There are some scandalous misconceptions about Irish whiskey—that they essentially all taste the same and are inferior to single malt scotch—that are mostly held by single malt scotch drinkers. The truth is that Irish whiskeys are distinctly different from each other—even those produced at the same distillery—and some of the best whiskeys in the world are produced in Ireland.
I’ve listed what I feel are the ten best whiskeys produced in Ireland that are currently available. Some are easy to find and inexpensive (Powers), while others are very rare and justifiably expensive (Knappogue Castle 1951).
Six of the ten are produced at Midleton, Ireland’s biggest distillery, which is located in the County Cork far to the south. Three are from Northern Ireland’s Bushmills distillery. One whiskey—Knappogue Castle 1951 Vintage—is from the defunct B. Daly distillery, where Tullamore Dew was once produced. The only other operating distillery not getting a nod is the Cooley distillery, which has only been operating for about ten years. However, the whiskies from Cooley improve every year and will no doubt break the top ten barrier in due time.
It is also worth noting that only two of the ten whiskeys are single malts. Four are pure pot still whiskeys (whiskeys that are produced exclusively from pot stills, but using both malted and unmalted barley). The remainders are blends, being produced from pot stills and column stills. You might be initially surprised that only two of the ten are single malts. There’s a general impression that single malt whiskeys are superior to blends. But, as I mentioned in a recent issue of Malt Advocate, a large part of what makes Irish whiskey taste differently is its unique method of producing pot still whiskey. All four of the currently available pure pot still whiskeys are on this top ten list, and deservingly so.
Here are the whiskeys, listed alphabetically, along with brief tasting notes and other pertinent information. Join me in celebrating what are not just Ireland’s best, but rather some of the finest whiskeys in the world.
Bushmills 16 yr. “Three Wood” Single Malt Available in the U.S. and other markets for about $55, it is unique among the whiskies on this list—the whiskey is finished off in port pipes after being matured in bourbon and sherry casks, contributing richness not found in Irish whiskeys. It is rich, smooth, gently sweet in flavor, and loaded with fruity notes. Fans of sherried single malt Scotch whiskies will find this whiskey very attractive.
Bushmills 12 yr. Distillery Reserve
This single malt is sold only at Bushmills, so now you have an excuse to visit the distillery. It’s only two years older than that standard Bushmills Malt 10 year old, but what a difference two years makes. Smooth and malty like the 10 year old, but with a richness of flavor and maturity that makes it taste more like a 15 year old. It goes to show that age and maturity is not a linear relationship. If you have friends going to the distillery, tell them to forget about the T-shirt and buy the Distillery Reserve. Or better yet, buy two.
Bushmills 12 yr. “1608” If you can’t make it to the Bushmills distillery, don’t worry. This historically “Duty Free only” item is a real gem. While it isn’t a single malt, one taste will tell you that it is not far from it. It is a very malty whiskey with a dazzling array of sherried fruit, subtle spice notes, and all very well balanced. Limit your airport purchases to this whiskey or Redbreast (see below). Let me rephrase that—this whiskey and Redbreast.
I struggle to find another whiskey in the world that is so smooth and so drinkable, yet just as delicious and flavorful. This pure pot still whiskey is in the Jameson family and produced at the Midleton distillery, but the label is owned and marketed by Mitchell & Sons of Dublin. Apart from their wine & spirits shop on Kildare Street, it is nearly impossible to find. I bring at least one bottle back with me every time I visit Dublin. If you find it, it will cost you less than $30 and will guarantee you an endless supply of friends.
Jameson Gold A stunningly huge-flavored Irish whiskey—especially considering it is a blend. All of you Speyside single malt scotch drinkers who think Irish whiskey is light and wimpy must try this one. This whisky’s selling point is that a portion of it is aged in new oak. (Scotch and Irish whiskey are usually aged in barrels that previously contained bourbon or sherry). It seems that the new oak aging has given the whiskey a remarkable boost in oak flavor, which has been balanced with just the proper proportion of sherry-aged whiskey. That, combined with a good dose of pot still character, has made this a very big and masculine whiskey indeed. It’s available in the U.S., so all of you U.S. subscribers have no excuse for not owning a bottle, which will set you back about $55
Jameson 15 yr. Pure Pot Still Millennium Its flavor is as long as its name. While Jameson Gold is big and unafraid of flexing its muscles, this new Jameson Pure Pot Still 15 year old teases and seduces with charm and finesse. Its flavors are complex and perfectly balanced, and it expresses a balance of maturity and youth seldom found in a whiskey. This whiskey was just recently released and in limited quantities. Save up $100, then go out and buy a bottle. It’s a lot of money, but I’m sure you can find it somewhere. Skip lunches. Don’t get a haircut. Just do it!
Knappogue Castle 1951
It is nearly impossible to find whiskey from the old B. Daly distillery in Tullamore that stopped producing in 1954 (where the original Tullamore Dew whiskey was produced). Fortunately, the owners of the casks had the wisdom to bottle this whiskey at 36 years of age, more than ten years ago, rather than let it sit and age longer in oak. Had they done that, the whiskey would surely taste too woody by now. It expresses a wonderful balance of maturity and Irishness, with just the proper amount of sherry to balance the oak. This whiskey is a piece of history, and history has a price: about $600.
Midleton Very Rare
Each year this “experiment” in quality changes a little, and each release is vintage dated. It’s not as big and bold as its sibling Jameson brands listed above. One thing you can count on is that it will always be elegant, impeccably balanced, and perilously drinkable. Distillery Manager Barry Crockett wouldn’t put his signature on every bottle if he didn’t think so. Another thing you can count on is its price: more than $100.
Powers The biggest selling Irish whiskey in the Republic of Ireland, and the least expensive of the whiskeys on this list. Don’t let its commonplace demeanor fool you. It has a rich pot still character and is mature enough to drink neat. Its flavors are clear, distinctive, and never boring. And its mid-$20s price tag means there is no reason why you shouldn’t own one.
Like Green Spot, this one is a pure pot still whiskey produced at Midleton. It is older, more mature, bolder, and slightly more expensive than Green Spot. It, too, is hard to find. I occasionally find it in Ireland’s major airports when I’m traveling. Since it is not sold in the U.S., this is one whiskey to pick up overseas and bring back home.
Shortly after this article was written, Bushmills Millennium was released to the few hundred people who purchased casks of this 1975 vintage gem. The whisky was offered—by cask only—in the mid-1990s to be released for the new Millennium. The result? An incredibly mature, richly-flavored whisky of great balance. It may be the best whiskey ever from Bushmills and deserves to be on this list. Rumor has it that Park Avenue Liquors in New York City and The Cannery in San Francisco may have a few bottles. Going price: over $100.