See the The 19 Best Irish Whiskey Brands for 2021 here!
If corn-rich mash bills and charred new oak define bourbon, and single malt and smokey peated expressions are synonymous with Scotch, then what exactly is Irish whiskey?
The Emerald Isle produces four types of whiskey in total: malt, grain, blended, and pot still. Of those, only pot still is truly unique to Ireland. By law, pot still whiskey must contain a minimum of 30 percent each malted and unmalted barley in its mash bill. Up to 5 percent of other cereals such as oats and rye are also permitted. As the name suggests, this style is distilled in pot stills. Like all other types of Irish whiskey, pot still must age for a minimum of three years in oak before release.
While pot still is the only style that’s unique to Ireland, by no means is it the only one worth sampling. Those who enjoy cask-finished whiskeys will be happy to find a number of Irish brands embracing the additional aging process. Rather drink a single malt? There’s plenty to be found in that realm too, with many age-statement bottles that come in well below the price of their Scottish counterparts. This broad range of options is no doubt appealing to whiskey drinkers, and has surely played a significant role in Irish whiskey becoming one of the fastest-growing spirits categories in the U.S., now worth over $1 billion.
Like all spirits, the best way to fully understand and appreciate Irish whiskey is by drinking it. To showcase the rich depth of options on offer, VinePair tasted dozens of bottles to determine the best on the market right now. From aged single malts to cask-finished pot still expressions, here are the 12 best Irish whiskeys for 2020, tasted and ranked.
A triple-distilled blend of pot still, malt, and grain Irish whiskeys, this is a smooth-sipping, fruit-forward option. There’s a distinctive banana chip note throughout, balanced by walnut and spice. Hints of molasses and toasted oak (imparted by the rum cask finish) add character and subtle complexity. Average price: $29.
Arriving in an unconventional, new-age bottle, this is a rich and approachable whiskey. Malted barley dominates the nose, followed by sweet undertones of green apple and milk chocolate. The palate is lively and fresh, with a spiced finish. Average price: $28.
Produced in the first new distillery to open in Dublin in over 125 years, this single malt is matured and finished in no fewer than five different types of wine barrels (sherry, port, Madeira, white Burgundy, and Cabernet Sauvignon). The result is a dizzying but enjoyable mix of leather, fresh fruit, nuts, earth, and spice notes. Average price: $60.
This “triple casked” whiskey matures in new oak, former Tennessee and bourbon whiskey barrels, and sherry casks before bottling. The wood influence is notable throughout, starting with sweet baking spice aromas that are kept in check by fresh fruit notes. The palate is bold and full-bodied, with a distinctive charred spice and chocolatey finish. Average price: $27.
An interesting blend of 70 percent single malt and 30 percent pot still whiskeys, this release is robust enough for cocktails but has plenty of character to enjoy on its own. Ripe peach and vanilla aromas lead the nose, while the palate is full of spice and dark chocolate. Average price: $32.
A double-distilled single malt, this whiskey ages for 10 years in bourbon barrels before it’s finished in Madeira casks. The fortified Portuguese wine imparts honeyed, golden raisin aromas and hints of walnuts. The palate has an intense, well-rounded flavor profile, defined by toasted oak and spice. There are cheaper whiskeys with age statements on this list, but this bottle is worth the splurge for special occasions. Average price: $81.
Triple-distilled and aged for 12 years in bourbon casks, this single malt has a rich, inviting nose. Aromas of dried stone fruits, nuts, and citrus peel mingle with the unmistakable scent of malted barley. That combination continues onto the palate, with a light, fruity finish providing the ideal whiskey for summer sipping. Average price: $47.
Powers ages this pot still release for 12 years in a mix of second- and third- use bourbon casks, while a small proportion also rests for one year in oloroso sherry butts. The result is a luxurious spirit that is complex and concentrated in character. Baked apple, honey, and baking spice notes provide a robust core, while hints of leather and earth add nuance. Average price: $71.
A truly Irish whiskey, this release spends the final year of maturation in virgin casks made from Irish oak. That oak influence is well integrated on the nose and the spicy, tangy pot still character is still easily identifiable. The palate is similarly spiced and fruity, and also serves heady toasted oak and vanilla flavors. Spiced notes linger on the finish for an age. Average price: $56.
The single malt category might be synonymous with Scotch whisky, but this 10-year aged expression from Bushmills offers stiff competition. The lengthy aging develops complex leather and earth aromas, which offer a nice contrast to the youthful scent of fresh fruit. The palate has a light-bodied texture, but also serves a rich depth of flavors, including dried apples, honey, and spices. This is a delicate whiskey for those who enjoy subtle pleasures. Average price: $46.
This whiskey takes advantage of the 5 percent of other cereals that can be included in the mash bill of pot still releases. In this case, Kilbeggan adds 2.5 percent oats, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but takes a center stage in this whiskey’s character. The distinctive aroma of breakfast oats mixes with fresh apples and baking spices on the nose. The cereal is also present on the palate, adding a distinctive flavor and a creamy, rounded mouthfeel. Average price: $45.
A blend of malted and unmalted barley, this whiskey is triple-distilled before it embarks on a long aging journey, beginning with nine to 12 years in bourbon and sherry casks. A final resting period adds a special finishing touch: one year in oloroso sherry butts sourced from famed producer Bodegas Lustau. The double sherry influence doesn’t overwhelm the nose, with dried apricots, almonds, and a hint of vanilla instead leading the way. The palate shows a lively mix of ripe stone fruit and nut flavors, with the sherry cask influence fully presenting itself on a lingering sweet and savory finish. Average price: $73.