St. Patrick’s Day is traditionally when everyone puts an O’ in front his name and lifts a glass of Irish whiskey in deference to the Old Sod. But so much is happening to a spirit that hasn’t had a lot of excitement in a while that we suggest earmarking more than a day to catch up on an resurgence that includes record growth and new choices. Since the ’60s the category included venerable thrice-distilled blends (e.g., Jameson, Bushmills, Powers, Paddy), but forgotten was that Ireland had a proud tradition for pot-still whiskey, single malts and even peated whiskeys. Then in 1987, Cooley distillery reopened with the addition of pot stills next to its columns, and a renaissance began.
The Tyrconnell, a historic single-malt brand was bought and given new wrinkles like Madeira-cask finishing. Connemara brought back the tradition of the peated, single-malt made with only two distillations (most Irish today is triple-distilled). Michael Collins is a slightly peated 10-year-old blend. Revived as well has been poitín, an Irish version of moonshine. Later Kilbeggan, with its claims to be the oldest licensed distillery on earth, reopened, making a blend of the same name. The venture was successful enough that Jim Beam bought it in 2011.
Success emboldened others to create new brands. Clontarf 1014 is a charcoal-filtered blend. Knappogue Castle started as marketer of a stock of rare single malts (particularly a $2,200 36-year-old distilled in 1951) and has gone onto more affordable bottlings. A half dozen new distilleries are popping up including one for the consummately smooth Tullamore D.E.W., which is getting its own home after being made elsewhere. Jack Teeling, a son of the leader of the Cooley initiative is even bringing distillation to Dublin for the first time in half a century.
The big boys have not rested on their laurels, however. Midleton Very Rare Reserve has produced a succession of beguiling editions. Jameson’s Gold Reserve is a malt-rich blend, as is Bushmills Black Bush. The latter’s 21-year-old Single Malt mingles whiskey matured in former Oloroso casks and ex-Bourbon barrels. Midleton whisky legend Barry Crockett and his successor, Barry Nation, have created an impressive array of single-pot-still whiskeys (a variation that combines both malted and unmalted barley). Redbreast now has several iterations of the category in the U.S. (most recently a 21-year-old) and Green Spot has just arrived. The company has also committed to releasing two new expressions annually for the next 10 years. Let’s toast the luck of the Irish.