One of the best whiskeys I’ve been fortunate enough to taste in the past six months wasn’t bourbon, rye, scotch, American single malt, or Japanese, all styles I love dearly. No, it was an Irish whiskey made at Midleton, the same distillery that makes popular brands like Jameson and Redbreast. Midleton Very Rare 2021 is the 38th in its series and the first created by new Irish Distillers’ master distiller Kevin O’Gorman. It’s a blend of single pot still and grain whiskey aged between 15 and 36 years in ex-bourbon barrels, and according to O’Gorman, that blend includes whiskey distilled in 1984, the very year that Midleton Very Rare was launched.
The 2021 MVR is a truly delicious whiskey. Granted, this might not be an everyday whiskey to grab and drink, as it will be released in limited numbers here in the U.S. at a price of around $220 per bottle. Still, that’s downright affordable compared to some of the comparably aged single malt scotches that have come out this year, not to mention what certain annual bourbon releases end up going for on the secondary market. Premium releases in Irish whiskey are still, for the most part, easier to get and cheaper than other whiskey categories. This might not always be the case.
“When I joined Irish Distillers in 1998, there were only three distillers in the country,” said O’Gorman on a recent call. “Ourselves, Bushmills, and Cooley. Now we probably have 36 or 37 distilleries up and running. Did I ever think I’d see it like this? Probably not, but it’s just great.” He believes the resurgence of Irish whiskey is due first and foremost to the flavor (often described as “smooth,” much to the ire of some aficionados), but also the long history and tradition of the category. And, single pot still whiskey, a distinctly Irish style that is made from a mash bill of malted and unmalted barley in pot stills at one distillery, has gained more admirers around the world. O’Gorman feels confident that this trend will continue, which is driving distilleries to come out with intriguing products and line extensions to stay relevant.
So at the moment, the Irish whiskey boom shows no signs of slowing down, with people drinking everything from affordable name brand blends to premium releases like Midleton Very Rare. In fact, the past year in particular has seen an influx of blends, as brands have launched with sourced whiskey from long-running distilleries, often unspooling a backstory to sell the whiskey in the way that American whiskey brands are so adept at doing. But what it’s really all about is how the liquid tastes. The good news is that these releases are often good (or at least halfway decent), and are more often than not priced to sell. Here are some of the best Irish whiskeys (besides Midleton) to try now, from the familiar to the new, that run the gamut in flavors and styles.
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Teeling was the first whiskey distillery to operate in Dublin in about 125 years when it opened back in 2015. The city is now home to several distilleries, but Teeling continues to chug away, releasing a variety of excellent sourced and in-house-distilled whiskeys of very high quality. The core expression is Small Batch, a blend of grain and malt aged in ex-bourbon barrels before being married together in rum casks for up to a year. There are also Single Malt, Single Grain, and Single Pot Still whiskeys. This last one is aged in virgin American oak, bourbon, and sherry casks, and was distilled onsite in Dublin. The same goes for Blackpitts, a new peated single malt aged in bourbon and Sauternes wine casks.
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Bushmills and Jameson are both extremely palatable and inexpensive Irish blends, but there are some big differences, not the least of which is that Bushmills is produced in Northern Ireland. There’s also a world of single malts from the distillery that you should definitely try if you have been sticking to Bushmills Original. The core range consists of 10-, 16-, and 21-year-old whiskeys aged in different cask types. And if you want to really throw down some cash, try the first whiskey in the new Rare Casks series, a 28-year-old single malt aged in sherry and bourbon barrels for 11 years, then another 17 in cognac casks. This is a delightful sipping experience, and a precursor of things to come. Future releases could include older single malts matured in PX sherry and marsala casks, or a whiskey with crystal malt in the mash bill.
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Don’t sleep on the humble Jameson, the ubiquitous Irish blend that has been plunked down in shot form beside a million beers at a million bars a million times before. But other expressions from the brand are worth tasting. For example, there’s Black Barrel, which spends time in deeply charred oak barrels for some extra aging to deepen the flavor. Then there are the Caskmates Editions, which are collaborations with different breweries, where barrels are exchanged and used to finish the whiskey. And there’s Jameson 18, arguably a peak version of the whiskey that has been aged for nearly two decades in American and European oak before a finish in first-fill bourbon barrels. Consider sipping this last one instead of shooting it alongside your Budweiser.
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There’s nothing particularly new from the world of Tullamore D.E.W. these days, but the brand deserves a mention all the same. It’s an immensely popular blended whiskey, giving Jameson a run for its money in sales around the world. Tullamore has been making whiskey onsite at its own distillery since 2014, after several decades at Midleton. There are a few age statement single malts available, along with a couple of cask-finished blends that do a good job at highlighting the flavors of their secondary maturation: XO Caribbean Rum Cask Finish and Cider Cask Finish.
