Irish monks as it happens, declaring it whiskey, with the ‘e’ that the Americans kept. These mirthful monks set the ground rules for distillation that, more or less, the world still follows. For a long time, it was Irish stuff that held the gold standard, its richer charms prized more highly than the (sometimes) coarse character of Scotch.
That smoothness is the general character of the stuff: bottles tend to be easy-drinking, pleasantly sweet, and it’s rare to find a kind that burns. Irish often feels the right choice to take from the shelf: these are warming drinks, old friends. Part of this is down to the typical triple distillation, some of it to do with the use of unmalted barley. What you won’t find in Irish bottles is big, billowing smoke or that maritime mix of peat and brine. Instead, Irish is usually warm but light, endlessly sippable, wonderfully versatile. It works neat, over ice, stirred up into a cocktail or just lengthened with a little soda water.
No surprise, then, that its popularity – on the up over the past five or six years – continues to rise. Celebrity endorsement has helped: Conor McGregor has been shouting about the stuff with Proper 12, which is now on sale in the UK (McGregor also is reported to have sold his share, doubling his net worth in the process). But much of its uptake is down to a huge growth in the Irish drinks industry: Bushmills, Midleton and Cooley have been joined by dozens of other distilleries, and everyone is upping their game. There are new finishes, special editions, extra-old projects coming to fruition. It’s a good time to explore; toast St Patrick while you’re at it.
Knappogue Castle 16 Year Single Malt
Sixteen years seems a charm with Irish whiskey – Bushmill’s have a cracker, as do Kirker and Greer, and close-enough Redbreast 15 is stunning. This from Knappogue is cracking. Finished for two years in oloroso sherry casks, all those sherry flavours are there: dark fruit, chocolate touches, vanilla, a tiny touch of caramel. Smooth as anything, it’s chocolate, it’s velvet, it’s a winner.
Sailor’s Home the Haven
This one benefits from being produced using a single pot still, which typically lends a little spice to a drink. It’s true here: underneath a freshness and some fruit – nectarines, peaches – there’s ginger and a little wood spice, the kind you find in bourbon. That and a little pepper give it a little vibrancy, a kind of flourish. Honey keeps it soft.
Dunville’s Very Rare 12-year-old
I came across Dunville’s last year, after one of the summer’s best meals at Crocker’s in Henley (take a weekend! go!). One dram quickly turned to two, a third followed swiftly afterwards: this is almost comically drinkable stuff, finished in sherry casks that give it a warming sweetness: it’s almost like liquid frangipane, and there’s a note of slow baked apples in there. At £94, the price is punchy, but it’s beautifully done stuff.
Waterford Ballymorgan 1.2
Waterford are an elegant bunch. There is a fairly heavy air of pretension around the entire project – the “terroir-driven” tagline, the website, even the bottles (a bit “luxe bottled water” for me) – but then, forgiveness feels very easy after drinking the stuff. This particular release is beautiful and feels fairly priced: made using barley by a chap called Robert Milne, whose family have farmed their County Wexford plot going back five generations, the result has a spiciness that owes something to cinnamon and cloves and all those Christmas touches, but there’s enough fresh fruit in there too – lots of apple, some mango, maybe. Sometimes it’s tough to pick these flavours out; after all, whiskey tastes like whiskey. But in the case of this, at least it’s very, very good whiskey.
Hyde No. 9 Iberian Cask
Not a favourite, necessarily, but one that shows Irish stuff isn’t all rich fruit and vanilla notes. Honestly, this one from Hyde is an oddball and on first sip, the port finish – which adds exactly the flavour you’d expect – feels strangely detached from the rest of the drink. But let it sit, swirl it in the glass and avoid ice at all costs, and there’s an interesting drink here, one that’s nutty and a bit ballsy, and the flavour blooms with a buttery note. Not for everyone, but worth having on the shelf for those looking for something new.