The Myths and Realities of Irish Whiskey

“I went to Ireland for the holidays. I love Tullamore Dew and went to visit the distillery in Tullamore, but I couldn’t find it. Where is it located?”

I’m often asked questions like this, and I can certainly understand the confusion. After all, the bottle of 12 year old Tullamore Dew I recently purchased in a Duty Free shop states the following on the label: “Distilled and bottled in Ireland, Tullamore Dew Company Ltd., Tullamore, County Offaly.”

You can imagine the look on their faces when I tell them that Tullamore Dew is produced in Midleton, County Cork, along with dozens of other whiskeys. It’s just one of the many common misconceptions about Irish whiskey.

I have made an attempt to clarify some of the most significant misconceptions below. Hopefully, the next time you drink an Irish whiskey, you won’t be viewing it through shamrock-colored glasses.

Belief: There are dozens of Irish distilleries.

Reality: There are only three distilleries—Bushmills Distillery in the North, and the Midleton and Cooley Distilleries in the Republic of Ireland.

Most of what the Bushmills Distillery produces is sold as Bushmills whiskey. However, they have produced the occasional whiskey under a different name (e.g. Coleraine).

The Cooley Distillery near Dundalk, Ireland’s only independent distillery, has been in operation since 1989. It produces many different whiskeys, including single malts and blends. The distillery bottlings are Tyrconnel (single malt), Kilbeggan (blend), and Connemara (peated-smoked single malt). It also produces a myriad of branded whiskeys of varying quality, with one of the best examples being the subtly complex Knappogue Castle single malt (1990, 1991 & 1992 vintages).

The Midleton Distillery in County Cork, the biggest of the three, produces many of the internationally-famous whiskey brands, including Jameson, Powers, Paddy, Tullamore Dew, Murphy’s and Dunphy’s, along with many other lesser known brands.

There once were dozens of distilleries in Ireland, each making its own whiskey. For example, Tullamore Dew was produced at the B. Daly Distillery in Tullamore, Jameson was produced at the Bow Street Distillery in Dublin, and Powers was produced at the John’s Lane Distillery in Dublin. Economic conditions along with other factors led to consolidation in the industry, leading to production of the whiskey at the current Midleton distillery in 1975.

Belief: I’m Catholic, and therefore won’t drink Bushmills. (Alternatively, I’m Protestant, and therefore won’t drink Jameson).

Reality: The same company owns The Bushmills Distillery and Midleton Distillery (where Jameson is produced).

I don’t want to get into politics, so I’ll keep this one brief. But I must say something, because I hear these kinds of comments all the time.

The Bushmills Distillery and the Midleton Distillery are both owned by Irish Distillers. Where do you think the grain whiskey component for the Bushmills blends comes from? Not the Bushmills Distillery. Bushmills only makes malt whiskey. The grain whiskey for the Bushmills blends comes from the Midleton distillery in County Cork—the same place where Jameson, Power’s and Paddy is produced.

If you were wondering, the opposite is not true. According to Barry Crockett, Midleton Distillery Manager, malt whiskey from Bushmills doesn’t go into any of the whiskeys produced at Midleton.

Finally, Irish Distillers is owned by Pernod-Ricard, of France. But there’s no need to worry; I was just at both distilleries and they were still making whiskey, not brandy.

Belief: Irish whiskey is unique in that it is triple-distilled and is made from smoke-free malt (paralleling the belief that Scotch whisky is only distilled twice and always produced with peat-smoked malt).

Reality: What makes Irish whiskey unique is the practice of using both unmalted and malted barley in their pot stills.

Yes, it is true that most Irish whiskey is made from malt containing no peat smoke. But Connemara single malt, produced at the Cooley distillery, is made from peat-smoked malt. And while the whiskey produced at Bushmills is triple-distilled, the whiskey produced at Cooley is only distilled twice. What happens at the Midleton distillery depends on the whiskey being produced. In fact, one could argue that—given the production techniques and flavor profile common to many of their whiskeys—the Cooley distillery is essentially a single malt Scotch distillery located in Ireland, although I doubt that analogy will please anyone.

Realize also that there are Scotch whiskies, like Glengoyne, produced with unpeated barley, and some Scotch whiskies, like Auchentoshan, are triple-distilled. In fact, Frank McHardy, Distillery Manager of Scotland’s Springbank Distillery is making a peat-free, triple-distilled whisky at Springbank called Hazelburn. No surprise to me—Frank’s previous Distillery Manager position was at Bushmills.

