The 30 Best Irish Whiskeys for 2021
There’s an option for every St. Patrick’s Day drinker (or for any other day)
I used to believe Irish whiskey was a gateway whisk(e)y. It’s a smooth sipper. It’s relatively inexpensive — or at least the stuff I was drinking was — and it goes great in cocktails, particularly an Irish coffee.
But I never gave the category enough credit, even though the Irish invented whiskey and a NYC bar pretty much devoted to the tipple — and walking distance from my apartment — kept winning “World’s Best Bar” awards.
Thankfully, I, along with the rest of the country, have caught up. According to the Distilled Spirits Council, U.S. consumer interest in the Irish Whiskey category is surging, and not just for the affordable stuff. Since 2002, high-end premium and super premium Irish whiskey grew at 1,007 percent and 8,728 percent, respectively. And in 2020, more than five million 9-liter cases of Irish whiskey were sold in the United States, generating $1.1 billion in revenue for distillers.
“Over a century on from the start of Prohibition, it is worth remembering that Ireland was once the largest supplier of whiskey for the U.S.,” explains William Lavelle, head of the Irish Whiskey Association (IWA). “And now, once again, American consumers are flocking to discover the depth and diversity of Irish whiskey.”
So below, lessons learned from the past few years of truly diving into this fascinating spirit.
The Best Irish Whiskey Under $30
Note, this price range entirely depends on where you live (so, “$30-ish”)
To quote an Irish whiskey expert we interviewed a few years back: “[This is] smooth, approachable and the right price point … drink it neat. Perfect to aid in washing down a pint of Guinness, Smithwicks or Magners Cider. In that order.”
Made from 100% malted barley triple-distilled in copper pots and aged for four years in Oloroso Sherry casks, The Sexton is blended by one of the few female Master Blenders in Irish whiskey. Spend a bit more and you can now get it with your own aging barrel.
“Triple cask, triple smooth” doesn’t exactly make this Irish whiskey stand out, but the bottle’s typeface and the low price certainly do. As does its mission: The distillery wanted to create something that would appeal to bourbon drinkers and also be used in cocktails that don’t normally feature Irish whiskey. This release is matured and finished in three different casks (bourbon, sherry, Marsala).
As Sean Muldoon of perennial “best bar in the world” The Dead Rabbit told us a few years back, “This whiskey is made up of 90% grain and 10% malted barley, meaning it is light, floral and slightly sweet. It’s a good introduction to Irish Whiskey and its delicate flavor means it works incredibly well in an Irish Coffee.”
This smooth, triple-cask Irish whiskey (which spends time in virgin oak, seasoned oak and sherry casks) hails from the family behind Ireland’s excellent Slane Concert series.
This 4-year-old expression is rested at the distillery in first-fill port barrels for between three and six months. It features a real touch of sweetness.
Crafted at West Cork Distillers, one of Ireland’s two remaining independently owned distilleries (more on them in a minute), there’s a surprising amount of maltiness and smoke for an Irish whiskey, almost like a Scotch. Subtle hints of wine and honey as well.
Aged in Demerara Rum barrels, Tullamore’s whiskey is triple-distilled and a triple blend of pot still, malt and grain Irish whiskey. The end result? Notes of banana, vanilla, spice and citrus, and you can completely use in lieu of rum in tiki cocktails.
We may not have loved Conor McGregor’s foray (and he’s out now) into Irish whiskey at first sip, but follow-up drinking sessions put it on par with other, similarly-priced Irish tipples. Besides, it was crafted with help from a former operations manager at Guinness, so now you’ve got your drink pairing.
Almost all whisky on the nose, while the coffee elements come into play as you sip. The smoothness of Irish whiskey works well with the rounded flavors of the roasted Arabica beans, and you’re left with a surprisingly dark chocolate note. Not robust but overall well balanced and obviously great in an Irish Coffee.
A classic trait of many Irish whiskies is they’re triple distilled making a light, mellow spirit. Paddy’s is a blend of three types of Irish whiskey. It’s clean and crisp with lots of toffee.
A newer brand that’s restored and re-purposed the Guinness Power House as its distillery, this blend of malt and grain whiskey is aged in bourbon casks and delivers a creamy mouthfeel, with notes of vanilla and a gentle fruitiness.
A blend that combines multiple batches of whiskey of varying age statements from three to 10 years old, with each batch matured in a range of barrel types (this includes grain whiskey aged in ex-bourbon casks and malt whiskey aged in ex-rum barrels). There’s a bit more sweetness here, and a few notes you wouldn’t pick up in other modestly budgeted Irish whiskeys.
The Best Irish Whiskey According to the Pros
The choices of bartenders, distillers and other bar professionals we’ve interviewed over the years.
“It’s delicious and it reminds me of the very best work days. Barley on the nose, palate and finish, mixed with a little iodine and bourbon-soaked fruitcake.,” as Lisa Wicker, President/Master Distiller of Widow Jane Distillery, told us last year.
Another favorite of Wicker’s, this tipple was inspired by the “Golden Age” of Irish whiskey (late 19th/early 20th century). It’s a marriage of aged Single Pot Still and Single Malt Irish whiskey, and distilled entirely from barley, both malted and unmalted. Vanilla, orchard fruits and chocolate notes dominate here.
