St. Patricks Day Guide to Irish Whiskey

While we’ve previously discussed American whiskeys with bourbon and rye, it’s time to take a look at one of the greatest and oldest in the world. Of course, we’re talking about Irish whiskey.

History of Irish Whiskey

Ireland is said to have been one of the first parts of Europe to use distilling technology. This technology was brought back from missionary monks from their travels to the Mediterranean around the 7th Century, where it was used to distill perfumes.

These first distillates were called uisce beatha, Gaelic for “water of life” and eventually anglicized into the word whiskey, since they were used for medical compounds. However, historical records indicate that the term was introduced in the mid-1500s when the Tudor kings began to consolidate English control in Ireland. One early fan of Irish whiskey was Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603). She had stocks of it delivered to her court, which made it a fashionable drink in England for the following centuries.

Czar Peter the Great of Russia (1672-1725) declared in the 18th Century, “Of all the wines of the world, Irish spirit is the best”. Samuel Johnson put the word whiskey in his dictionary in 1755, commenting, “the Irish sort is particularly distinguished for its pleasant and mild flavour”. By the 19th Century, Irish whiskey became the most popular whiskey in the world. Following the phylloxera epidemic in the 1880s, which devastated the cognac crop in France, Irish whiskey became the world’s most popular spirit.

In 1608, Jacob VI issued the first license for distilling in a certain region to Bushmills in Northern Ireland. By 1779, there were 1200 distilleries in Ireland. During the 19th Century alone there were over 400 brands of Irish whiskey which were being exported and sold in the United States.

Whiskey was an easy target for the royalty ever since the first excise tax was imposed in 1661, which sparked a centuries-long-feud between “Moonshiners” (illicit Distillers) and the Excisemen who enforced the tax collection. In 1781, the British banned private distillation, and added with tax raises, the number of distillers shrank to only 20 legal distilleries by 1822. The number of distilleries were even further reduced with the Total Abstinence Movement in 1838 by Father Theobald Mathew.

Decline and Rebirth of Irish Whiskey

Despite these setbacks, Irish whiskey remained popular around the world during the dawn of the 20th Century. Unfortunately, there was a chain of unrelated events that ignited Irish whiskey’s decline.

First, there was the invention of the Patent Still by Aenas Coffey which was rejected by Irish distillers, but widely adopted by the Scots who went on blending their whiskies. Secondly, the institution of the Irish Free State in the early 20th century caused a fatal trade war with Great Britain, closing down the Irish Distillers’ main market. Finally there was Prohibition in 1920 in America.

By the early 1960s the export of Irish whiskey was virtually nonexistent. Its survival even seemed threatened in the native Irish market. This forced three of the remaining distilleries into a new company called the Irish Distillers (IDL) in 1966. The three distilleries were John Powers & Sons, John Jameson & Sons and Cork Distillery.

The Irish Whiskey Act of 1980 established a set of simple definitions and productions rules.

  • Irish whiskey must be distilled and aged in the Republic of Ireland or in Northern Ireland.
  • The contained spirits must be distilled to an alcohol by volume level of less than 94.8% from a yeast-fermented mash of cereal grains in  a way that the distillate has an aroma and flavour derived from the materials used.
  • The product must be aged for at least three years in wooden casks.
  • If the spirits comprise a blend of two or more such distillates, the product is referred to as a “blended” Irish whiskey.

However, things turned around in 1987 when a potato-peel ethanol plant in Dundalk was converted into a whiskey distillery. This new Cooley Distillery began to produce malt and grain whiskeys.

Today, there are only four distilleries in Ireland, which produce more than 100 different brands of whiskey.

New Midleton Distillery: Produces Jamesons, Powers, Paddy, Midleton, Redbreast, and Green Spot.

Old Bushmills Distillery: Distills all Old Bushmills, Black Bush, and 1608.

Cooley Distillery: The only independent distillery, until it was acquired by Beam Inc. in 2012, and maker of Connemara, Michael Collins, Tyrconnell.

Kilbeggan Distillery: Reopened in 2007.

Types of Irish Whiskey

Irish whiskey comes in several forms.

There is a single malt whiskey made from 100% malted barley and distilled in a pot still. Examples include Bushmills (10, 16, 21 yrs), Connemara Peated Malt (Regular, Cask Strength & 12 yrs), The Irishman Single Malt, Locke’s Single Malt (8 yr), Tullamore Dew Single Malt (10 yr), Tyrconnell.

Grain whiskey made from grains, which are distilled in a column still, are lighter and more neutral in flavor than single malt. Greenore (8, 10 yrs) is one of the few that are bottled as a single grain.

Typically, grain whiskey used to blend with a single malt to produce a lighter blended whiskey, which include Black Bush, Bushmills Original, Clontarf, Inishowen, and The Irishman.

Both Scotland and Ireland distill single malt only in a pot still, and is used in the making of Jameson, Kilbeggan, Locke’s Blend, Midleton Very Rare, Millars, Paddy, Powers, Tullamore Dew, Writer’s Tears, however the designation of “pure pot still” is only found in Ireland.

“Pure pot still” refers to whiskey made from 100% barley, mixed malted and unmalted, and distilled in a pot still. The “green” unmalted barley gives the traditional pure pot still whiskey a spicy, uniquely Irish quality. Like single malt, pure pot still is sold as such or blended with grain whiskey. Usually no real distinction is made between whether a blended whiskey was made from single malt or pure pot still. Only Redbreast, Green Spot (which is sold only through Mitchell and Son vintners in Dublin), and some premium Jameson brands are pure pot still whiskies. All of these are distilled at Midleton.

How to Enjoy Irish Whiskey

The absolute best way to enjoy Irish whiskey is to drink it the way it was made to be. Neat. At room temperature. In a rocks glass. However, you can also drink Irish whiskey on the rocks or with a splash of water. It depends on your preferences.

But, if you’re looking to spice things up for St. Patrick’s Day or any time of the year, here are some suggested recipes.

Irish Coffee


  • 2 1/2 oz strong, hot coffee
  • 1 1/2 oz Irish whiskey
  • 1 tsp brown sugar
  • 1 oz whipping cream


  1. Pour the coffee, Irish whiskey and brown sugar into an Irish coffee glass or mug.
  2. Stir well.
  3. Float the cream on top.

The Black Nail


  • 3/4 oz Bushmills Irish whiskey
  • 3/4 oz Irish Mist liqueur
  • orange peel for garnish


  1. Build the ingredients in an old-fashioned glass filled with ice.
  2. Garnish with an orange peel.

Jameson and Ginger


  • 1 1/2 parts Jameson Irish Whiskey
  • Ginger ale
  • squeeze of a lime wedge


  1. Pour the whiskey into a highball glass filled with ice.
  2. Fill with ginger ale.
  3. Squeeze a lime wedge over the drink and drop it in.
  4. Stir.

St. Patrick’s Day

  • 3/4 oz green creme de menthe
  • 3/4 oz Green Chartreuse®
  • 3/4 oz Irish whiskey
  • 1 dash bitters


Stir all ingredients with ice, strain into a cocktail glass, and serve.

Irish Whiskey Cocktail

  • 2 oz Irish whiskey
  • 1/2 tsp triple sec
  • 1/2 tsp anisette
  • 1/4 tsp maraschino liqueur
  • 1 dash bitters


Stir all ingredients together in a mixing glass half-filled with cracked ice. Strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish the glass with an olive, and serve.

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