The best bottles of Irish whiskey are masterpieces of the dark spirit. The subtle use of barley and sometimes even maize (corn) that’s triple distilled and aged with a nuanced barreling program (often incorporating both bourbon barrels and Oloroso sherry casks) makes for an amazing sip of whiskey.
This is the good stuff and it’s making a roaring comeback in the world of whiskey. Irish whiskey has seen a 20 percent increase in sales in the U.S. alone. That number bumps up to 30 percent in markets like East Asia. 2019 may well be Irish whiskey’s big moment (again) on the world stage, which means it’s time to buy up a few bottles for your next party.
The five bottles of Irish whiskey below are all absolute essentials to start your journey into that world. These bottles represent a broad range from north to south and points in between with variations of flavor front-and-center. Start inviting guests. Stock those shelves with whiskey. Ready the ice and soda water. Let’s go!
Redbreast 15 — The Welcome Drink
What to talk about: If you dig on Jameson, you’re going to love Redbreast. The small-time distillery is like Jameson amped up to eleven. The spirit is made in the New Midleton Distillery in Cork and aged in ex-bourbon and sherry casks. Luckily, you don’t have to head to Cork to try this one. Redbreast has consistently been winning award after award since its relaunch in 1991, meaning you can get this expression all over the world these days.
Tasting notes: The aging is very present here. The wood comes through with a nice balance of mild spice and honey sweetness. There’s a buttery toasted nature to the underlying malts that gives way to a nice cut of lemon zest freshness. Finally, the cinnamon-forward spicy burn of the alcohol finishes of this mild sip.
Bushmills 10 Single Malt — Pre-dinner Cocktail Hour
What to talk about: Bushmills is one of the oldest distilleries in the world. The legal designations date back to 1784, officially. 1608 is the year on the label thanks to an old-school royal license that allowed distilling in the area. And, arguably, the same folks have been distilling in the same spot since at least 1276, according to the written historical record anyway. So, yeah, this Northern Ireland spirit has a legacy that makes it an essential stop on the Irish whiskey train.
Tasting notes: Interestingly, Bushmills has a lot of parallels with a refined Tennessee whiskey. Notes of vanilla hit first with an entrancing banana bread depth. It’s buttery, rich, full of banana, and has a hint of walnut oil essence to it. The sweetness tends to lean more towards velvety honey, leaving you with a smooth texture. On the end, the alcohol burn has a nice spiciness to it that mimics the nutmeg, allspice, and cinnamon of a great slice of warm banana bread.
This is the perfect base for a whiskey and soda. The whiskey really shines with the nice minerally soda water.
Connemara Peated Single Malt — With Dinner
What to talk about: As dinner dishes start to come out, let’s head over to the western Atlantic coast of Ireland. This is the Irish whiskey you serve to the Scotch lovers in the room. Connemara Peated Single Malt is a throwback style to a time when peat was used to dry malted barley by country distillers. The use of peat — and the smoke from burning it — impart a natural smoky presence into the grains. That smoke is then carried through the fermentation and triple distilling processes until you’re left with a whiskey that feels like a sip through the lens of the Scottish seaside by way of the Irish backcountry.
Tasting notes: Yes, you’re going to feel that peat smoke up front. It’s like a slightly funky campfire on a rainy day. Then a burst of wildflowers come in with a nice layer of raw honey sweetness. The oaky vanilla lurks in the background with a bready, toasted barely feel and a hint of dark chocolate bitterness. This is a complex sip that pairs well with big flavors on any plate, especially if wood and smoke are involved in your cook.
Proper No. Twelve — Party Time
What to talk about: Fighter Conor McGregor got into the spirit game with a whiskey that celebrates his Dublin neighborhood, no. 12. McGregor teamed up with former Bushmills master distiller, David Elder, to create a smooth blend of triple distilled Irish whiskey that they finish in ex-bourbon barrels. This is a great whiskey to party with — as it mixes well as a cocktail or highball base and you can shoot it very easily.
Tasting notes: Softness is the first impression here. This is an easy sip with a light presence (light on the wallet too!). The woody bourbon barrels bring in notes of vanilla spice and charred oak wood staves. Then the whiskey takes a turn into a bright jasmine field in full bloom and ripe pear orchards. There’s an earthiness that helps this one shine and rise above the pack.
Yellow Spot 12 Year — Farewell Drink
What to talk about: Catharsis is an import part of any journey. So a great way to end this particular whiskey adventure is to end up where we started, back down in Cork at the Midleton Distillery. Under the Green Spot umbrella, Yellow Spot continues to reign as one of the best and most awarded Irish whiskey expressions on the market. The whiskey is aged for 12 years in a mix of ex-bourbon barrels, sherry butts, and Malaga wine casks. That last cask addition helps to make this whiskey stand out as one of the best there is.
Tasting notes: There’s a distinct echo of red-fruit on the opening of this sip thanks to the old wine barrels. Then this one goes deep. Creamy hazelnut with a bitter chocolate balance gives way to burnt, buttery toffee, dried orange zest, and fatty walnuts. This is a gentle drink of whiskey that ends with a soft presence of alcohol burn that feels like silk.
This is the perfect “good night” drink that’ll leave your guests discussing the whiskey the whole Uber ride home.
EDITOR’S PICK: The Sexton Single Malt — Parting Gift
What to talk about: If you can afford to give a parting gift (I suppose it depends on the size of your party), this one is a fun surprise. Especially if the very theme of the night was Irish Whiskey. First off, the bottle is cool as hell. That’s no reason to spend your hard earned cash on a spirit, but still… for a gift, it’s fun.
Though the shape of this bottle broadcasts its cool factor, the process stays true to tradition. It’s 100% Irish malted barley, triple distilled in copper, and then aged in oak and sherry for four years. In all likelihood, this is produced at the Bushmills Distillery, a sort of experiment in branding and style made in secret with the same parent company. That said, it stands on its own as an interesting product and value.
Tasting notes: This is an Irish whiskey starter bottle, that’s why you’re sending it home with your guests. The flavors are big and bright enough that they’ll be able to analyze it on their own without having to Google “tasting notes The Sexton.”
So what are those flavors? They start with sherry. It’s heavy on the nose. This smells legit sweet — like it might actually be sherry. Then on the palate, it’s woodier but you still get a sherry flavor. You start to get a little stone fruit, mostly apricot. It finishes a little quickly, there’s a slight burn and then more of the sherry sugar with more stone fruitiness. Again, not something you need to write a dissertation on, but deeply enjoyable.
The mouthfeel is velvety and smooth, yet another reason this goes down easy. Perfect for someone just starting to savvy which Irish whiskeys they love best and a hell of a value at the price.