Those who want to drink a dram of Irish whiskey on St. Patrick’s Day have more options than ever.
Irish Whiskey has had an incredible comeback story. Once considered the premiere whiskey in the world — even more so than Scotch — it lost ground due to a few causes: American prohibition, the Irish War of Independence, and reticence to use then-new technology of the more efficient continuous Coffey column still. By the 1970s, the country had gone from about 80 distilleries to two operating ones.
There are now more than 40 distilleries operating that visitors can check out, and sales are soaring, especially for higher-end whiskies.
“In just two decades, we’ve seen the high-end premium and super premium segments of Irish whiskey grow a staggering 1,053% and 2,769%, respectively,” said Chris Swonger, the president of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. “It’s truly an exciting time for spirits hailing from the Emerald Isle.”
This year, there are even more diverse whiskies to choose from.
“We are seeing more age statement expressions, more single malts and single pot stills, and more unique mash bills, including more Irish whiskey containing rye,” said William Lavelle, the director of the Irish Whiskey Association. This exciting diversity in the category is matched by an increasing diversity in the make-up of Irish whiskey’s consumer base in the United States, as millennial, Gen Z and female buyers are leading growth.”
Below are several recent launches that are worth your attention.
Powers Irish Rye, $32
Rye is a rarity in Irish whiskey, but a few debuts this year are showcasing the grain. The stalwart brand Powers has launched a 100 percent rye Irish whiskey, inspired by their past. It’s made by Irish Distillers in Midleton — the same distillery behind Jameson and Redbreast, among others — and archivist Carol Quinn came across a mash bill that experimented with rye during the 1800s. Rye used to also be used for thatched roofing, but, since housing modernized the grain was not commonly grown in Ireland.
For this project, Powers commissioned more than 160 acres to be planted at Cooney Furlong Farm in Southeastern Ireland to be used. The whiskey was aged in a mixture of virgin and refill American oak. The result has flavor components you expect from a rye, like pepper, ginger and mint, but counterbalanced by caramel and vanilla sweetness by using virgin American oak. It doesn’t have the prickly umph and spice level of a high-rye mash bill from America, but it’s lighter and with more fruit flavors, like cherry and baked apple, which is expected from an Irish whiskey.
METHOD AND MADNESS, Rye and Malt Irish Whiskey, $80
Also made by Irish Distillers, but in far smaller quantities, is the new METHOD AND MADNESS Rye and Malt. It’s part of an experimental series made in the micro distillery innovation hub and only 5,000 bottles of this limited release will be available in the United States.
The mash bill is 60 percent rye (as compared with Powers’ 100 percent) and 40 percent malted barley. The straw colored whiskey is triple distilled and then aged in refill bourbon barrels, producing a delicate whiskey that is cereal and brioche forward with a backbone of pepper and baking spices like star anise, with chocolate and honey as the whiskey opens up. While the new Powers release was made in large column stills, this was made in a pot still — and not just any pot still. Some of the earlier METHOD & MADNESS releases were made in the main distillery, but this is one of the first releases to be created fully at the Micro Distillery, which opened about six years ago.
Keep your eye on these releases because they are all small and vary depending on where you live. There’s a 33-year-old Mizunara cask finish that just dropped and at 252 bottles, it will be beyond tough to get.
Bushmills 25- and 30-Year-Old Single Malts, $900 and $2,200 respectively
Bushmills has added two super premium aged whiskies to their core range offering drinkers even more luxury options. The brand may be best known for their blends of malt and grain whiskey, but they’ve been steadily expanding their single malt options, which I think rival what’s being made in Scotland. A 12-year-old was added last year to their permanent range of single malts which already included a 10, 16 and 21-year old.
The new additions both give me goosebumps. The 25 is matured in bourbon barrels and sherry butts for almost six years and finished first-fill ruby port pipe oak casks for an additional 21 years. It tastes like candy, and not in a cloying way, but in a I-want-to-eat a-whole-bag kind of way to figure out what is fully going on, which includes honey coated fruit and a with a bit of age funk. The 30-year-old was matured in bourbon barrels and sherry butts for 14 years and finished in first-fill Pedro Ximénez casks for the remaining 16 years. It prickles the tongue and then has a finish that goes forever, like concentrating syrupy fruit and baking spices into a god-like fruit leather (along with notes of actual leather) that my brain swirled to unpack. Not sure how else to say it without sounding completely bonkers, but do what you have to do to try them.
McConnell’s is a brand which dates back to 1776 in Belfast and was popular in the United States from the late 1800s until Prohibition. Like other Irish distilleries, it faced economic troubles during the early 20th century and eventually shuttered in 1958, until it was revived in 2020 by Conecuh Brands, the company behind Clyde May’s Whiskey and Prospero Tequila.
The whiskey is currently sourced by Great Northern Distillery, which is owned by John Teeling, a powerhouse in Irish whiskey history, who at one time owned Cooley Distillery and Kilbeggan, and is the father of Jack and Stephen Teeling, who are behind Teeling Whiskey in Dublin. Eventually it will be distilled at the Crumlin Road Jail in Belfast, a former jail that houses political prisoners and is now a tourist attraction.
The new sherry cask finish joins the brand’s core Irish Whisky expression (McConnell’s spells it without the “e” to stay true to the original name). The sherry finish is richer with dried fruit and baking spice, loads of dark chocolate and a hint of smoke on the finish.
All of The Legendary Silkie’s whiskies are smoky, which make them a bit of a rarity among Irish whiskeys which are usually peat-smoke free (notable exceptions are Connemara and Teeling’s Black Pits). The juice is currently sourced from Great Northern and then treated to a variety of barrel finishes. The Red Silkie, a limited edition that first appeared in 2020 and is back by popular demand (but with only 5,300 bottles), is finished in Rioja and Ribera del Duero casks. The former lend red berry flavors, and the Ribera add spices, and balance the sweetness with a tannic mouthfeel. While the smoky blends the new-ish brand is known for will stick around, I’m excited to try the first release made at the Donegal distillery expected this summer.
This addition to the Writer’s Tears range arrived stateside earlier this winter, and is a nod to the ruby red color that comes from finishing in Oloroso sherry. The single malt whiskey tastes like a honey drizzled red fruit compote with lots of orange.