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Irish Whiskey is The Next Big Spirit

By Evigan Xiao

Whiskey barrels resting in a cellar.
 
Shutterstock
Whiskey barrels resting in a cellar.

Whiskies tend to be closely associated with Scotland, but it was actually the Irish who refined the production of this liquid sunshine. There is the oft-repeated tale of Irish monks returning home with the technique of distilling perfumes from their travels in Arabia and repurposing it for spirit; a fanciful story even if unsubstantiated. However, the first written record of whiskey (or aqua vitae, in this instance) was in the Annals of Clonmacnoise of 1405 – 89 years before the Exchequer Rolls of Scotland that commissioned Friar John Cor to distil whisky. Of course, history alone doesn't grant legitimacy. Yet, Irish whiskey is seeing the development of several firm and exciting trends, with 2021 looking like a very promising year for the lucky spirit.

Going Crazy With Casks

Neither the Irish nor the Scots are strangers to the practice of cask finishing when it comes to whisk(e)y, but the former has arguably been pushing the limits of creativity as of late. Teeling's Wonders of Wood collection comprises expressions that have been finished in casks of various types, ranging from virgin cherry wood to Brazilian hardwood Ambuarana. Unlike its Scottish brethren, regulations in Ireland do not restrict whiskey maturations solely to oak casks. This allows distilleries to be more experimental when it comes to crafting different flavours. Each type of wood carries a distinct aromatic and phenolic profile and can have either a dramatic or subtle effect on the resulting maturation.

ShutterstockCopper pot stills used for distilling spirit.
Copper pot stills used for distilling spirit.

Whiskey From a Pot

Another credit to Irish whiskey's name is its role in bringing the single pot still category back into the spotlight. Bearing some slight resemblance to the single malt classification (both come from a single distillery), single pot still whiskies include unmalted barley in the mash bill. This tends to confer a spicier and thicker texture to the distillate. Redbreast is perhaps the most recognisable name to throw their weight behind this process, but newer distilleries like Glendalough have started to get in on the fun as well. Tullamore Dew has also announced plans to release a single pot still expression in the near future. Variety is rarely a bad thing, and the resurgence of this traditional process will give distilleries more options and avenues to explore.

ShutterstockFields of barley; terroir may well be the next buzzword with whiskey.
Fields of barley; terroir may well be the next buzzword with whiskey.

All About Location

Wine enthusiasts may be familiar with the concept of terroir and its role in determining flavour, but it's not exactly a very common topic in the world of whisk(e)y. Yet, it certainly stands to reason how environmental factors like microclimate, regional soil and water source can impact the taste. In fact, single estate whiskies (though few and far in between) suggest the same. While the discussion is far from conclusive, it hasn't stopped newer distilleries like Waterford Distillery from investing considerably in creating expressions that are differentiated by their provenance. Waterford Distillery has even gone as far as to publish its first academic paper (https://www.mdpi.com/2304-8158/10/2/443) in a peer-reviewed journal, detailing the impact of terroir on the flavour of new make spirit. While terroir currently remains uncharted territory when it concerns spirits, it could very well become a game-changer for Irish whiskey.

The Craft Irish Whisky Co.The Emerald Isle collection is an ultra-rare series of only seven whiskey sets, and includes a bespoke Fabergé Celtic Egg.
The Emerald Isle collection is an ultra-rare series of only seven whiskey sets, and includes a bespoke Fabergé Celtic Egg.

Coming Out in Force

Ireland once led the world in the number of open distilleries, but that number shrank to a mere handful by the 1990s during the country's own version of Scotland's whisky loch. Three centuries later, upstart distilleries have become a common sight as more craft distilleries find their footing and begin releasing their products. Conglomerates like Diageo and Pernod Ricard are also pushing hard into the Emerald Isle with the likes of Roe & Co. Distillery and Method And Madness, respectively. However, that doesn't mean that the legacy names have all bowed out. Bushmills' 28 Year Old Single Malt Cognac Cask and Green Spot's 1991 show that ultra-aged Irish whiskey is still very much in demand. Meanwhile, luxury premium offerings like The Craft Irish Whiskey Co.'s The Emerald Isle and Midleton Very Rare's Silent Distillery Collection continue to appeal to high-end connoisseurs and collectors alike.