When people think of buying single malt whiskies, bottles from Scotland are probably top of mind. But these days, top-shelf single malts come from Japan and even the United States. Yet the originators of whiskey itself — the Irish — happen to be making a wide range of excellent single malts as well, with a modern renaissance now matching their storied history and tradition.
“Jameson has very much been the bell cow for the category, but we’re seeing more new single malt releases than I can ever remember,” says Brian Murphy, founder of The WhiskyX festival. “People are discovering, enjoying, and — perhaps most importantly — valuing Irish single malts in a way that was long reserved for single malt Scotch.”
While Irish whiskey flourished for centuries, its modern story has been one of economic downturn and depression that nearly killed off the industry, while boxing in the survivors to a more narrow breadth of styles with mass-market appeal. “There are strong corporate forces that have for decades influenced what people believe Irish whiskey ought to be, as opposed to what the global consumer actually wants,” says Mark Reynier, founder of Waterford Distillery. Big-name blended brands ruled the day — and kept the entire category afloat, it’s worth mentioning — while distilleries shuttered en masse.
Eventually there were only two remaining distilleries in Ireland, both under one corporate umbrella. One of those survivors is The Old Bushmills Distillery, and today Bushmills is at the forefront of the movement to push forward quality and innovation. “We always say, ‘we’re not good because we’re old, we’re old because we’re good’,” says master blender Helen Mulholland.
While Bushmills does have blended products in its range, the distillery itself has only ever produced single malt. The lineup includes 10 year, 16 year, and 21 year old expressions, along with limited-edition releases, such as the Distillery Exclusive uniquely matured in acacia wood casks. “For me, there’s nothing better than introducing a new Irish whiskey to the market, and demand continues to soar, especially for premium single malts,” Mulholland says. “The popularity of Irish single malts is rapidly growing, as more and more people are discovering that Irish whiskey is wonderfully approachable because there are so many layers to it.”
At Waterford Distillery, the focus is exclusively on single malt, though Reynier has further embarked on an ambitious endeavor to highlight and differentiate the flavor of different types of barley, along with the impact of terroir. “Waterford’s all about barley flavor, and creating the most natural, flavorful, pure expression of barley imaginable,” Reynier says. “That means yes, making single malt whiskey. And making the best expression of barley is why we’re in Ireland in the first place, as it is perhaps the best barley-growing region in the world.”
Waterford sources its grain from scores of different farmers and distills each separately, in equal quantities, producing a diverse range of spirits with varied and nuanced flavor profiles. Most other producers simply would have lumped together such components as one whole.
“It’s no surprise to see continual growth of single malt worldwide, even in Scotland, where they had been long suppressed in favor of the more commercial, generic blends producible in limitless volumes,” Reynier, who formerly helmed Scotland’s Bruichladdich Distillery on Islay, says. “More affluent consumers are now seeking out more compelling flavors at the expense of dumbed down homogeneity.”
Along with Waterford, there are now dozens of upstart distilleries in Ireland, and a large swath of them are choosing to showcase the potential of Irish whiskey through the lens of single malts. That they’re joining Bushmills, regarded as the oldest licensed whiskey distillery in the world, makes the category that much more exciting, a mix of history and heritage with renewed quality and dynamic entrants, all creating a thriving industry — just as it always should have been, and indeed, as it once was.
5 Irish Single Malts to Try
Bushmills 21 Year Old
Christmas cake in liquid form, with zesty orange peel, spicy oak, chocolate, toffee, and dried fruits all mingling together. The whiskey is aged for 19 years in a combination of bourbon and sherry casks, and is then finished for its final two years of maturation in Madeira casks.
Tyrconnell 16 Year Old Oloroso & Moscatel Cask Finish
This limited-edition expression from Tyrconnell was released in summer 2019. The whiskey is finished in casks that first held oloroso sherry and then were further seasoned with Moscatel wine. The resulting flavor is an enticing combination of honey, fruits, and spice.
Teeling Single Malt
Teeling’s self-distilled single malt, currently a non-age statement whiskey, is matured in a combination of five different wine casks, providing a complex base of rich, fruity flavors. Of course, should you be able to find any of the limited Teeling single malts bearing names such as Reserve, Revival, or Renaissance, snatch them up, too.
Glendalough 13 Year Mizunara Cask Finish
Glendalough took one of its core whiskeys, a sourced 13 year old single malt, and finished it in prized Japanese Mizunara oak casks. Though a limited release from 2018, you can still track down some remaining bottles that sport Mizunara’s trademark incense and spice flavors.
Knappogue Castle 12 Year
The 12 year from Knappogue Castle is Murphy’s go-to choice in the category, with the festival founder saying, “This is a favorite of mine, and the best part? You can pick up a bottle for under $50.” The bottle shows easy-sipping maturity beyond its age.
Waterford Distillery Single Farm Origin Series*
As a bonus pick, keep your eyes out late summer 2020 for the initial offering from Waterford. The Single Farm Origin Series will be a side-by-side release showcasing the differences in terroir, and taste, between single malt distillate made from barley grown on two different farms. “We hope to make the most profound single malt — and that process starts with where and how it grows: Irish terroir,” Reynier says.
*Expected availability: summer 2020.