The Irish Hello: Irish Whiskey Reintroduces Itself to the World

Derided for decades as a cheap bar shot, Irish whiskey is undergoing a craft boom. Hope Ewing on how a new crop of distillers are reviving a centuries-old industry.

irish whiskey bottles

In 2011, Jack McGarry and Sean Muldoon were researching bars in New York in preparation for establishing their own. As cocktail innovators from Belfast’s Merchant Hotel bar, they imagined a high-end cocktail establishment with a distinctly Irish flavor. But in visiting establishments throughout the boroughs, one thing was clear: Irish whiskey got no respect.

“I genuinely believe [Irish whiskey] is one of the most diverse spirits out there,” McGarry says, but even in whiskey-centric bars, it was “pigeonholed as a shooting spirit,” if represented at all. Mass-produced and marketed as an agreeable spirit for the palates of vodka drinkers at best, or as a shot to be dropped into a pint of Guinness at worst, the cocktail resurgence had largely ignored the world’s first whiskey. A small stream of innovative, smaller-batch whiskeys had been trickling out of Ireland since the 1980s, but few bar innovators were taking these on. One Brooklyn bar even made their Irish coffees with bourbon.

How much can change in five years? McGarry and Muldoon opened the Dead Rabbit Grocery and Grog in Manhattan and earned a slew of awards, and Irish whiskey has begun a full-blown renaissance.

What sets Irish whiskey apart is that it’s typically triple-distilled, which produces a smooth spirit welcoming to neophytes and reviled by whisky nerds; it’s the calling card of many brands, though the category has been growing in variety and nuance since the 1980s. There are three basic styles: malt whiskey, historically a light, fragrant formulation from 100 percent malted barley triple-distilled in copper pot stills; grain whiskey, from a mash of other grains (corn, sometimes wheat) distilled in a column still for a more neutral spirit frequently used for blending; and pot still whiskey, a uniquely Irish mash of malted and unmalted barley triple-distilled in copper pots, resulting in a creamy, spicy flavor profile. Over the past century, most Irish whiskeys have been blends of these styles, including the bigger international brands: Powers, Paddy and Tullamore D.E.W.

A massively popular spirit in the 18th and 19th centuries, Irish whiskey was driven nearly to extinction by war, trade embargoes, a temperance movement, Prohibition and economic hardship; the industry condensed from over 100 legal distilleries down to two by the 1950s. In 1987, Irish entrepreneur John Teeling built the Cooley distillery in a shuttered potato ethanol plant and launched a gaggle of independent whiskey brands, spurring quality and innovation with their unexpected styles, only to be bought out by Jim Beam in 2012. As Beam stopped selling Cooley-produced liquid to third-party bottlers, independent brands that had depended on that supply dried up. Detrimental as it seemed at the time, that corporate buy-out catalyzed a movement toward craft distilling that has proved explosive.

From the 1980s until 2012, only three companies distilled whiskey in Ireland. In May of 2015, there are five producing liquid old enough to be called whiskey. By 2020, there are slated to be as many as 29.

It began with the demand. As global whiskey consumption has risen steadily over the last decade, awareness of Irish whiskey has bounded back thanks to the marketing juggernaut that is Pernod Ricard/Irish Distillers’ Jameson. Dismissive as spirits enthusiasts can be about easy-drinking blends designed for mass consumption, even pot still evangelist McGarry admits Irish whiskey owes a lot to the rise of Jameson, the only Irish whiskey to have sold more than one million cases globally in 2013. (In comparison, five American whiskeys and 18 Scotch whiskies sold over a million cases that year.) That may soon change.

From the 1980s until 2012, only three companies distilled whiskey in Ireland. In May of 2015, there are five producing liquid old enough to be called whiskey. By 2020, there are slated to be as many as 29. Of these prospective new distillers in Ireland—from craft distillers starting companies in their kitchens to small bottlers whose liquid stocks were cut off after the Cooley takeover—Jack McGarry says heritage (aka whiskey know-how) and financial resources will determine who survives.