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You might not be aware that Redbreast is distilled at the same massive distillery as Jameson, but indeed the two are produced at Midleton just outside of Cork, along with a few other notable brands. Redbreast is a shining example of a single pot still Irish whiskey. This designation, as mentioned before, means that it’s made from a mash bill of malted and unmalted barley, and distilled at one distillery in pot stills. The range consists of different ages matured in bourbon and sherry casks (the sherry influence is strong in the whiskey), with highlights definitely being the 12-year-old cask strength and 15-year-old expressions. If you ever get a chance to visit Ireland, stop in at a good whiskey bar and ask if they have any single cask bottlings of Redbreast. You won’t be disappointed.
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Egan’s doesn’t have its own distillery, but the brand sources malt and grain whiskey from reputable operations in Ireland. The Vintage Grain expression is particularly good, a single grain whiskey aged in bourbon barrels that should definitely please fans of that American spirit. There’s also a 10-year-old single malt and a few higher-end releases. The newest of these is Legacy Reserve III, a 17-year-old single malt that was finished in Cadillac casks, which previously contained a white dessert wine from Bordeaux, giving this already fruity malt a sweet undertone with notes of spice and vanilla.
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Dublin Liberties is a newcomer to the urban distilling scene in Ireland’s capital, having opened its doors about a year ago and its whiskey just recently arriving in the American market. Of course, this means the liquid is sourced while the distillery waits for its own whiskey to mature, but it is carefully selected and finished in different types of casks to give it a unique character of its own—and some evocative names. Oak Devil is a 5-year-old blend, Copper Alley is a 10-year-old single malt finished in Oloroso sherry casks, Murder Lane is a 13-year-old single malt finished in Hungarian oak Tokaj wine casks, and the Keeper’s Coin is a 16-year-old finished in Pedro Ximénez sherry casks. I can’t wait to try the distillery’s own whiskey to see how it compares to these releases, but it’ll be a long wait.
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Some of the most interesting new Irish whiskeys available in the U.S. come from Waterford, a distillery focused on showcasing the effects of terroir. The team does this through releases that are made from a mash bill of barley grown on single farms, with no chill filtration before bottling and no color added to the whiskey. Waterford eschews using cask finishes to alter the whiskey’s character as so many distilleries do (often to great effect, to be fair). Check out the “wood” section on its website for a fun read about what Waterford really thinks about cask finishing, but the basic gist is that it’s a shortcut, a cheat, an attempt at burnishing a brand, a way of trying to improve bad whiskey, or simply “lipstick on a pig.” The whiskey being made at Waterford is indeed very good and highly recommended for whiskey geeks really looking to ponder what’s in their glass.
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This Irish whiskey newcomer has taken an interesting approach by launching a blend simultaneously with individual bottlings of the components that go into the blend. Triple Cask Triple Smooth is the blended whiskey, consisting of single malt, single pot still, and single grain whiskeys aged in bourbon, marsala, and sherry casks. Those whiskeys are also available individually as part of the Single Collection, all of which were distilled at Royal Oak Distillery, a relatively new operation that started in 2016 and was formerly known as Walsh Whiskey Distillery. These are inexpensive whiskeys that would be a good place to start for those unfamiliar with the category.
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This is another new Irish blend made at another new Irish outfit, the Great Northern Distillery. Grace O’Malley is named after a pirate queen, according to the brand, a fierce figure who lived in the 16th century and is popular in Irish folklore. The core expression is a blend of 46 percent malt and 54 percent grain whiskey, aged from three to ten years in a variety of cask types (the distillery specifies French oak, but there are others). Beyond that, there are blends finished in cognac casks and deeply charred ex-bourbon barrels, as well as an 18-year-old single malt (not distilled at Great Northern) aged in bourbon barrels and finished in freshly dumped cognac casks. Indeed, this seems to be the year of the blend.
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This whiskey was named in honor of the 1916 proclamation that established Ireland as an independent republic from the U.K. Paul Caris is the master blender here, the same man who is responsible for Grace O’Malley. The difference is that this blend is said to be matured in bourbon barrels and includes a “touch” of sherry cask-finished malt. The result is a decent and approachable whiskey, nothing to stand up and shout about, but certainly on par with others of its ilk.
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Yes, another Irish blend recently made available here in the U.S., this one was named after an Irish infantry regiment in the U.S. Army founded in New York City that dates back to 1849. One dollar from every bottle’s sale goes to support the Sixty-Ninth Infantry Regiment Historical Trust, a non-profit that works to preserve the regiment’s history and provides assistance to veterans and their families. As for the whiskey itself, it’s distilled from malted and unmalted barley and corn, aged in ex-bourbon barrels, and then finished in rum, sherry, port, and other casks charred to various levels.
