The World's Best Irish Whiskeys

The world's largest pot still stands sentinel outside the barrel hall at the Midleton Distillery.
© Pernod Ricard | The world's largest pot still stands sentinel outside the barrel hall at the Midleton Distillery.
It's the world's oldest whiskey style and one of the most underrated – but which ones are best?
By Don Kavanagh | Posted Thursday, 12-Nov-2020

People always talk about the luck of the Irish, but the truth is that if it wasn't for bad luck, we'd have no luck at all, and that counts double for Irish whiskey.

Events have certainly been the cause of a traumatic contraction in the Irish whiskey industry – events beyond the industry's control for the most part. From being the most powerful whiskey industry on earth, a combination of bad luck, poor judgment, political chicanery and ruthless competitors left it near pauperdom.

Related stories:
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But let's wind back the clock a little first. Irish whiskey was one of the first recorded distilled drinks in Europe, with monks bringing the secrets of distillation back from their travels around the turn of the first Millennium. The earliest specific mention of whiskey in Ireland itself is from the Annals of Clonmacnoise, a 1405 record of local events that notes a clan chief died after a surfeit of the stuff the previous Christmas.

After production was licensed and regulated by the government in the late 17th Century, the industry really took off and by 1790, 66 percent of all spirits sold in Great Britain and Ireland were Irish whiskeys. The French Revolution put paid to much of the brandy trade in Britain, while rum imports were interrupted by the newly independent Americans, so spirit drinkers reached for Irish whiskey in huge numbers.

The glory years stretched through the 19th Century, but that century also saw the seeds of Irish whiskey's destruction being sown – by one of their own. Aeneas Coffey was an Irish exciseman, who was also an experimenter. He developed a continuous distilling process, the Coffey still, which produced a cheaper, lighter spirit. However, Irish distillers preferred to stick with their pot stills, which produced a heavier, richer altogether better – but more expensive – whiskey. The Scots saw the beauty of Coffey's still, though, and took to it with a vengeance. Mixing the light spirit with single malts to give it flavor, they created the blended style that would dominate the spirit world in the coming years.

The great collapse

Later events were even more ruinous for Irish whiskey. Irish independence was followed soon after by a vicious trade war with Ireland's biggest market – Britain, and the gap was filled by Scotch producers. These Scottish distillers also took a less scrupulous approach to America's prohibition experiment than their Irish cousins, happily exporting Scotch to Canada, whence it was smuggled into the US to quench the thirst of the speakeasies. The more law-abiding Irish distillers saw their market share devoured.

Soon afterwards, a global depression was just one more kick in the teeth for the industry and what was once the envy of the world's distillers was reduced to two distilleries trickling out spirit for a mostly domestic market.

The comeback was slow in coming. It wasn't until the late 1980s that another distillery appeared on the Irish horizon, with the conversion of the Cooley Distillery from methanol to ethanol production in 1987. That sparked a revival in interest in Irish whiskey, ironically on the coat-tails of a surge in demand for single-malt Scotch.

A special mention should go to Pernod Ricard, who ended up owning Irish Distillers. They saw the value of its product and set about turning Jameson into a hero brand that has lifted the Irish whiskey market to new heights. Inspired by that success, other independent distillers began production and the category is now genuinely booming, with new distilleries springing up across the landscape each year. While it might take a while to get there, it looks very much like Irish whiskey's heyday, when Dublin boasted 28 distilleries, might be surpassed. Ireland currently has around 30 distilleries, with a further 25 in the planning stage.

The Old Bushmills Distillery is the oldest licensed distillery in the world.
© Bushmills | The Old Bushmills Distillery is the oldest licensed distillery in the world.

So let's get to the top end of the market, and let's talk about how whiskey is scored. Since there are fewer people writing about and scoring whiskey, there are fewer scores and, consequently, those scores tend to be lower, given the more realistic outlook of their authors. Whiskey writers tend to be less elevated in their appraisals and there are far fewer scores of 95-plus like you see with wine. Instead, anything in the 80s is considered a very good whiskey indeed, while the 90s are the sunlit uplands.

A note about our critic scores, by the way. Wine-Searcher collates scores from a wide range of critics, all adjusted for the 100-point scale. To generate a wine's aggregate score, Wine-Searcher uses a Bayesian methodology to calculate a weighted average, since not all critics are equal.

The World's Best Irish Whiskeys on Wine-Searcher:

For all my talk earlier about new distilleries coming on line, the plain truth is that the vast majority of these whiskeys listed above come from a single source: the New Midleton Distillery in County Cork. This huge facility produces the excellent Midleton range (including the Dair Gaelach expression in ninth place, which is aged in barrels made from Irish-grown oak), Redbreast, Power's and Jameson. The Writers Tears is bottled by Walsh, while Black Bush represents the oldest licensed distillery in the world, Bushmills from County Antrim, which received its license in 1608.

It's also encouraging to note just how relatively affordable Irish whiskey is, especially when measured against Scotch and Bourbon. Redbreast and Green Spot at an average price of $60 a bottle offers great value and even the more expensive expressions don't really break the bank, especially as we head towards the festive season. Clearly, given the upsurge in sales of Irish whiskey, plenty of people are realizing that too.

Perhaps the luck of the Irish is taking a turn for the better after all.

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