Traditional yet innovative, quirky yet accessible… There’s a renewed energy to the Irish whiskey scene that could add some real Celtic zing to your bar. Yael Weisberg reports
Belief – or doubt – can make or break a product, and British bartenders are notoriously difficult to convince. ‘I had a conversation with a friend last night about how I need to geek up more on my Irishness when it comes to whiskey drinking. But I’m ashamed to say I actually know very little about Irish. I’m a scotch drinker.’ This statement, reluctantly uttered by a senior bartender in a highly awarded cocktail bar, echoes a common sentiment among bartenders in the UK – that Irish whiskey education is not important enough to be a priority.
Scotch still holds its lofty position as the preferred posh dram for most Brits – bartenders and consumers alike. What’s more, if there’s a hankering for ‘other’ whiskies beside scotch, then British bartenders are spoiled for choice, with single malts and unique expressions from Taiwan to Texas hitting these shores on an increasingly regular basis.
Thanks to the efforts of ambassadors and advocates, our bartenders are increasingly savvy about these world of whisky changes.
British bartenders are spoiled for choice, with single malts and unique expressions from Taiwan to Texas hitting these shores
‘They want to know details about process, history and flavour, and are fascinated to learn how the categories link together in the whisky world. [But] they can see through marketing speak,’ says Stefanie Holt of Speciality Brands, who is UK whisk(e)y ambassador for one of the most diverse independent whisky UK portfolios. ‘They are making decisions about the quality of liquid and brand heritage,’ she says.
So with all these shiny new producers popping up from exotic corners of the globe, where does Ireland fit into the new world of ‘world whiskies’?
It isn’t, after all, a new arrival. As far back as 2013, the trend was being covered by non-specialist consumer press, and over the past five years nearly every whisk(e)y trend piece has mentioned a ‘surprising’ surge in Irish whiskey.
In that time, the category has seen sizeable financial investment and the development of an increasingly varied portfolio of styles, being championed by, among others, the founders of New York’s Dead Rabbit and The Sun Tavern in London, the latter the winner of Imbibe’s Whisk(e)y List of the Year 2016.
The notion of Irish whiskey as a one-trick pony now seems as dated as bell-bottoms and muddled fruit-filled Old Fashioneds.
The category’s history is a tumultuous one. The Irish have been making high quality whiskey since the 1700s and, as recently as the early 20th century the country was renowned for the consistency and quality of its whiskey.
However Prohibition in the US and independence from the UK in the 1920s meant the country’s two biggest export markets disappeared within the space of a few years. Then things got worse.
Counterfeit Irish whiskey was being mass-produced and distributed on the black market in the US – some of it toxic. Americans, understandably, preferred authentic Scotch whisky, and that affinity was reinforced during World War II.
By the end of that conflict, Scottish distillers enjoyed increasing success, making crowd-pleasing blends while also setting standards and codifying systems. Conversely, Ireland’s producers were going out of business or struggling to survive.
A few decades later, with significant investment from spirits conglomerates that bought stakes in the surviving producers, as well as the revitalisation of the independent distilling tradition, Irish whiskey began to recover some of its former glory, benefiting from the craft and innovation movement and the rise of contemporary cocktail culture.
That brings us to the present day, where it’s difficult to keep up with the raft of new products coming out of the Emerald Isle. Big companies such as Diageo and Bacardi have recently unveiled new brands in Roe & Co and Slane respectively.
Established behemoth Irish Distillers (IDL) has launched Method and Madness, a ‘new range of super-premium whiskeys designed to push the boundary of Irish whiskey’, comprising small batches with unconventional finishes.
Independent small-batch producers like Teeling have fired up their stills once more, while new players such as Dingle are now starting to release their products.
Meanwhile former Bruichladdich CEO, Mark Reynier, is further exploring the idea of terroir expression in whiskey with the newly built Waterford Distillery.
And that’s before we look at distilleries that are either being built or are in the planning stages. The scene is vibrant.
But is Ireland getting ahead of itself in its rush to innovate? Whisk(e)y writer and all-round spirits guru, Dave Broom, thinks Irish whiskey faces a challenge.
Unlike other whisky neophytes, such as India, Sweden and Tasmania, Ireland, he cautions, ‘has to not only be innovative but also rebuild a tradition – and exist in each sector of the market’.
Irish whiskey, in other words, has tradition, but is not as traditional as scotch, and has innovation, but is not as innovative as non-traditional new arrivals.
So if a British bartender is looking for a whisk(e)y crafted according to centuries-old tradition, they wouldn’t necessarily go to Ireland first for it – despite an enviable history in some quarters, such as Bushmills, which dates back to 1608. If they want to stock a whisk(e)y that is on the cutting edge of innovation, there are far more exotic places that are doing wacky things with wood and method.
A traditional Irish whiskey offers versatility in cocktail creation, its mellow character make it easy to balance
Yet, despite this, there are compelling reasons to make room on your crowded shelf for Ireland’s finest. Michael Brown at The Luggage Room describes the special characteristics of the pot still: ‘Pot still Irish whiskey offers a unique base for mixed drinks due to the high content of unmalted barley and triple distillation. These distinguish Irish from the rest of the pack, making a whiskey with a creamy mouthfeel and in many instances spice and tropical fruit notes.’
From a marketing viewpoint, Irish whiskey’s inability to fit completely into either the ‘traditional’ or ‘mould-breaking’ camps might be a bit of a disadvantage. But from a product perspective, it’s a real plus, with distillers reaping the benefits of both worlds.
Unfettered as they are by decades-old restrictions on production methods, Ireland’s young distillers are both treading their own path and learning from their elders. While many small distillers are still buying in their stocks, the movement towards a more nuanced and varied Irish whiskey offering is undeniable.
Broom lays it out plainly: ‘Not having Redbreast or John’s Lane behind your bar is a major omission in terms of flavour.’
At present, a traditional Irish whiskey offers versatility in cocktail creation, its mellow character making it remarkably easy to balance with other ingredients.
Aaron Wall, head of training and development for the London Cocktail Club group, puts it simply. ‘Take Irish whiskey and put it in a scotch or bourbon drink – it will be less sweet than bourbon, and less astringent than scotch. It can express other flavours more fully. You can also put it in a gin or rum drink – if you pick the right Irish whiskey, it will do really well.’
Lauren Taylor, bartender at Hawks-moor Spitalfields, has also noticed an interesting opportunity for further experimentation with Irish whiskey.
‘The Irish style is predominantly, though not always, a lighter style of whiskey that can be treated like a completely different product,’ she says. ‘A friend recommended swapping the gin in most classics for a light Irish whiskey, and the drinks taste delicious. Now, we’re all about the Green Spot Last Word!’
This is exactly the kind of cocktail cross-pollination that might be a practical gateway for bartenders to find their feet in the Irish whiskey category.