The whiskeys our parents, grandparents and their parents drank have as much appeal to consumers today as they did in centuries past. And for good reason. Irish and Scotch whiskeys, in particular, are noble spirits of impeccable quality and brilliant flavors — true franchise players behind the bar. Here’s what the greatest names in whiskey are up to in the new millennium.
There’s no such thing as an uninspired Irish whiskey. Collectively, they present aficionados a range of whiskeys diverse in style and breadth of expressions with world-class offerings at every price point. Add in that they’re highly aromatic and exceptionally easy to drink and you begin to understand why Irish whiskeys have become hot commodities. In fact, Irish whiskey as a category has been posting double-digit growth for several years.
Part of the attraction is that Irish whiskeys are triple-distilled from both malted and unmalted barley, and most lack the peaty smokiness of Scotch. Traditionally, Irish distillers develop the character of their spirits in the vat rather than post-distillation blending, resulting in light-bodied whiskeys brimming with character and intriguing nuances. Here are some selections to consider if you’re anxious to tap into the growing popularity of Irish.
Leading the popular resurgence is category bestseller John Jameson & Sons, whose whiskeys are produced at the Midleton Distillery in County Cork. The brand’s upper echelons include Jameson 1780, a super-premium blend of triple-distilled, malted and unmalted barley whiskeys aged 12 years in used sherry casks and bourbon barrels. The higher proportion of sherry-finished whiskeys gives the blend a slightly sweet, fruity and nutty palate.
Jameson Limited Reserve pays homage to the distillery’s tradition of aging whiskeys in oloroso casks. After 18 years maturing in sherrywood, the whiskey is finished in charred American oak and has a wafting, sherry-influenced bouquet and a broad palate with nutty, spicy notes. The suggested retail prices are $35 and $85 respectively. (Pernod Ricard)
Not surprisingly, the other global player in the category — Bushmills — has an equally distinguished roster. Case in point is Bushmills 16 Year Old Irish Single Malt, a blend comprised of whiskeys matured in ex-bourbon barrels, Port pipes and oloroso butts; the flavorants from each contribute mightily to the distinctive character of finished malt.
The portfolio also includes Bushmills 21 Year Old Irish Single Malt, an ultra-premium blend of whiskeys aged more than 20 years in charred American oak and Spanish oloroso sherry butts before being finished in Madeira oak drums. The resulting malt has tremendous complexity and sophistication. Priced around $100, the recently launched Bushmills 1608 is a small batch whiskey triple-distilled with expensive crystal malt — so-called because of its crystalline appearance and revered for its chocolate and toffee flavor. (Diageo)
Redbreast Pure Pot Still is another reason to rejoice. The brand is triple-distilled in traditional copper pot stills entirely from malted barley and spring water. Introduced in 1939 by John Jameson & Sons, the whiskey is barrel-aged for a minimum of 12 years in bourbon barrels and sherry casks. It’s complex, delightfully assertive and smooth as satin. (Pernod Ricard)
Knappogue Castle Single Malt is produced in limited quantity from malts distilled between 1990 and 1992 and selected by the master blender for their exceptional quality. The whiskey has been aged a minimum of 15 years in American oak and bottled at the traditional strength of 86 proof. Knappogue is also known for its Castle Collection, a series of six vintage-dated whiskeys, the first of which debuted in 1990. (Castle Brands)
Another highly esteemed marquee is Tyrconnell Single Malt, a pure pot still whiskey that dates back to 1762. It’s made at the Cooley Distillery in Dundalk using malted and unmalted barely and spring water, then barrel-aged for five to six years. The spirit is full-bodied with a malty bouquet, slightly sweet flavor and a marvelously dry finish. (Gemini Spirits & Wines)
Those seeking more adventure will want to spend time with award-winning Connemara Peated Single Malt. The small batch whiskey is distilled at the Cooley Distillery with malted barley kiln dried over peat fires, which imbues the finished whiskey with a distinctively smoky edge. The Connemara range recently expanded and now includes both a 12-year-old and a Cask Strength expression. (Gemini Spirits & Wines)
Midleton Very Rare is an ultra-sophisticated whiskey triple-distilled in the firm’s famed copper pot stills from spring water and malted and unmalted barley. Artisanal in every respect, the vintage-dated spirit is matured over 20 years in American white oak barrels. Bottling of the reserve whiskey is limited to only 50 casks a year. (Pernod Ricard)
Two brands have built their reputations on delivering tremendous bang for the buck. The first is easy-drinking Kilbeggan Irish Whiskey from the Cooley Distillery. It’s comprised of pot- and continuous-distilled spirits made from malted barley, corn and lime-softened spring water. (Gemini Spirits & Wines)
The other is perennial all-star Tullamore Dew, a small batch whiskey aged for a minimum of three years in American oak barrels and ex-sherry casks. Created in 1829 and now produced at the Midleton Distillery, Tullamore Dew is a premium dram at a value price. (SKYY Spirits)
The trend is clear: give the people what they want and order more bar stools.
