Like the Irish champion boxer Jimmy “Baby Face” McLarnin, Irish whiskey knows how to take a punch. The spirit was once the tipple of choice from saloons to salons during the mid to late 1800s, but the 20th century knocked it to the mat with a one-two punch—first with Prohibition, then with the onset of the Irish Civil War. After lying dormant for years, however, Irish whiskey is now one of the fastest growing spirits in the United States.
Unlike scotch, which is double distilled, most Irish whiskeys are triple distilled. That extra distillation is important, since it leads to lighter and mellower flavors. Additionally, the four main Irish distilleries—which produce the majority of the spirit—generally don’t burn peat to dry their malted barley. Instead, they use gas fires, which limit any hint of smoke on the palate.
When it comes to the heavyweights in the class, there are four contenders. Everyone has heard of Jameson. The best-selling Irish whiskey brand in the world produces a flagship spirit that is copper-pot distilled, aged in bourbon barrels, and blended with a small amount of sherry-cask-aged whiskey, which produces an elegant apricot and honeyed smoothness. Then there’s Bushmills, which was founded in 1608 and is, as a result, the world’s oldest continuously operating licensed distillery. Tullamore D.E.W., named after its creator, Daniel E. Williams, is a blend of three different styles of whiskey—pot still, malt, and grain. Knappogue Castle, by contrast, produces a 12-year-old single malt, as well as deeper-flavored 14- and 16-year-old distillations that are aged in sherry barrels.
Those are the usual suspects, all worthy competitors in the battle to be crowned champion Irish whiskey. But younger whiskeys coming out of Ireland are turning heads and tantalizing palates, as well. We’ve listed a number of them here, all of which are ideal choices for St. Patrick’s Day—and every day thereafter.
Redbreast – This cult favorite was introduced in 1903 but faded away after Prohibition. The brand was reintroduced in Ireland during the 1990s and reappeared on U.S. shelves in 2005. The latest offering, a full-bodied and creamy 21-year-old, is a blend that contains some whiskeys as old as 28 years.
Green Spot – Back in 1887, the Mitchell family of independent bottlers in Dublin began marking their casked whiskies with colored spots to denote the age. The Green Spot was always a favorite, and with its hints of cloves and green apples, it still is.
Teeling – Named after Jack Teeling, whose family has been making whiskey since 1782 and whose father established the Cooley Distillery in 1987, this young Irish whiskey is medium bodied and well balanced, offering a long finish with hints of cherry.
Kilbeggan – Produced by the Cooley Distillery company (recently purchased by Beam Inc.), this smooth, easy-to-drink whiskey is characterized by delicate flavors of almonds and peaches, and is one of the few that is double distilled.
Clontarf 1014 – This pleasantly spiced whiskey, named after an Irish Viking battle from the early 11th century, is aged in bourbon casks and filtered through Irish-oak charcoal.
Midleton Barry Crockett Legacy – This light and peppery whiskey was created to honor Midleton Distillery’s legendary and recently retired master distiller. It delivers notes of citrus, cinnamon, and oak, and is best enjoyed either neat or with a single ice cube.
2 Gingers – Do not be fooled: There is no ginger in this whiskey. Kieran Folliard, the creator of the double-distilled, sweet, and malty blend, named it after his redheaded mother and aunt.