As Irish whiskey grows in popularity around the world and with an increasing amount of both new and old bottlings becoming available internationally it’s good to know what to expect when considering buying a bottle.
There are some standard themes that people return to when talking about Irish whiskey which have a varying degree of truth behind them. The main among these are that Irish whiskey is always triple distilled and unpeated. These generally ring true though there are of course exceptions to every rule, with Connemara, for example, breaking both! There is also the unique production of Single Pot Still whiskey, which combines both malted and unmalted barley, to take into account.
With the great variation of distilling, blending and aging techniques and casks used it is impossible to give a “definitive” taste for Irish whiskey but there are some relatively common similarities which set Irish whiskey apart from their international counterparts.
The reasonably standard practice of triple distilling Irish whiskey means that the whiskey is invariably smoother and lighter on the mouth. This makes Irish whiskey more attractive to whiskey novices and is a pleasant surprise for those used to the smokier Scotches. This lack of smokiness also comes from the fact that the barley for Irish whiskey is heated in kilns and not by peat (and its smoke) like Scotch. It’s not just beginners who enjoy this however as a less harsh mouth feel allows one to detect more delicate fruity flavours, while the nose (with water added or not) holds distinct floral notes.
This smoothness is apparent in the vast majority of Irish whiskeys but some of the best examples are the Redbreast 21 year old, Bushmills 16 or Jameson’s Blender’s Dog.
The spice flavours one generally find in whiskeys occur because of the effect of the yeast on the initial fermentation. This means that a good distiller or blender will have a good idea, when a cask is being filled, what it should taste like and, more specifically, which tastes should become enhanced during maturation. For this reason some of Ireland’s favourite brands, such as Powers, are renowned for their spicy palate and have always sought to maintain that consistency for their fans going back many decades. The typical spices one might get hints of with Irish whiskey are nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger.
This spiciness can be especially noted in Powers 12 Year, Green Spot and Bushmills 10.
Barrel added sweetness
With the possibility of noticing some of the sweeter notes with Irish whiskey, one of the most predominant is that imparted by those aged or finished in sherry, Oloroso sherry, port or madeira casks. These sugarful fortified wines add a rich finish and sweet and fruity flavours on the palate. As well as being aged completely in these casks it is also quite common for Irish distilleries to finish their finer whiskeys in them for a few years to round off the flavours.
Some great examples of barrel added sweetness in Irish whiskeys are the Tullamore Dew 12 Year Old Sherry Cask and Yellow Spot.
The bold and distinctive toffee notes of Irish whiskeys imply a creamy and slightly sweet palate which has a long lasting finish. It is initially a delicate flavour which only becomes more apparent through maturation and hence takes considerable care to nurture. Once more due to the lack of smokiness, which would drown out the flavour as the cask aged, Irish whiskeys, especially those aged 12 years and more, are quite noted for their characteristic toffee palate. Bushmills especially, due to its unique use of crystal malt which is dried at higher temperatures causing some of the sugars in the barley to crystallize, is famous for the delicious toffee nose and flavours.
Try out the Bushmills 21 Year (or the 10 or 16 to varying degrees) or Midleton Barry Crockett Legacy to get an idea of what we mean.