Irish Whiskey Basics

A Quick Guide to Understanding Irish Whiskey

rish Whiskey Barrels, Tyrconnell Irish Whiskey, Locke's Distillery Museum, Kilbeggan, County Westmeath, Ireland
rish Whiskey Barrels, Tyrconnell Irish Whiskey, Locke's Distillery Museum, Kilbeggan, County Westmeath, Ireland. Holger Leue / LOOK / Getty Images

Irish whiskey is one of the world's great styles of whiskey yet people frequently ask bartenders, "What is Irish whiskey?", and while the answer isn't simple, a broad look at the Irish whiskey category is essential to understanding this style of whiskey. 

Quick Irish Whiskey Facts

Irish whiskey is always spelled with an 'e' in the word whiskey. Unlike Scotch and many other whiskies of the world, you will always find that whiskies from Ireland use this spelling.

Irish whiskey was the most popular whiskey category in America prior to Prohibition and with a surge of interest in Irish whiskey again, it may soon return to its dominant place as America's favorite style of whiskey.

Irish whiskey has a distinct flavor profile that can generally be described as light and fruity with evident cereal grain notes. It is an ideal whiskey for cocktails including the popular Irish Coffee.

Irish Whiskey Regulations

Irish whiskey is one of the most popular forms of whiskey in the world. Soley a product of Ireland, the rules for the production of Irish whiskey date back to 1880. The two major components of the laws are as follows:

  • Spirits described as Irish whiskey shall not be deemed to correspond to that description unless they have been obtained by distillation in the country of Ireland from a mash of malt and cereals.
  • Spirits described as Irish Pot Still whiskey shall not be deemed to correspond to this description unless they have been obtained by distillation solely in pot stills in Ireland from a mash of cereal grains such as are ordinarily grown in Ireland.

    Irish Whiskey Distillation and Aging

    Traditionally, Irish whiskey is triple distilled in copper pot stills versus the usual practice of double distillation for Scotch whisky. Additionally, Irish whiskey is generally not exposed to peat smoke as are many Scotch whiskies.

    By Irish law, all whiskies must be aged a minimum of three years in barrels.

    Irish Whiskey Classifications

    • Single malt Irish whiskey is made from 100% malted barley by a single distillery in a pot still.
    • Grain Irish whiskey is particularly light in style. Made from corn or wheat, grain whiskey is produced in column stills.
    • Single grain Irish whiskey has the same characteristics of grain whiskey, only a single grain is used in the distillate. Greenore is a perfect example of this newer distinction.
    • Blended Irish whiskey constitutes 90% all Irish whiskey production. Jameson and Kilbeggan are famous blended Irish whiskies.
    • Single Pot Still (formerly Pure Pot Still) whiskey is a blend of both malted and unmalted barley distilled in a pot still. Pure Pot Still is a style of whiskey unique to Ireland.
    • Potcheen or Irish moonshine distillates don't meet the age requirement to be labeled as Irish whiskey. Similar to American white dog, this is new make of spirit that has seen little to no time in barrel. Knockeen Hills and Bunratty are two popular brands.

    Irish Whiskey Distilleries

    For years, Ireland had only three working distilleries: Midleton, Cooley and Bushmills. Midleton and Cooley are located in the Irish Republic while Bushmills is in Northern Ireland. In recent years, the artisan Dingle Distillery opened its doors.

    Much like the scotch whisky industry, each of the three main distilleries have house brands that they produce as well as 3rd party brands that are produced by contract.

    Midleton and Cooley distilleries produce both pot still and grain whiskey, while the Bushmills distillery produces only pot still whiskey (they do, however, source grain whiskey from the Midleton distillery).

    • Dingle Distillery - The newest (and currently the only independent distillery in Ireland, located County Kerry. 
      Produces Dingle Gold Irish Whiskey in copper pot stills along with a vodka and gin.

    The Kilbeggan Distillery (also known as Locke Distillery) ceased operations in 1954 and reopened in 1982 as a visitor attraction and museum. Likewise, the Old Jameson Distillery in Dublin is available for tours. The Irish Whiskey Trail has more information on all of the distillery tours available.

    Famous Brands of Irish Whiskey:

    • Jameson is produced by the Midleton distillery.
    • Bushmills is produced at the Bushmills distillery in Northern Ireland.
    • Clontarf is an example of a third party Irish whiskey.
    • Connemara is an unusual peated whiskey made at Cooley distillery.
    • Greenore is a single grain whiskey from Cooley.
    • Green Spot is a legendary pure pot still whiskey made by Midleton for Mitchell's of Dublin.
    • The Irishman is a well regarded third party line of Irish whiskies.
    • Kilbeggan is Cooley distillery's house blended whiskey.
    • Knappogue Castle is a famous third party Irish whiskey.
    • Michael Collins has both single malt and blended whiskey offerings from this third party producer.
    • Powers is another well regarded house brand from Midleton distillery.
    • Redbreast is a famous pure pot still whiskey from Midleton.
    • Tullamore Dew is another classic name in Irish whiskey.
    • Tyrconnell is a single malt whiskey from Cooley.
    • Wild Geese has a cult following among Irish whiskey enthusiasts.

    Originally Published: March 10, 2010
    Edited by Colleen Graham