Why The Irish Are Leading The Way In Whiskey
Mr Sean Muldoon’s Tipperary cocktail. Photograph by Mr Brent Herrig, courtesy of The Dead Rabbit
These are heady days in the world of Irish distilling. Long overshadowed by its Scottish, American and, more recently, Japanese booze mates, Irish whiskey has risen from near oblivion to become the world’s fastest-growing spirit category over the past five years. Sales have increased 135 per cent since 2014. Some 120 million bottles were shipped last year, 20 per cent up on the year before. There are 16 new distilleries under construction to add to the 14 that have appeared this decade. Categories such as single pot still and poitín are finding renewed appreciation. By 2025, the Irish tourist board is on track to treble whiskey tourism. No one is talking about Baileys any more.
We haven’t seen anything like it since, ooh, 1889. Back then, Irish was emphatically the world’s most popular whiskey, enjoyed by corrupt Boston policemen, hard-grafting navvies and fine English ladies alike. Indeed, Ireland has a better claim than Scotland as the birthplace of whiskey, or uisce beatha (water of life), as your Gaelic monks used to call it. However, a perfect storm of civil war, British colonial perfidy and (especially) US Prohibition devastated the industry. There were about 80 distilleries in Ireland in the late 19th century. By the mid-20th century, there were just three – Cork Distilleries Company, John Jameson & Son and John Power & Son – which banded together to form Irish Distillers in 1966. (The Northern Irish Bushmills joined in 1972.) For many years, it effectively operated as a monopoly with the Jameson’s brand at its heart.
Jameson’s continues to dominate and Irish Distillers (now owned by Pernod Ricard) has put renewed energies into cult pot still whiskey such as Green Spot, distilled in Cork and aged in bourbon and sherry casks, and the super-premium Redbreast. But it’s among smaller players, now loosely conglomerated under the Irish Whiskey Association, where a lot of the exciting stuff is happening. “It’s only recently that Irish distillers have started to learn from Scottish producers and have brought back some of the variety and the heritage of Irish whiskey,” says Mr Darryl McNally, master distiller at the Dublin Liberties distillery and co-creator of The Dead Rabbit, a collaboration with the forward-thinking Manhattan speakeasy of the same name. “If you go back to the early 1900s, Irish whiskey sold about 14 million cases worldwide. Last year, it only sold about 9 million, so we’re only bringing it back to its rightful position.” That’s still a fraction of the 95 million or so cases of scotch that sell each year, but that’s why there’s plenty of room for growth.
Mr Gerard Garland, whiskey ambassador for Irish Distillers, says that all whiskey is an expression of its home nation – the cereals, the water, the wood, the yeast, the traditions and the politics. Ireland produces the full range of malts and grains with a variety of different age statements and finishes (you can age it in sherry casks, bourbon casks, IPA casks – you name it). Irish whiskey is often triple-distilled, which gives it a smoother, cleaner taste than most scotches. But in the case of the grassy-fresh, meadow-scented single pot still whiskeys such as Green Spot, it has a style that is unique. “The single pot still style came about by accident rather than by design,” says Mr Garland. “It was a result of malt taxes imposed by the Irish parliament. Before then the distillers decided to use a proportion of unmalted barley, which adds a creamy, buttery-mouth feel to Irish whiskey.” Traditionally, it would be drunk with a bottle of porter as a chaser.
Ms Lauren Taylor, the excellent Irish bartender at Ladies & Gents bar in London, reckons Irish whiskey is distinctive enough to be treated as its own separate category. “Bartenders usually just sub out another whisky for Irish in the classic cocktails, which more often than not, tend to be stirred-down, booze-heavy concoctions,” she says. “Irish whiskey lends itself much better to shaken drinks, especially the lighter, fresher styles like Greenspot or Method and Madness’s Single Grain.” It’s worth bearing in mind that while Jameson’s is the market leader, it isn’t necessarily the most distinctively Irish whiskey; Tullamore Dew offers a good way in.
Ms Taylor recommends subbing Irish in for gin, or even tequila, in cocktails as opposed to other whiskeys. Irish whiskey works surprisingly well with tonic and lime. It marries nicely with herbal and orchard flavours, such as elderflower, peach and pear. It also makes a mean Last Word, that favourite cocktail among bartenders: equal parts gin, green Chartreuse, maraschino liqueur and lime juice shaken and served up.
The darker, richer styles can also make wonderful aromatic cocktails. The Dead Rabbit collaboration is a combination of single malt and grain that’s spent five years ageing in American oak to give it those distinctive caramel vanilla flavours you usually find in bourbons. It’s named after a famous gang of Irish hoodlums who used to roam Manhattan in the 19th century and it could more than hold its own in a switchblade fight with any whiskey that dares cross its path.
Here are three of the best Irish whiskey cocktails:
You can vary this to your heart’s content. Try lime juice instead of lemon, raspberries or gooseberries instead of blackberries, a teaspoon or two of elderflower or peach liqueur, a little egg white. For the sugar syrup, combine two parts golden caster sugar with one part water and stir until fully dissolved.
Dry Stone Wall
Created by Ms Lauren Taylor of Ladies And Gentlemen, London, this plays on the grassy fresh qualities of single pot still whiskey and adds a bit of barnyard rumpy-pumpy, courtesy of a homemade dry cider cordial.
An old Irish classic, found in The Savoy Cocktail Book and others, here retooled by The Dead Rabbit’s Mr Sean Muldoon. The herbal tones in the Chartreuse harmonise nicely with the base notes in the whiskey.