Revival of Irish whiskey welcome

Having an Irish grandfather, I do identify with that part of my heritage. Given that, and the fact that my only distillery visit has been to Bushmills, I leapt at the opportunity to do a zoom Irish whiskey tasting recently.

Co-hosted by Peter Ryan, ambassador at the Irish embassy in Wellington, alongside William Lavelle, head of the Irish Whiskey Association, it afforded a fascinating look into the growth of this industry. Our group of Kiwi writers were informed by a group of distillers, brand ambassadors and members of the Irish Whiskey Association who had dragged themselves out of bed before six in the morning, Irish time (stoically, in some cases with a dram in hand) to educate us on Irish whiskey.

Similar to craft distilling here in New Zealand, Irish whiskey has been in a huge state of growth and it’s a story of recovery, too. Less than a dozen years ago, the industry had fallen to just four remaining distilleries but this has surged over the past decade to more than 40, worldwide sales growth topping the category, including the largest, and fastest growing, EU spirits export to the continent of Africa, while New Zealand had a 20% rise in sales in the past year alone. This growth has spurred diversity in styles, helping to attract new people to the category.

Catherine Condon, distiller at Irish Distillers’ Midleton Distillery in County Cork, began the discussion. Their Jameson brand is one of the largest in Ireland and the world’s best-selling Irish whiskey. Jameson Black Barrel is triple distilled pot still whiskey with a mix of malted and unmalted barley. It is blended with a smaller volume of small batch column still whiskey from corn and a little malt, which adds extra butterscotch and sweetness to the mix, and matured in double charred ex-bourbon and sherry barrels. No age statement but generally 5-7 year age. This label is having significant growth in the US market.

Lauren McMullan, Bushmills brand ambassador, continued, unfazed by the Bushmills samples going awol. Bushmills in Northern Ireland is the oldest licenced distillery in the world, granted a license by King James I in 1608. It holds the largest stock of whiskey in Ireland of over 400,000 casks. Their 10 Year Old Bushmills Single Malt is triple distilled from Irish malted barley, aged a minimum of 10 years in mostly ex-bourbon casks, having some Oloroso sherry casks in the blend. Seen as one of the most approachable whiskeys in their range.

Teeling brand ambassador James Kilgannon, also spoke. Based in Dublin’s city centre, a stone’s throw from Guinness and Trinity College, it’s an independent distillery making a number of expressions and labels, continuing to experiment with a variety of distillation methods and up to 150 different casks from bourbon, to pinot noir, ginger beer and even pineapple. Its Teeling Small Batch is a blend of malted and grain barley aged separately and blended later: typically for the first 5-6 months in bourbon casks, followed by time in Central American and Caribbean rum casks which add a little rum/raisin or fruit cake to the nose.

Finally, we met Clare Minnock, from Walsh Whiskey in County Carlow. Its Writer’s Tears Double Oak harks back to the heyday of Irish whiskey in the early 1900s and a style known as “the champagne of Irish whiskey”, was launched in 2019 when it was voted into the top 10 of Whisky Advocate’s double oaked styles. Triple distilled, it’s a blend of single pot still and single malt Irish whiskeys bottled at 46% ABV aged in a mix of American oak bourbon barrels and French oak cognac casks: the latter giving a particular lift to the aromatics.


Jameson Black Barrel Irish whiskey

ABV: 40%
Price: $56-$60
Rating: Excellent

Butterscotch, creamy toffee, spice, orange peel, vanilla. Fruit characters hint at nectarine and apple, a nuttiness too, closing with a little choc orange. Quite a powerful finish with a lip-smacking quality.

Teeling Small Batch Irish whiskey

ABV: 46%
Price: $64-$70
Rating: Excellent

Vanilla, honey, caramel, butterscotch, spices, Christmas cake. Fruit notes of apple with a touch of banana, nutmeg leading the spices, Demerera sugar. Comes across as more medium-weight, but deceptive power here.

Writer’s Tears Double Oak Irish whiskey

ABV: 46%
Price: $90-$100
Rating: Excellent to outstanding

Vanilla pod, cinnamon, ginger fudge, plum and poached pear. Citrus zest, toffee, with the cognac barrel influence giving a lifted grapey character. A little chocolate and spice rounds out the finish.