Ireland is one of the contenders vying to be crowned as the birthplace of whiskey, although there aren’t really concrete enough records to let anybody claim that title.
What is certain is that whiskey was being distilled in Ireland as long ago as the 12th century – and that the locals called it uisce beatha, from the Latin aqua vitae meaning “water of life”.
Possibly because drinking whiskey makes you feel great. Which we can confirm is true.
The 12th century Irish might have learned how to make whiskey from Christian monks whose pilgrimages across Europe and the Middle East gave them low-down on distillation. We don’t know for certain though.
Whatever the journey was to get whiskey started, we’re forever grateful it happened.
Why is is whiskey Not Whisky?
Let’s get one thing straight. In Ireland you have whiskey, and in Scotland you have whisky.
During the 19th century, 60% of the whiskey the world drank was made in Ireland.
As the Scots started upping their output, they wanted a way to stand out from Irish distillers, and the two variations of the word came into play.
Is Irish whiskey Scotch?
Irish whiskey and Scotch whisky are similar in lots of ways.
They’re both made from grains distilled in pot and column stills, and aged in oak barrels until they’re mature enough to be undeniably delicious. There are a few crucial differences in taste that set the two drinks apart.
What does Irish whiskey taste like?
The most obvious difference between how Scotch and Irish whiskey taste comes down to peat. Lots of Scotch whisky relies on peat for flavour, but very few Irish distilleries use peat in their production.
This means that Irish whiskey is generally seen as smoother, sweeter and lighter on the palate.
There are four kinds of Irish Whiskey (blended, single malt, single grain and single pot still) and they’re proud to have their own distinct characteristics.
Types of Irish Whiskey
Best blended Irish whiskey
As with Scotch, the most common type of Irish whiskey is blended. The Irish distilleries with the biggest output (namely Jamesons and Bushmills) are producers of blended whiskies.
Blended Irish whiskey can be a blend of single malts from one or more distilleries, may incorporate different kinds of grain whiskey, or may be a combination of pot and column still whiskey.
Often, blended Irish whiskey is characterised as more approachable for whiskey novices.
Our favourite blended Irish whiskey is a classy Clonakilty Double Oak Finish.
It took the first prize at the World Whiskies Awards in 2020, bagging the top spot with a soft spiced nose, smooth gingery palate and a vanilla sweet finish.
It works really well in a range of easy whisky cocktails.
Best single malt Irish whiskey
Single malt Irish whiskey follows the same rules as single malt Scotch.
It’s entirely made from malted barley, and must come from a single Irish distillery. It needs to have been aged for at least three years and bottled at 40% ABV minimum.
For a perfect example of single malt Irish whiskey, get your hands on a bottle of Killowen Rum & Raisin Batch. It’s a celebration of Christmassy fruits and spices, and it makes us happy.
Best single grain Irish whiskey
Single grain Irish whiskey must be from a single Irish distillery, and may be a maximum of 30% barley grain.
The remaining 70% must be made of other grains, like maize or wheat.
There’s no required conformity for still style, which means there’s lots of lovely variation across different single grain Irish whiskies. Looks like we’ll just have to try them all!
Taste of the spirit of Dublin with a bottle of Teeling 13-year-old Single Grain.
It’s triple distilled and finishes ageing in ex-Bordeaux red wine casks, culminating in a dram that delivers.
A sip begins with fruity flavours on the nose, travels through berries and cream on the palate and finishes with toasted oak notes that’ll delight every drinker.
Single pot still Irish whiskey
Single pot still Irish whiskey is unique to Ireland. It’s made from a mash of malted and “green” (unmalted) barley and has a totally inimitable flavour.
Single pot whiskies have a distinctive spiciness to them, and it’s this spiciness we can’t get enough of.
The ever-festive Redbreast 12-year-old is a great choice for anyone’s first single pot still Irish whiskey. Sweet, spicy, and unbelievably tasty.
We’re also big fans of the 21-year-old, a rich and complex whiskey matured in a mix of bourbon barrels and oloroso casks.
Try it in the Whisky Sour cocktail recipe.
Best value Irish whiskey
The best Irish whiskey for the money is, predictably, a blended whiskey.
The Irishman Founder’s Reserve is a blend of single malt and single pot still Irish whiskey, and it’s as delightfully fresh as it is classically pot-still peppery.
At just under £35 a bottle, this chance to try one of the best Irish whiskey brands won’t break the bank.
Best overall Irish whiskey
One of the best Irish whiskies you can get for under £100 is Waterford Hook Head single malt.
Waterford’s distillation is inspired by winemaking, with a focus on creating whiskey as naturally delicious and original as possible.
Each edition they create champions one individual region at a time, showcasing barley at its best.
Their Hook Head expression is full of a mouthwatering maltiness and blazing pepper, finishing with a salty spice so strong you can practically feel the spray of a stormy sea against your skin.
Best Irish whiskey for sipping
Irish whiskey is, on the whole, easy to drink. It’s generally lighter than Scotch, and often has a vanilla sweetness that balances out its oaky spice.
If you’re looking for the smoothest of the smooth, though, you want to try the Knappogue Castle 12 Year Old Single Malt.
It’s an eminently sippable tipple with a vanilla biscuit richness and a custard finish that’ll leave you wanting more.
Best Irish whiskey for a treat
If you’re looking to splash out, or searching for a special gift for a special someone, the Midleton An Dair Ghaelach Knockrath Forest single pot still is guaranteed to knock off even the most seasoned whiskey drinker’s socks.
It’s a truly unique whiskey, with a long-laboured wandering from grain to glass that brings flavours of pot-still spices, honeycomb sweetness and waves of toasted wood dancing across your palate.
Best Looking Irish Whiskey
Yeah, we know, it’s what’s inside the bottle that counts.
However, we challenge you to look at the stunning design of Slane Irish Whiskey‘s triple casked blend and not fall in love.
Smooth, complex, and robust, with notes of oak and spice which come from the triple casking process.
The Society’s Picks: Most Unique Irish Whiskeys
By Joel Davidge
Amy from Grain and Glass, the home of the Birmingham Whisky Club, explained to us that this sweet and medium bodied whisky is one of the first whiskies to come from Connaught province in western Ireland for over 100 years.
Another thing which makes this a unique whiskey is it’s use of Irish barra oats in the distilling process.
Once common in Irish whiskey making, a series of economic factors saw the humble oat fall out of us, before making a comeback in recent years.
Another great discovery was the Connemara Peated Single Malt.
As Amy explained to us, Connemara is unique as for years it was the only Irish peated single malt available – though brands are now getting on the peat train.
The Best Irish Whiskey Brands Compared
All the whiskies we’ve recommended can be enjoyed neat, sipped over ice or with a splash of water added.
To find the perfect combination for your palate you’ll just have to sip and see. A hardship, we know, but we’re sure you can manage a test glass, or two, or three! Sláinte!
For more Irish inspiration, check out our St Patrick’s day cocktails.