Along with shamrock shirts and "Kiss Me, I'm Irish" buttons, Irish whiskey is one of those things that some Americans turn to only once every year. Increasingly, though, Irish whiskey is becoming a big player behind the bar, and with some once-obscure brands becoming more widely available, it's worthwhile to take a closer look at this easy-to-embrace style of whiskey.
Like Scotch, Irish whiskey starts with a base of barley, and is largely aged in used oak casks, which add a light amber color and traces of caramel and vanilla to the spirit without overwhelming the barley's nuanced character.
But the similarities mostly end there; unlike Scotch, which is typically distilled twice, Irish whiskey usually takes three runs through the still (which may be a pot still, a column still or some combination thereof). Also, while Scotch is made from malted barley, its Celtic cousin can be made from both malted and unmalted barley (though there is such a thing as single-malt Irish whiskey); and, while single-malt Scotch can have a peaty smokiness that, in the most extreme examples such as Ardbeg or Laphroaig, can be so powerful that the whisky seems likely to knock you down and take your car keys, Irish whiskey typically lacks this smokiness (though brands such as Connemara are peated). Due to these differences, along with other variations in distillation equipment and production techniques, Irish whiskey often has a brighter, crisper flavor than scotch, while retaining a floral complexity.
This crispness makes Irish Whiskey a very approachable style of the spirit for whiskey novices, and its complexity (especially that found in pure pot-still whiskies and in older expressions) keeps it attractive for longtime whiskey aficionados.
Of course, Irish whiskey's ubiquity doesn't hurt its popularity; brands such as Jameson and Bushmills can be found in almost any bar, and now other brands are becoming a more familiar pour. Powers, the most popular brand in Ireland, has a more robust flavor than the basic bottlings of Jameson and Bushmills, and can be found in many larger U.S. markets, along with another lovely Irish whiskey, John L. Sullivan, which is nicely rich and creamy.
And while upscale Scotch gets much of the glory, the top shelf of Irish whiskey should most definitely not be overlooked; brands such as Redbreast, Green Spot, and Knappogue Castle make some of the best whiskies on the back bar, and Jameson and Bushmills both feature older, more complex expressions that merit some serious attention.
Many Irish-whiskey drinkers show a brand loyalty to their favorite pours that any producer would envy. I like Jameson for times when a lighter whiskey is required, and something more full-flavored like Redbreast 12-year-old or Bushmills 10-year-old single malt when I'm in the mood for the whiskey to show me all it can do.
What's your preferred Irish whiskey?
Is there a brand or an expression you've recently come across that's a new favorite?