Irish Whiskey: It’s Not Just for St. Patty’s Day
There’s a lot more Irish in your future. Irish whiskey, that is.
Irish whiskey is the biggest current success story in the spirit business, as the small but continually growing category keeps posting double-digit increases in the United States — nearly 1.4 million cases and growing at more than 20% each year. As a result, plenty of supplier activity has ramped up growing consumer interest in all sorts of Irish whiskey — blended, single malt, special finishes, ages and strengths — as new brands and extensions start to drop in anticipation of the St. Patrick’s Day selling season.
Yet, Irish also has been growing in popularity year round, as drinks such as the Pickleback and Irish and Ginger have returned the whiskey to bartenders’ attention beyond shots and rocks. Still, most bars carry two or at most three bottles of Irish, possibly missing the opportunity to make a mark by being ahead of the trend.
First, some basics: Most Irish whiskey consumed in the United States is a blend of grain and malt whiskies, for the most part triple-distilled (Kilbeggan and Michael Collins being the notable exceptions among blends). There are numerous age expressions among both blends and single malts, although most are unpeated, even though traditionally the peat-rich island produced plenty of smoky whiskies (exceptions in this case are mainly the 10 year old Michael Collins and single malt Connemara).
There are enough different Irish styles to keep an aficianado busy, from the lightly fruity and highly mixable blends to the rich, nutty and complex aged single malts. It’s curious — given the range of quality and flavor and the fact that Irish was so popular pre-Prohibition — that the whiskies haven’t received more attention from the new wave of cocktail bars.
With only four major distilleries in Ireland (Kilbeggan Distillery, Cooley Distillery, New Midleton Distillery and Old Bushmills Distillery), there are obviously far more brands than producers, but what sets the whiskies apart is as much marketing as anything else. Still, examining brands differances can help bring some clarity as various brands seek to gain a foothold on the backbar.
Leading brand Jameson is the flagship whiskey for Irish Distillers, a subsidiary of Pernod Ricard. It’s the world’s largest Irish by far, selling nearly 3.4 million cases worldwide and about 1 million in the United States where it controls more than 70 percent of the market. Made at the Midleton Distillery along with Irish Distillers’ other brands — most notably Powers and Redbreast — Jameson also long has been a bartender favorite as a celebratory shot, to the point that portions of the brand symbol have turned up in many barkeep tattoos. Jameson is available in almost every American bar, and a recent brand extension, Jameson Black Barrel, has been designed with bartenders and cocktails in mind. For now, it’s only available in New York State.
In addition to Black Barrel, other Jameson extentions include Jameson 12 Year Old, which features a lush sweetness typical of aged Irish backed with a full body and the signature Jameson dry and citrusy finish. The next step up, Jameson 18, offers a broader flavor palate: lanolin, crushed nuts and lemon custard, again with the signature dry and citrusy finish. This year, Pernod Ricard is releasing a cask-strength version of Redbreast 12 year old, already the fastest growing ultra-premium Irish whiskey in the United States.
Bushmills: The second-largest brand in the United States, Diageo’s Bushmills has built a cult following for Black Bush, similar to the standard Bushmills blend but made with a higher proportion of Oloroso sherry-aged malt whiskey. Produced at the Old Bushmills Distillery in Antrim, Northern Ireland, Bushmills has focused promotions on the “Since Way Back” ad/marketing campaign, but like most Irish whiskies, mostly has been promoted off-premise. Bushmills is known for its creaminess and slight bitter almond finish; it also offers three higher-priced single malt extensions: Bushmills 10 Year Old,18 and 21.
Tullamore Dew: While a distant third in the United States, Tullamore Dew, now owned by William Grant and Sons, is the second-largest Irish whiskey internationally and is especially big in Eastern Europe. Grant is said to be looking for a home to produce its own liquid; meanwhile, the brand is produced at Irish Distillers’ Midleton Distillery. The range includes Tullamore 10 and 12 Year Old Reserve, known for their exceptional mix of fruit and spice as well as a light delicacy; a 10 Year Old single malt combines malts aged in Bourbon, Dry Oloroso Sherry, Port and Madeira casks.
Michael Collins: Relative newcomer Michael Collins has made an impact with bartenders since its introduction a few years ago, mainly because it has focused some of its developmental work on-premise. Supplied by Cooley Distillers, Michael Collins Blend is double distilled, while its single malt 10 year old is slightly peaty.
Beam Global shook up the Irish whiskey world in December when it agreed to buy the last independent distiller in Ireland, promising to muscle up distribution and production of Cooley Distiller’s brands (Kilbeggan, Tyrconnell, Connemara and Greenore). Kilbeggan is a double-distilled blend, a popular lower-priced option with plenty of quality. Greenore is the only all-grain Irish whiskey in the market — light, delicate and very grain forward. But the jewels are single malt Tyrconnell — the largest-selling Irish whiskey in the United States before Prohibition — and single malt Connemara. The latter includes a 12 year old and a cask-strength edition, perhaps the most characterful Irish in production because of its powerful peated tang. Tyrconnell, in addition to its standard single malt, offers three 10 year old wood finishes — Port, Maderia and Sherry.