As Jessie Smyth, bartender at L.A.’s Genever told us recently, this Irish whiskey is exceptionally smooth but there’s just enough sweetness to make it super sippable or great in an Irish Coffee. (Bonus, the brand also makes a rather fantastic gin).
Another favorite of The Dead Rabbit’s Sean Muldoon (who told us a few years back it was a great entry-level Irish whiskey), this expression features a high amount of malt whiskey married with a lighter grain whiskey. It’s then matured in former Oloroso Sherry and Bourbon casks, giving it some fruitiness and depth.
Trey Zoeller of Jeffferson’s loves this expression. “It’s matured in a combination of ex-bourbon barrels and sherry casks, which gives it a great combination of spicy and creamy notes,” he told us.
“It’s very easy to approach because of its subtle citrus notes,” says New York bartender Mike Di Tota. “It doesn’t have a lot of ‘sting.’ It’s more rounded out.”
“I’m a big fan of pot still whiskey, but I found the addition of the wine cask finish elevated what was already a great whiskey to another level,” as Darren Green, manager at Garavans (a one-time Irish Whiskey Bar of the Year in Ireland) told us a few years back.
This one is double distilled, as opposed to the usual Irish triple-distillation process. The whiskey is peated, so “you get these lovely chalky, phenolic tones off the nose that lead into a lovely smoked orchard fruit tone on the front palate (think barbecued pears),” explains Tre Stillwagon of NYC’s Analogue. “The distillation style also makes the whiskey more viscous so you get a nice smoky, mouth-coating dram out of it.”
The Best Premium Irish Whiskey for an Elevated Experience
These may cost more than you’re used to, or be hard to find. But they’re worth it.
Triple-distilled from malted barley, dried over peat fires and matured in both bourbon and sauternes French wine casks, Blackpitts is a deceptively light-colored tipple that brings together a fruitiness, butterscotch and smoke. It’s like a campfire dessert.
A single malt double- (in lieu of the usual triple-) distilled in pot stills, the 16 Year Old is aged in ex-bourbon barrels, followed by additional maturation in wine casks from the Andalucia region of Southern Spain; these casks were initially seasoned with Oloroso sherry before a second seasoning with Moscatel wine. The end result is sweet, floral, creamy and well-rounded, with a long finish.
A blend of grain and malt whiskey aged in first-fill bourbon casks and then finished in casks that had held Black’s of Kinsale Stout. While they also have one that uses former IPA casks, this one has the bonus of bringing out the chocolate notes of a stout.
Kilbeggan Single Pot Still
Lightly fruity on the nose, Single Pot Still features a very rich mouthfeel and it’s undeniably creamy on the palate. Even with just 2.5% oats in the mashbill, this is a whiskey I’d drink for breakfast — “oatmeal” flashed through my mind repeatedly during my tastings.
This is an extremely limited edition release — less than 1100 bottles made it to the U.S. The spirit spends 12 years in ex-bourbon barrels, then an additional 10 months in Pichon barrels from Bordeaux. It has a sweet, light and juicy taste, while the finish is more the traditional oakey/vanilla/spice profile you’d expect.
Yes, the core release is available in a can. But go for the bottle here; a blend of grain, malt and pot still whiskey that’s matured in virgin oak, ex-bourbon and former Oloroso sherry casks, the Cask Strength has real sweetness, some malted biscuit notes, spice (it definitely dries the palette quickly), caramel, fruit, etc., but at 65%, it’s also the strongest Irish whiskey we’ve ever tried.
Kilbeggan, the oldest licensed distillery in Ireland, reinvented a rye-based Irish whiskey, crafted in the oldest working pot still in the world. There’s more depth and spice in the Small Batch Rye than the typical smooth sipping Irish juice, and it’s a wonder in cocktails.
This one’s about the barrel and the age. It’s an Irish Single Pot Still aged aed for 15–28 years in ex-bourbon casks and finished in rare Irish oak from the Knockrath Forrest. Apparently, only 42 casks exist.
A distillery that’s proving terroir can significantly alter your whiskey. We recently loved their Rathclogh release; it features an almost oily mouthfeel with a bit of salinity. Once you sip, there’s candied apple on the palate with vanilla and a bit of cherry. And a wonderful finish.
Rejoining the Spots range for the first time since 1960, this newly relaunched and reimagined pot still whiskey includes liquid aged in Madeira casks, imbuing the spirit with notes of fruit, hazelnuts and sweet spices. And at 58.7% ABV, it’s got real kick.
Wanna try the oldest triple-distilled Irish whiskey in the world? It’ll cost you. The Craft Irish Whiskey Co. collaborated with Fabergé on this seven-piece custom-made whiskey set which celebrates the ‘Seven Wonders of Ireland’. Each set contains features two bottles of 30-year-old Irish whiskey, two exclusive creations from Fabergé, a humidor with two Cohiba Siglo VI Grand Reserva cigars, a gold-plated cigar cutter, gold plated water pipette, pure obsidian whiskey stones, a hip flask with a sample of the Emerald Isle whiskey, a carafe filled with Irish spring water from the same region where the whiskey was made. You’ll only be able to get these at private auctions throughout the year (the first sale will see 100 percent of the proceeds go to charity).
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