A good bottle of Irish whiskey never has to break the bank. The triple distilled tipple from the Emerald Isle skews very affordable. That’s not to say there aren’t expensive Irish whiskeys on the shelf. But the fact that you can find very tasty Irish whiskey without laying out a ton of cash is a feature of the style.
As with all whiskey (and aged spirits), there are distinct tells between the younger, cheaper stuff and the older, more expensive bottles. But when it comes to Irish whiskey, that gap grows a little narrower. Whereas young Irish whiskeys are fruity, floral, grainy, and very light, the older expressions are often nuttier (with hints of leather and oak), while still managing to maintain much of that lightness.
To help break down the intrinsic differences between the cheap stuff and the spendier expressions, we thought we’d do a blind tasting. We selected five cheap Irish whiskeys in the $16 to $30 range and three in the $70 to $90 range. At least that’s what my tasting partner who set this experiment up did. He told me it was “four cheap bottles and four expensive ones” like we’d done before, as a trick. It worked.
Read on to see how I got fooled and maybe one of these picks piques your interest for a little holiday sipping!
Part I: The Blind Tasting
This is very fruity and floral with a clean graininess. It’s thin but still carries a nice dose of vanilla and butter on bread. It’s warm on the end but not necessarily spicy.
This tastes like a mixer. Likely Jameson or Bushmills. I’m calling it cheap.
This is a dram! Orange oils mingle with dry straw, dark berries, Bananas Foster, creamy vanilla, and a nice spice. That spice is interesting — it leads towards a bitterness that’s almost like… coffee cut with egg nog. That could just be that I’ve been mainlining egg nog recently, but the coffee/creamy/spicy matrix is there with a hint of old wood.
You can see from the color of this that it’s well-aged and spendy. The deep taste and svelte texture confirm as much.
This is honey-sweet. There are clear signs of grain, citrus, and … pear? It’s really sweet and malty with a slight warmth on the very end.
This is light, super easy to drink, and likely very affordable.
Not as sweet as the last dram but still very fruity, grainy, apple-y, and citrus-y. There’s a bit more of a floral edge alongside a slight nuttiness far in the background. The end is a bit like a sweet spicy baked apple next to dried flowers.
This isn’t bold enough to be that old. It’s still thin-ish but that nutty-floral note reminds me of Jameson, so I’m going cheap.
Sweet orchard fruits meet grains, vanilla, toffee, and some butter on crusty bread. It’s sweet but not cloyingly so. There’s a candied orange feel, which is nice.
This is Tullamore D.E.W. I’d recognize it anywhere. It’s cheap but tasty.
Damn fine from the top with leathery oak next to dark cherries, Christmas spices, and rich toffee. The fruit, vanilla, spice, and Christmas cake aspects all marry wonderfully.
This is really, really easy to drink with a lot of boldness. I’m going expensive.
This is fruity, nutty, oaky, and full of mild spiciness. The taste takes a turn into toasted coconut territory with a hint of dark chocolate, which is appealing. It’s super velvety with a long, warming finish that touches on that old oak vividly.
This is nice, expensive, and a damn fine dram.
Fresh ginger spice meets savory herbs next to a mix of banana, buttered toast dusted with sugar and cinnamon, and sharper spices. There’s a woodiness to the sip that lasts as it fades through the fruit, creamy butter, and spice.
This is too unique not to be something special. I’m going with expensive.
Part 2: The Answers
Bushmills White Label (Inexpensive/Correct)
Average Price: $16
Northern Ireland’s Bushmills is a classic. Their entry point whiskey is a blend of triple distilled malted barley and grain whiskeys that are aged in ex-bourbon until ready for blending, proofing, and bottling.
Redbreast 15 (Expensive/Correct)
Average Price: $80
This whiskey from Irish Distillers down in County Cork’s Midleton Distillery is a bit of a masterpiece. The juice is a single pot still whiskey which has a mash bill of unmalted and malted barley. The hot whiskey is then aged in a combination of ex-sherry and ex-bourbon casks for 15 years before blending, proofing, and bottling. The end product is unfiltered, allowing the barrels to really shine through in the sip.
Powers Gold Label (Inexpensive/Correct)
Average Price: $29
This is another great entry-point Irish whiskey — both to the style and Powers’ wider range of expressions. The juice is a blend of triple distilled grain and malt whiskeys that are proofed and bottled down at the Midleton Distillery in County Cork.
Jameson Caskmates IPA Edition (Inexpensive/Correct)
Average Price: $26
Jameson has been trading barrels with craft breweries down in County Cork for decades. Over the last few years, they’ve been taking those barrels back to age their whiskey in them, creating the Caskmates line. This expression is aged like a regular Jameson and then spends some additional time in old IPA barrels to add a little more depth to the whiskey.
Tullamore D.E.W. (Inexpensive/Correct)
Average Price: $19
Tullamore D.E.W. is an entry-point expression that blends single malt, single grain, and single pot still whiskeys that are aged in both ex-sherry and ex-bourbon casks. The end result is one of the easiest drinking Irish whiskeys on the market.
Powers John’s Lane (Expensive/Correct)
Average Price: $70
This 12-year-old whiskey is made from a single pot still mash bill (unmalted and malted barley) that’s aged mostly in ex-bourbon barrels. The age of this whiskey helps it shine brightly as a big step up from Powers’ already very drinkable Gold Label.
Jameson Black Barrel (Inexpensive/Incorrect)
Average Price: $30
This beloved bottle from Jameson is a mix of single grain and single pot still whiskeys that are aged in ex-sherry and ex-bourbon for anywhere from eight to 16 years. The juice is then transferred to a double charred ex-bourbon cask for a final rest before bottling.
Method & Madness Singel Pot Still (Expensive/Correct)
Average Price: $90
This line from the “experimental” division of Midleton Distillery is a hell of a whiskey. The juice is single grain and single pot whiskeys that are aged in ex-sherry and ex-bourbon. Then the juice is married and moved into Fresh chestnut casks for a final maturation spell. The result is as interesting as it is tasty.
Part 3: Final Thoughts
Well, I was sort of tricked into thinking a Jameson was an expensive whiskey. I look at it this way: Jameson Black Barrel is actually good. It has serious depth, dialed-in flavors and textures, and tastes like it’s got some age under it. It’s crazy that it’s only $30 a bottle. You could stand that up to any $50 or $60 bourbon and not know it’s half the price. Still… I got that one wrong.
Otherwise, if I had to rank these by which I want to drink again immediately, it’d go something like this:
8. Jameson Caskmates IPA Editon
7. Bushmills White Label
6. Power’s Gold Label
5. Tullamore D.E.W.
4. Method & Madness Chestnut Cask
3. Powers John’s Lane
2. Jameson Black Barrel (you just can’t help but notice that price)
1. Redbreast 15
That Jameson IPA just doesn’t do it for me. It’s not that there’s anything off-putting about it, it just not my vibe. That Redbreast 15, on the other hand, is going to be empty well before 2021 rolls around.