Sixty years after its original distillery was closed in 1954, Tullamore D.E.W. parent company William Grant & Sons laid down a $50 million investment to build a new distillery in the town of Tullamore in central Ireland. The new distillery was “a tremendous amount of work,” according to Tim Herlihy, the brand’s U.S. ambassador, built on a bog that required eight feet of excavation before construction could begin. Why would the third-highest selling Irish whiskey in the world undertake such an expensive venture when it had, for years, sourced liquid from Irish Distillers? To meet demand, Herlihy says, but also for greater creative control and “room for innovation.” Already, Tullamore D.E.W. has released a cask-strength blend and an aged single malt to compete with boutique offerings from the new class of distillers.

With substantially fewer resources but with a family name revered by Irish whiskey-philes, Cooley distillery founder John Teeling’s sons Jack and Stephen formed the Teeling Whiskey Company, negotiating a stockpile of Cooley liquid to tide them over while building their own $13 million distillery. In late 2014, Teeling Distillery opened in the Liberties district of Dublin—the first working distillery in the city in 125 years. Their whiskeys are widely distributed and popular, particularly the Teeling Small Batch blend, an excellent example of an “approachable” but still complex spirit.

On the very opposite end of the spectrum is the West Cork Distillery, owned by three friends in West Cork who have been distilling on a comparatively minute scale since 2004. What began as a pet project of a “food and drinks engineer” and two fishermen has grown into a craft spirits company with 25 employees, albeit many with the same surname. West Cork walks the craft line familiar to American micro-distilling enthusiasts: They are currently the only whiskey-producing distillery in Ireland malting their own barley, using local spring water in the mash and are seemingly taken aback by their own success.

“Probably the largest [surprise],” founder John O’Connell says, “has been the realization that there is a huge appetite for craft and artisan brands, particularly in the U.S.  The empathy that the consumers have for independent operators in a sector absolutely dominated by the multinationals has also been surprising.”

Over the last eight years, West Cork has rolled out sufficient malt drinks, vodka, gin and poitín (a high-proof, unaged spirit a la moonshine) to earn distribution in 35 countries. This year they launched in the U.S. with a sweet, velvety blended whiskey and something rarer: a completely independent 10-year-old single malt Irish whiskey.

Coming down the pike are myriad distillers following West Cork’s indie model. Dingle in Co. Kerry, Echlinville in Co. Down, Glendalough in Co. Wicklow and Blackwater in Waterford are banking on the appetite and empathy of craft spirits consumers, distinguishing themselves as small-scale premium producers. Dingle and Echlinville are pre-selling personalized casks of their soon-to-come whiskey to early investors in a CSA-meets-Kickstarter funding model. Others are producing artisanal gins or blends from sourced whiskey to establish themselves and their revenue streams while the whiskey ages.

Heritage for the new guys comes in different forms: Dingle is owned by craft beer pioneers; while Echlinville’s Shane Braniff cut his teeth making FECKiN Irish whiskey and proudly obtained the first distilling license in Northern Ireland in 125 years. The revival of tradition is a key marketing point, particularly for those new to distilling, as is infusion of expertise from abroad. Experienced distillers and blenders from all over have been drawn to the Irish boom: Teeling’s Alex Chasko hails from Oregon; Dingle, West Cork and numerous others have recruited talent from Scotland.

All are attempting to leverage growing demand to make the industry as powerful as it was in the 19th century. Already, distilling has garnered some of the heftiest investments in Ireland’s recent history and a flurry of local job creation. Now, Jack McGarry’s optimism is fueled by—beyond the success of the Dead Rabbit—a growing respect for the category both in Ireland and abroad. Ten years ago, there was little pride in the spirit in its own country. After a recent visit, however, he reports seeing Irish bars “dominated by Irish whiskey.” Likewise, whiskey bars in the U.S. are taking notice, such as the Blind Donkey in Los Angeles and Fountainhead in Chicago, each of which stock more than 20 Irish whiskeys—a long way from that lone bottle of Jame-o.