If you want to give a bit of luxury this Christmas, Irish whiskey is a great last-minute solution.
Irish Whiskey has had an incredible comeback story. Once considered the premiere whiskey in the world — even more so than Scotch — it lost ground due to a few causes: American prohibition, the Irish War of Independence, and reticence to use then-new technology of the more efficient continuous Coffey column still. By the 1970s, the country had gone from about 80 distilleries to two operating ones.
That’s all changed. There are now more than 40 distilleries operating that visitors can check out. In the last five years, the sales of luxury Irish Whiskey (750 ml bottles that cost $50 or more) have increased 18 percent, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.
Now is the time to buy. Despite the growth in popularity over recent years, there are still a lot of higher-end options that remain a relative bargain when compared to Scotch or Bourbon of similar quality. It won’t stay that way forever.
“Over recent years, Irish whiskey – particularly premium Irish whiskeys – have become increasingly popular as Christmas gifts,” said William Lavelle, the director of the Irish Whiskey Association. “The depth and diversity of the Irish whiskey category means there are no shortage of high-quality expressions on offer at every price-point. You don’t need to ‘break the bank’ to buy a great Irish whiskey, but equally there’s also many super-premium and ultra-premium offerings for those who do want to spend more.”
And while there are terrific blends to buy, this guide is focusing on single malt whiskey and single pot still whiskey, a uniquely Irish style that uses both unmalted and malted barley. It emerged as a reaction to a tax in the late 1700s on malted barley — the solution was to use green or unmalted barley in the mix to pay less tax. The unmalted barley tends to give single pot still whiskey a fruiter flavor and creamier mouthfeel.
Pick up any of these seven bottles, and you’ll have a winning gift.
Redbreast is known for its sherry influence, and it’s why Lustau, Redbreast 21 and Redbreast 27 are some of my all-time favorite drams. But this edition of Redbreast highlights the contribution of American Oak in the process. Redbreast is normally aged in American oak bourbon barrels and Spanish Oloroso sherry butts, but this edition is then finished for three to seven months in virgin American Oak from Taylor Family’s Elk Cave Farm in Kentucky to add additional vanilla notes and spiciness. It also comes in at a higher proof (1o1 compared to 80 for Redbreast 12). That means it can take a little water to soften the astringency that comes from the virgin American Oak, and would also stand up really well in an Old Fashioned (if you’re the type that mixes a nearly $100 bottle in a cocktail).
Redbreast is a brand concerned with sustainability, and Elk Cave Farm is known for its shelterwood system, a forestry technique that tends to oak seedlings by reducing competition and making sure they get enough light go grow efficiently, ensuring enough of the desirable species will grow and be available in the future.
Teeling 32 YO Single Malt Purple Muscat Finish, $3,495
Teeling, the first distillery to open back up in Dublin in 125 years, is known for innovation, and its older special releases are prized. The latest in a range of single cask bottlings, the Purple Muscat Finish launched exclusively in the United States in November, and at nearly $3,500 a bottle (there are only 283 of them!) is for someone who has been very good this year. The whiskey, distilled in 1990 was matured in bourbon barrels for 28 years, and then finished in a single Portuguese Purple Muscat French Oak cask for four additional years that Master Distiller Alex Chasko sourced from outside of Lisbon in the Setubal region. The result is the ultimate end-of-meal dram, with juicy red berry flavor with spicy tropical notes.
For something in a bit of a more achievable price range, the Teeling Chinkapin Oak ($99) is a single pot still whiskey that is aged in virgin Chinkapin oak barrels (most Irish whiskeys use barrels that have held other bourbons or wines before). The result is a more assertive whiskey that’s a bit less sweet than Teeling’s original Single Pot Still, with more buttery biscuit and cream soda notes.
Bushmills Rare Cask 30 Year Old Single Malt, $1,000
Each of the Bushmills Rare Casks old whiskies that have spent a long time in secondary cask finishing; the first spent time in cognac, the second in PX sherry. This release which just hit the market was aged for it’s first 13 years in a combination of bourbon and sherry casks, and then spent another 17 years in Madeira casks.
It’s got that earthy umami taste older Busmills develops, but has lots of praline components: roasted nuts, caramel and toffee, and a mocha edge. This is a complex whiskey you can spend a lot of time with picking apart, and tasting new flavors as it opens up in the glass.
Limavady Single Barrels Single Malt Irish Whiskey, $50
This Northern Irish whiskey from Darryl McNally, a former Bushmills distiller, has been racking up awards since it came on the scene in 2021. It’s currently sourced whiskey until the distillery gets online, much like the growth path of WhistlePig, the Vermont-based whiskey brand that acquired it. Limavady is made from 100% Irish barley and is small batch, triple distilled in a copper pot still. It’s aged in ex-bourbon barrels and then finished in PX sherry casks, which add some dried fruit and baking spices to the mix. It’s then bottled from a single cask.
Dingle Single Malt, $100
This newly-launched single malt is aged between six and seven years and one of the single malts from the “new wave” of Irish distilleries made entirely from distillate produced at its own distillery, rather than sourced whiskey. It’s aged in combination of former bourbon (39%) and PX sherry casks (61%), giving it plenty of rich raisin, honey, caramel and baking spice flavors. It’s got enough tannins to prevent it from becoming overly sweet with a long finish.
The Quiet Man 8 Year Old Single Malt, $40
Looking at the pale straw color of this 8-year-old single malt made in Derry, Northern Ireland, I thought it would be light and sweet, but there’s much more going on here than meets the eye. It’s got some oak on the nose from aging in first-fill ex-bourbon barrels, lots of stone and tropical fruit, and a spicy finish. While many think it’s named after the John Wayne movie shot in Ireland, it’s actually a tribute to founder Ciaran Mulgrew’s father John Mulgrew, who worked for 50 years as a barman in Belfast.
“As a bartender, he saw a lot of things and heard a lot of stories. But my father would never tell a tale,” Mulgrew said. “It was the barman’s code, and he took it seriously.”
Glendalough Mizunara Cask, $100
This 7-year-old release, finished in rare Japanese oak, in a more affordable option than the previous 13- and 17-year-old versions released by Glendalough.
The qualities that make the oak rare, pricey and difficult to work with also make the whiskey special.
“It takes 200 years plus for trees to grow, so soft you can dent the wood with your fingernail,” said Donal O’Gallchoir, one of Glendalough’s co-founders.
The trees are twisty, so it’s difficult to cut staves, and then those staves are difficult to cooper into a barrel and tend to leak a lot. That soft porousness means the whiskey can interact more with the wood, taking on a range of flavors, including dark chocolate, orange, tropical fruit, and sandalwood. It adds on to the vanilla and honey flavors the single malt took on by aging first in ex-bourbon barrels.