Companies have bad years. Facing serious economic headwinds, entire nations can experience a “lost decade.” But you have to start thinking in terms of bad centuries to get your head around the story of the Irish whiskey industry.
Ireland entered the 19th century as a global spirits powerhouse, with Dublin housing two of the world’s largest distilleries. But the next 200 years unspooled in a series of unmitigated political and economic catastrophes. In the 1830s, an Irish temperance movement began that would eventually prompt half of Ireland’s population to swear off alcohol for life. Later in the century—just as the temperance movement began winding down—the Irish independence movement spun up, leading to civil unrest and political tensions that disrupted the industry. A complete suspension of Irish distilling in 1917 (spurred by food shortages during World War I) was followed promptly by the 1919 Irish War of Independence, which cost Irish whiskey makers their lucrative British export market. Prohibition in the U.S. simultaneously closed another key foreign market for Irish whiskey, though that didn’t stop bootleggers from passing off illicit, low-grade hooch as Irish whiskey, tarnishing its reputation for quality. The 1930s saw a global depression and a trade war with Britain, the 1940s another cataclysmic World War, the late 1960s and 1970s a general decline in demand for whiskey—the litany of disasters goes on.
By 1980, only two distilleries remained in operation in all of Ireland, a fact that makes it all the more significant that with the opening of Roe & Co. distillery in Dublin last month there are now 25, with another 24 slated to come online over the next few years. Dublin, which lacked a single working distillery for more than a century, now has three. Global Irish whiskey sales have doubled in the past decade alone, from 6 million cases in 2010 to a projected 12 million next year. The U.S. buys more than 40% of that product, and data from beverage industry analysis shop IWSR suggests that on its current trajectory, Irish whiskey sales could overtake Scotch whiskey sales in the U.S. by the middle of the next decade, lifting Irish whiskey back to pre-Prohibition prominence.
Irish whiskey, in other words, is in the midst of an incredible rebound, and consumers are taking note. What’s changed? For one, the industry is shaking off those lost decades of bad luck and unfortunate consumer perceptions and leaning hard into a moment in which the global whiskey category is experiencing enviable growth. But many of the new Irish whiskeys coming to market now also offer whiskey lovers something markedly different from the Scotches and bourbons that have dominated the global whiskey conversation in recent years, whiskeys that by rule must conform to certain constraints. Though Irish whiskey certainly has a distinct style, and there are plenty of rules governing its production, Irish distillers have a bit more room to maneuver when it comes to their raw ingredients, which generally include a mix of malted and unsalted barley but often other grains as well.
Moreover, the lean years in which there were only two distilleries producing every drop of raw spirits for all of Ireland’s whiskey makers forced competing brands to get creative, differentiating their products through innovations in blending and aging. As the industry began its rebound in the mid-2000s, a lot of those innovations went into the barrel and are only now coming out and into the bottle—a new generation of Irish whiskeys balancing centuries of tradition with the demands of an increasingly discerning whiskey consumer.
“It’s tough marrying the old and the new, but we’re trying,” says Jack Teeling, cofounder of Teeling Whiskey, the first distillery to open in Dublin in more than a century when it opened its doors in 2015. In these bottles, it’s fair to say Irish distillers are once again succeeding.
Roe & Co. ($30)
An homage to George Roe & Co., a historic but long defunct Dublin distiller, this new-from-the-ground-up distillery commenced operations in Dublin just last month. Its flagship whiskey—blended from stocks purchased from an undisclosed Irish distiller until its new spirit has time to mature—is a classic expression of the traits that make Irish whiskey unique. The unmalted barley in the mash bill lends Roe & Co. a distinctly Irish mouthfeel—creamy in texture, on the nose, and on the finish. If that tasting note of “biscuit” never really made sense to you, experience it here.
Better known for its legendary outdoor concerts (everyone from Springsteen to U2 to Queen to Bowie has played here), Slane Castle is now carving out a niche in Irish whiskey history via a newly minted distillery on the estate grounds. Its flagship expression is triple-casked—in virgin oak, used bourbon barrels, and Oloroso sherry casks—to nurture a liquid that’s slightly spicy up front, caramel-sweet with dried fruits in the middle, and altogether satisfying in the end. But with distillate from its newly minted distillery only now making its way into the barrel for maturation (its current product is blended from purchased stocks), the best is yet to come from Slane. Watch this space.
Kilbeggan Small Batch Rye ($35)
Kilbeggan claims ownership of the oldest working copper pot still in the world, a 185-year-old potbellied vessel residing at its restored distillery in the town of the same name. Want to know what that tastes like? Kilbeggan Small Batch Rye is the first whiskey made and matured start to finish at the restored facility, which traces its lineage back to 1757. Made in a style last popular in the 1800s, the blend of malted and unmalted barley with rye imported from the English countryside provides a mouthfeel that screams vanilla cream, rounded out by mellow notes of clove and spice. While Kilbeggan’s Small Batch Rye is available in limited supplies, a new (and very good) single pot still expression from the distillery will hit shelves later this year as well.
Teeling Single Grain ($55)
A shining example of the ways in which Irish whiskeys are providing consumers with something new and altogether different, Teeling Single Grain is distilled largely from corn, then matured in California Cabernet Sauvignon casks—an unconventional finish for a whiskey that would be unique in any case. There simply aren’t a whole lot of single grains—whiskeys made with no more than 30% malted barley in combination with other unmalted grains—on the market. The result is fruity and buttery at the same time, light in texture and long on flavor.
The Tyrconnell 16-Year-Old Oloroso and Moscatel Cask Finish ($100)
Tyrconnell has turned out quality, cask-finished expressions of Irish whiskey for years, and this newly released 16-year-old provides an excellent (and very drinkable) example of a traditional Irish distillery keeping pace with evolving tastes. Experimentation with various finishing techniques has produced some new additions to Tyrconnell’s core lineup in recent years, as well as some unique limited releases like this one. It spent 16 years in American oak and an additional turn in Andalusian casks seasoned with Oloroso sherry and then Moscatel, imparting notes of honey and caramelized sugar atop Tyrconnell’s characteristic creaminess. It’s not so easy to find, and worth the money if you do.
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