey and nuts with a hint of spice. The whiskey's long-lasting finish leaves your mouth with an oaky and spicy flavor.
Slane Irish Whiskey is a non-traditional Irish whiskey. Notably, it is a triple casked whiskey that has spent time in multiple barrels, making it distinctly complex. The distillery is located in Meath, Ireland, just north of Dublin.
I think this whiskey is the perfect spirit to bring to a party or share with a friend.
With the smell of fruit, caramel, and vanilla, the whiskey is inviting. Upon having my first sip, I enjoyed the sherry and butterscotch flavors.
The website lists various options for cocktails with Slane Irish Whiskey, and I would recommend making the cold brew with coffee and whiskey.
Teeling Small Batch Irish is a traditional Irish whiskey, but what sets it apart is that the small-batch has been finished in rum casks rather than the traditional sherry casks that many other makers use.
The smell is strong of dried fruit with molasses and spice notes, and the taste maintains that decadence with a hint of vanilla.
Like many Irish whiskeys, The Tyrconnell has a long, storied past. The first iteration of the single grain dates back to 1762.
Unfortunately, between 1925 and 1988, the Tyrconnell Single Malt was not produced; things changed when the Cooley Distillery picked up the brand and resumed production.
The light-colored spirit has a fun label with a jockey riding a horse, letting drinkers know they are in for an exciting ride.
The initial smell of the whiskey is light and floral with notes of honey, but the taste reveals a toasty sweetness akin to the taste of a caramelized banana. It's a delicious spirit, and I am glad it has returned to the market!
The Sexton Single Malt Irish Whiskey is mysteriously distilled—it is not public information about which Irish distillery is claiming this unique blend.
The labeling is a skeleton wearing a top hat, which only adds to the mystery. We do know the incredible flavors have been crafted by Alex Thomas, one of a few female master blenders in the industry!
The Sexton is aged in sherry casks for about four years, so the initial smell includes a hint of sherry as well as apples, malt, and citrus.
I poured a glass on the rocks, and the taste is mellow with notes of sherry, cinnamon, and nuts. I recommend drinking this one neat or on the rocks; it is too delicious on its own for mixing!
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What Is Irish Whiskey?
Irish whiskey is a particular style of spirit. Most Irish whiskeys are triple-distilled from a blend of barley. Distilleries are located throughout Ireland and Northern Ireland, and each region has a slightly different take on how to craft the most delicious Irish spirit.
However, all agree that an Irish whiskey should be aged for a minimum of about three years before bottling and that oaky and fruity notes should be apparent on the nose and the palate.
The most common variations are blended or single malt, but others like pot still and single grain are also available in the Irish whiskey market.
What makes Irish whiskey different from other whiskeys?
Irish whiskey is distilled using a blend of malted and unmalted barley; variations in the mixture influence taste and make the different Irish whiskey brands unique.
Another key characteristic of Irish whiskey is that it is made using a pot still, which is usually copper. A pot still looks like an upside-down funnel with a flat bottom and a thick neck which encourages the evaporation process in distilling.
For instance, an American whiskey would use a blend of primary corn instead of barley, and most Canadian whiskeys are known for being blended. Another whiskey growing in popularity is from Japan, where rice is the primary source for distilling.
How do you drink Irish whiskey?
People can drink Irish whiskey neat, on the rocks, in mixed drinks, or stand-alone shots. Generally, if the whiskey is a small batch or a distillery’s specialty—like aged in a triple charred cask—you should probably try the whiskey neat or on the rocks first to taste the subtle flavors of the blend.
However, for a straightforward Irish whiskey like Jameson, taking a shot chased by a sip of Guinness is a great option. A classic cocktail to make using an Irish single malt whiskey is mixing whiskey, ginger beer, and lime to create a version of a refreshing mule.
Another popular use for whiskey from the emerald isle is Irish coffee! While it’s not what you typically think when you look for mixed drinks, add some whiskey to your coffee and top it with cream.
Ireland is known for making complex and tasty whiskeys, and what’s great for us is that there is a resurgence of popular Irish blends. From the first iterations of permissible distilling in the 1600s to today’s triple charred barrel delectable experiments, it is worth expanding your palate to include Irish whiskies.
Brian has over 20 years experience in the restaurant and hospitality industry. As a former restaurant owner, he knows about running a food business and loves to eat and enjoy cocktails on a regular basis. He constantly travels to new cities tasting and reviewing the most popular spots.