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The best of Irish whiskey: a drinker's guide

The Irish famously like a drink – and they certainly know how to make one, too. Irish whiskey was once the world's most popular spirit. Jack Croxford-Scott and Jamie Meehan explain what went wrong – and how it's now being put right

Irish whiskey

You may think that whisky starts and ends with Scotch but you’d be wrong. By the turn of the 19th century, Irish whiskey was easily the world's most popular spirit, beating its Caledonian cousin without breaking much of a sweat.

‘Dublin Whiskey’ was a particularly well sought variety. The city’s skyline would have been pierced by the towering chimneys of distilleries of the Liberties billowing smoke blown northwards over the River Liffey.

They saturated Dublin's air with malty aromas and likewise permeated Ireland's culture; whiskey came to embody the spirit of a proud people.

And the far flung markets of the British Empire couldn’t get enough of it; surviving ledgers and order books document cases being shipped to Panama, Honduras and Australia, amongst countless others.

The taverns of towns and galleys of ships would boast bottles of ‘Pure Pot Still’ whiskey (now known as ‘Single Pot Still’), a uniquely Irish style defined by the use of both malted and unmalted, or ‘raw’ barley, amongst other grains.

This ‘green’, ungerminated barley added a spicy characteristic and a weighty texture to the resulting spirit, an ingenious approach to distilling that no other country could legitimately lay claim to.

A renaissance is well underway; distillers across the island of Ireland are rekindling the legacies of old whiskey families.

Then, it all went very wrong. In a few short years, a perfect storm of trade wars with the British, prohibition in the States and the rise of blended Scotch whisky took hold.

Hundreds of brands gave way to a handful, followed by a brutal consolidation of the industry that left just two distilleries standing and a single corporate behemoth at the helm.

So, its past may be chequered but what of its future? Thankfully, a renaissance is well underway; distillers across the island of Ireland are rekindling the legacies of old whiskey families whilst others forge new ones.

The numbers are unprecedented; international sales of Irish whiskey have doubled over the last decade and the number of distilleries has grown from just three to nearly twenty with countless more planned. So, who is worth looking out for?

Dingle

Situated on a craggy peninsula where Ireland's rugged western shore meets the North Atlantic, Dingle Distillery isn’t the easiest of distilleries to get to. Indeed, Dingle sits within the ‘Gaeltacht’; the scarce - and largely coastal - parts of the country where Irish is still the mother tongue.

It may quite literally be a tin shed distillery on the edge of County Kerry but Dingle has never doubted its ability to take on the troika of corporate owned distilleries which dominate the category.

The bitter winter of 2012 saw Dingle lay down its first casks of spirit, some of which would be released just four years later, including the first single pot still whiskey released in decades outside of the established brands.

Wooden washbacks are used for fermentation in lieu of clinical stainless steel vessels and the whiskies are often bottled as single cask or small batch releases, allowing a natural inconsistency between each expression that harks back to traditional distilling methods

To mature that spirit, Dingle makes liberal use of sumptuous - if rather costly - casks seasoned with the likes of Spanish sherries or port. Those refill casks often impart rich, spicy characteristics to the whiskey, a style that Dingle is quickly earning a reputation for.

Square Mile recommends: Dingle Triple Distilled Whiskey (Batch 4)

Teeling

Breaking ground on the first new distillery in Dublin for over 125 years must have been a bit daunting for Jack and Stephen Teeling, even more so given that their distilling heritage stretches as far back as 1782.

That year, Walter Teeling began crafting Irish whiskey in the heart of Dublin, founding a dynasty which would continue with John Teeling’s founding of Cooley Distillery in 1987, stocks from which have been supplied to Teeling Distillery for release whilst their own, newly laid down whiskey matures.

In 2018, that moment arrived; the Teeling’s unveiled their first proprietary whiskey from the new distillery.

The bottles bear the image of a phoenix rising from a copper pot still, a nod to the long overdue rebirth of distilling in Dublin, appropriately just a stone's throw from Walter’s original distillery which sat just around the corner on Marrowbone Lane.

Has the wait been worth it? You bet.

Square Mile recommends: Teeling Single Pot Still Whiskey

Waterford

Whilst Single Pot Still and triple-distillation are synonymous with Irish whiskies, Waterford Distillery are producing neither. Instead, this repurposed Guinness brewery on Ireland's south-eastern coast is focusing on single malts.

They are doing so with terroir at the heart of it all; Irish barley from single farms is double-distilled in isolation from other batches to reveal the subtle characteristics imparted to the spirit by each farm's soil types, weather and crop types.

Waterford’s emphasis on traceability is a welcome one; until recently, the industry has paid shamefully little attention to how the land, weather, grains and farming methodology shape the style of a whiskey.

Each Waterford bottling, refreshingly, reveals all. Individual farmers are named, soil varieties explained and the exact casks types revealed.

That relentless pursuit of traceability is matched by an unwavering obsession with flavour - their slow distillations and long fermentations produce a whiskey like few we have tried before.

The most exciting thing currently happening in Irish whiskey? Without a doubt.

Square Mile recommends: Waterford Gaia Organic 1.1 Irish Whisky

 

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