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Two Stacks follows in the tradition of independent whiskey bonders that have sourced casks from various distilleries throughout the years, maturing, blending, and finishing the whiskey as it comes of age. Its debut release is the First Cut, a “complex blend,” as the brand calls it, consisting of the following formula: 40 percent virgin oak dark grain, 40 percent ex-bourbon light grain, 8 percent ex-Oloroso sherry pot still, 10 percent ex-bourbon double-distilled malt, and 2 percent ex-bourbon peated malt for just a touch of smoke. There’s also a cask strength version of the whiskey, and Dram in a Can, which is exactly what it sounds like—a 100ml can of the whiskey that can fit in your pocket. Future releases will include various cask finishes like rum, apricot brandy, and port.
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Knappogue Castle is now owned by Pernod Ricard, and that means that it’s now in the same family as Jameson, Redbreast, and Powers, so perhaps the whiskey that is bottled will be produced at Midleton in the coming years as well (the distillery doesn’t reveal its current source). There are 12-, 14-, 16-, and 21-year-old expressions available, all matured in bourbon barrels and finished in sherry casks—except for eldest, which is a blend of 23- and 21-year-old bourbon-matured whiskey. There are also three wine-cask-finished expressions in the range (a new one will hit shelves later this year), and an expensive and rare 36-year-old 1951 vintage entirely aged in sherry butts.
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The Tyrconnell is an Irish whiskey brand owned by Beam Suntory and distilled at Cooley, with a lineup consisting of double-distilled single malt, offering evidence that not all Irish whiskey is triple-distilled. Aside from the no-age-statement core expression, there are various age statements finished in a variety of cask types to check out, including three 10-year-old expressions finished in Madeira, sherry, and port casks, respectively. There’s also a 16-year-old malt that was aged entirely in bourbon barrels, and a limited release version that was finished in barrels that were seasoned with Oloroso sherry and moscatel wine.
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Kilbeggan is another Beam brand, but some of the whiskey in the lineup is now being distilled in-house at its very own distillery. This includes two expressions, to be exact: the Small Batch Rye, made from an unusual mash bill (these days, anyway) of malted and unmalted barley and rye; and the Single Pot Still, made from malted and unmalted barley, and a small percentage of oats for a bit of flavor and texture. There’s also a 4-year-old blend, and a lovely Single Grain whiskey that is light, fruity, and certainly appealing to the bourbon drinker’s palate (try in any whiskey cocktail and you won’t be disappointed).
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This distillery isn’t too far away from the much larger Midleton just outside of Cork, but it’s making its own way in the rapidly growing world of Irish whiskey. It has an impressive lineup of different expressions, consisting of a variety of blends and single malts that are finished in different types of casks. The latest release is Stout Cask Irish Whiskey, a blend of 75 percent grain and 25 percent malt aged in first fill bourbon barrels and then finished in beer casks from Black’s of Kinsale, a local brewery and distillery. This second collaboration between the two comes on the heels of an IPA Cask release. Consider giving these two a try along with the Jameson Caskmates editions to see how they compare.
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Boann Distillery, which started distilling in 2019, is focused on making single pot still Irish whiskey along with single malt, gin, vodka, and apple brandy. This means that the various expressions in the lineup are sourced for the time being. The Double Oaked expression anchors the range, a blend of malt and grain whiskey aged in ex-bourbon barrels and finished in sherry casks. This whiskey is part of the Trilogy collection, which includes a Honey Whiskey and Irish Cream too. There are also three different cask-finished whiskeys (Calvados, stout, and Oloroso sherry), as well as a pair of single malts, P.X. I Love You (Pedro Ximenez sherry cask finish) and Bodega Cask (matured entirely in sherry butts for five years). If you like sherry-cask-matured whiskey of any sort, you will enjoy these single malts with their fruity, spicy, vanilla-laden palates.
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Roe & Co
Roe & Co is Diageo’s relatively recent entry back into the Irish whiskey category, making up for the hole left by the sale of Bushmills in 2014. The distillery is up and running in Dublin just across the street from the St. James’s Gate Guinness Brewery, and it also happens to have an excellent bar to visit the next time you are in town. For now, the whiskey is a sourced blend of malt and grain aged in bourbon barrels created by Diageo master blender Caroline Martin, who got input from various bartenders when putting together this flagship product. It is a great Irish blend to use in cocktails.
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This is one of two whiskey brands that come from parent company Walsh Whiskey (the other being the Irishman). Writers’ Tears is a blend of pot still and single malt whiskey, with no grain whiskey included in the makeup. The core bottle in the lineup, Copper Pot, is aged in bourbon barrels, but there are others that take different maturation paths, like Double Oak (aged in bourbon and French oak cognac barrels) and Japanese Cask (a single cask release finished in Japanese Mizunara oak).
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Source : Esquire