But there is one production process unique to Irish whiskey; more specifically, to the Midleton Distillery. Whiskey produced at Midleton (therefore, the majority of the whiskey produced in Ireland) has some component of it produced in a pot still using both malted and unmalted barley. This is different than all the other whiskies produced from a pot still in Scotland (and the other two distilleries in Ireland), since they produce single malt whiskey utilizing 100% malted barley—no unmalted barley.

Using both malted and unmalted barley in the Midleton pot stills is what, to me, gives Irish whiskey its Irish-ness. And when they produce a whiskey entirely in a pot still using both malted and unmalted barley, it can’t be called a single malt. Rather, the whiskey is referred to as a “pure pot still” whiskey. There are only three pure pot still whiskeys produced at the Midleton distillery and sold on the market. The rest of the whiskeys are “blends” and contain just a portion of pot still whiskey.

Belief: All Irish whiskeys tastes the same.

Reality: The majority of Irish whiskeys are distinctly different from each other.

I understand why you might initially think that all Irish whiskey tastes the same. One of the reasons for this is that most of the whiskey drinkers whom I know haven’t ventured much beyond the standard Jameson and Bushmills bottlings. Part of this lack of consumer awareness I believe must lie directly on the shoulders of Irish Distillers and their parent company Pernod-Ricard. While the Scotch whisky companies have been more than willing over the past ten years to satisfy the demands of a growing consumer base wanting more variety and a better selection of premium products, many of the outstanding whiskeys produced in Ireland have been Ireland’s best kept secrets.

For example, Redbreast and Green Spot have been on the market for many years. They are outstanding whiskeys, but how many of you have even heard of them before, let alone tried them? They’re nearly impossible to find—even in Ireland! Only now is Irish Distillers beginning to show off its talents and potential by exporting Jameson Gold, Jameson Pure Pot Still 15 year old, and Bushmills 16 year old “Three Wood” to the U.S.

Another reason for the confusion might lie with the fact that so many of the whiskey brands are made at the Midleton distillery. Is Irish Distillers just making the same whiskey and selling it under different names? I can understand why you might think this way. But the whiskeys are indeed completely different from each other. A simple taste test of the different products proves this point.

But how can this be? How can one distillery produce so many completely different whiskeys? Well, to begin with, the distillery is unique in that it has both pot stills and column stills under one roof. Therefore, it can produce a single malt whiskey in a pot still, it can produce a pure pot still whiskey that is not a single malt because it contains both malted and unmalted barley (examples include Redbreast, Green Spot, and the new Jameson 15 year old), or it can produce blended whiskeys made in a combination of pot stills and column stills (e.g. Jameson Gold, Powers, Tullamore Dew, Paddy’s, Murphy’s, and Dunphy).

Master Distiller Barry Crockett can differentiate even further. He can select different degrees of malted barley vs. unmalted barley to produce different types of pure pot still whiskeys, and different percentages of grain whiskey vs. malt whiskey to produce different types of blended whiskeys. If that’s not enough, he can take it one step further. He can take different “cuts” from the pot still spirit and different fractions of spirit from the column stills to produce completely different whiskeys. Finally, the spirit can then be matured in different types of casks (e.g. sherry vs. bourbon), and bottled at different ages and strengths.

Once you see all the different possibilities that this distillery has in making whiskey, it is almost surprising that they don’t make more whiskeys than they already do.

Belief: Irish whiskey isn’t as good as Scotch whisky.

Reality: Just like Scotch whiskies, some Irish whiskeys are outstanding while others are not.

When I told a Scotch whisky distillery manager that I was going to Ireland, his reply was (tongue-in-cheek), “I didn’t know they made whisky in Ireland.” The truth is that Scotland, Ireland, the United States, and Canada make some great whiskies, and they also make some not-so-great whiskies.

Unfortunately, I encounter many single malt scotch drinkers who don’t drink Irish whiskey and aren’t willing to even try it. Given that the flavor gap between Irish and Scotch whisky is narrowing, combined with the recent release of outstanding, high-quality Irish whiskeys, if you adopt such a myopic view you will miss out.

To prove this point, I often slip in a good Irish whiskey during my single malt scotch tastings events; you would be surprised by the overwhelming favorable response.

Belief: Only Bushmills makes a single malt Irish whiskey.

Reality: Single malt whiskeys from both the Cooley and Midleton distilleries are currently on the market.

Single malt whiskeys from the Cooley distillery include Tyrconnel, Knappogue Castle, and Connemara. A single malt produced by the Midleton distillery (but not sanctioned by Irish Distillers) has been sold in the United States under the “Erin go Bragh” label.

Finally, after all this talk about Irish whiskey, you might have worked up a thirst for one.

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