One of my favourite drams is an Irish single malt whiskey called the Tyrconell, which is named after a legendary racehorse. I first came across the whiskey when I visited the Kilbeggan distillery in the eponymous town about an hour from Dublin. Kilbeggan is a picturesque town, which, like many places in Ireland, is alternately sun-splashed and rain-soaked.
The distillery manager was a man with fermented breath and fierce pride in Irish whiskey. Most of what he told me that day was true, especially about the Tyrconell, which is a smooth, creamy, unfussy drink with a long finish. Exactly the kind of stuff you’d probably look forward to at the end of a long, hard, regular day, and you could say that about a lot of Irish whiskeys. Unfortunately, though, apart from Jameson, which seems to define Irish whiskey for most people, most Celtic whiskeys are tougher to find at duty frees. I’m yet to see Tyrconell at one of them, and that is a pity because the Irish make some wonderful spirits that ought to find a place in every curious imbiber’s bar.
The differences between scotch and Irish whiskey go way beyond how they spell the respective spirits they make. Unlike scotch, which is prized for its complexity and always involves malted barley and peat, Irish whiskey is made from unmalted barley and is as smooth as a well-executed heist. There is a reason why Irish whiskey tastes so smooth: if scotch is distilled twice, Irish whiskey is triple-distilled. And unlike the Scots, instead of using peat fires to dry the barley, the Irish use smokeless kilns. (FYI: If you wanted a peated Irish whiskey, check out Connemara.)
Making a comeback
The amber liquid that is matured in ex-bourbon or rum barrels — for at least three years — once ruled the world of whiskey. Back in the mid-1800s, Ireland had hundreds of distilleries, which, towards the end of the century, exported their pot-distilled whiskey to the farthest reaches of the British empire and the United States, and accounted for a large percentage of global whiskey sales. But the first couple of decades saw the Irish suffer massive reverses even as their neighbours adopted the continuous distilling process, which made their wares, including smoother blended whiskey, cheaper than Irish products. The setbacks included the imposition of Prohibition in America, trade embargoes imposed by the Brits during the Irish independence struggle, the Great Depression, and finally, WW-II. And they never really recovered from it. Today Scotland reportedly sells about 90 million cases a year as compared to the Ireland’s 10 million. But one shouldn’t let Fate’s capriciousness (with regard to the Irish) — and some fantastic marketing by the Scots — influence one’s decisions when it comes to whiskey.
If you are keen on finding out more about Irish whiskey, the ideal way to take the plunge is to pick up a bottle of Jameson or Tullamore Dew, or, perhaps, even Jameson 12-year-old Special Reserve. Other old favourites — and longstanding icons — include Powers, Green Spot, Red Breast and Bushmills. Or, you could turn your gaze towards the newer crop of Irish whiskeys that have bloomed in the country’s verdant landscape over the last ten years, encouraged in all probability by a Millennial affinity for the smooth libation.
Stakeholders in these new, or soon to be operational distilleries include U2 frontman Bono and the boxer Conor McGregor, who’s among the people behind the Proper No. Twelve that was launched last year. The newer bunch of Irish whiskeys all look interesting. There is Clonakilty, which was set up in 2016, Boann, Powerscourt, which makes the Fercullen single malt whiskey, and Dead Rabbit, which takes its name from an Irish American street gang in 1850s New York and is a collab between the popular Dead Rabbit bar in New York and the Dublin Liberties Distillery. And, then, there is Teeling Whiskey Company, which was set up in 2012 and revived a 230-year-old name. Earlier this year at the World Whiskies Awards, their single malt, matured for 21 years in bourbon barrels and then for another three years in Sauterne wine casks, was voted the World’s Best Single Malt. And that, we’d think, is as good a reason as any to pay some serious attention to Irish whiskey.
Murali K Menon works on content strategy at HaymarketSAC. Read his columns