21st Century Scotch
A Scotch with a compelling story sells better than one draped in medals. Turns out Scotch whisky enthusiasts are passionate folks who would rather be intrigued than impressed. They’re also not likely to be regulars at a bar with an unchanging line-up of malts, so entice them back by promoting a new fascinating marquee or two from the masters.
Fortunately, lining your shelves with a balanced selection of intriguing whiskies has never been easier. The greatest names in Scotch continue expanding their portfolios with new expressions and non-traditional bottlings, nudging the envelope to see what lies just beyond reach.
Case in point, The Macallan Fine Oak Single Malts represent a dramatic departure from the distillery’s 180-year tradition of maturing whiskies exclusively in oloroso sherry casks. The elegant triple-cask malts — bottled at 10, 15 and 17 years of age — are comprised of whiskies aged in three different types of wood — used bourbon and sherry casks, as well as new American oak barrels seasoned for several years with sherry. Tradition notwithstanding, the bold experiment has been a critical success and something of a market phenomenon as well. (Remy Cointreau)
Equally unforgettable is The Glenlivet 15-Year-Old French Oak Reserve, a single malt initially aged in American ex-bourbon barrels, after which a portion is matured in new, Limousin oak barrels. Famous its role in aging Cognacs, Limousin has an unusual grain pattern that allows the aging whisky to extract more flavorants from the wood. The resulting malt is a delectable variation on theme. (Pernod Ricard)
The Glenfiddich Solera Reserve is a one-of-a-kind single malt. Its blend of 15-year-old malts are finished in a system modeled after Spanish soleras; the process is as fascinating as the whisky is delicious. After resting in a large oak vat and fully integrating, half of the malt in the reservoir is drawn off and replaced with an equal volume of 15-year-old whiskies. In this way, the whisky remaining in the vat can “educate” the newly added malts, thus ensuring consistency between bottlings. (Wm. Grant & Sons)
There are no more exuberant malts than those from the Scottish islands. A sterling example is Bowmore 18 Years Old Islay Single Malt, a handcrafted whisky with a smoky, sea-induced palate and a sweet and comfy warm finish. Other malts would collapse from the sheer weight of its personality. Those willing to take the plunge with this assertive malt will be generously rewarded. (SKYY Spirits)
Highland Park is located on the small, desolate island of Orkney off the northern coast of Scotland. The distillery’s highly acclaimed Highland Park 18-Year Old is a classic island malt — richly aromatic with a lavish palate and wisps of peaty smoke on the finish. The inhospitable conditions on windswept Orkney add to Highland Park’s considerable mystique and back story. (Remy Cointreau USA)
Super-premium Isle of Jura Superstition is a world-class malt from the lone distillery on the Isle of Jura. It features a harmonious blend of robust, peaty whiskies and traditionally finished malts bottled at a lip-tingling 90-proof. (Gemini Spirits & Wines)
The single malts of the Lowlands are renowned for being soft, light and fruity. The most prestigious of the region’s whiskies is Auchentoshan Three Wood Lowland Single Malt, a distinctive triple-distilled malt finished in three types of oak casks—used bourbon barrels, oloroso sherry butts and Pedro Ximenez sherry casks. No learning curve is required to fully appreciate its nuance and character. (SKYY Spirits)
Scotch whiskies are ruggedly individualistic products of the earth, water and air. They’re so deeply imbued with a sense of place that one immediately discerns the one place these magnificent malts could come from.