The Beginner’s Guide To Drinking Whiskey From The Emerald Isle
By Richard Thomas
Surging Irish whiskey sales are a clear sign that many drinkers are ready to either discover Irish whiskey for the very first time, or else move beyond staples like Jameson and Bushmills White Label. Yet that very same surge means a plethora of new expressions have grown up in recent years, and more are coming out all the time. “Where to begin?” is a sound question for the Irish whiskey novice to ask.
Starting Irish Means Starting Whiskey
One thing to keep in mind about choosing a starter Irish whiskey, whether for yourself or for a friend, is that you might be choosing what will become an introduction to whiskey as a whole. For many Americans, Jameson was and is the very first exposure to whiskey, and in the minds of many experts Irish whiskey is the best gateway to whiskey as a whole.
“I certainly think they are the best ‘beginner whiskies’ for most people,” said Debbie Shocair, aka “The Whiskey Mistress,” a Los Angeles-based whiskey host and lecturer. “I always lead with Irish,” Shocair says of her events. “[They are] really quite delicate in the mouth as a whole, I think they are definitely the best introduction to whiskey for most people.”
Whitney Vadenboncoeur, formerly of South Carolina’s Dark Corner Distillery and now events chief for the Kentucky Whiskey Chicks, concurred with the delicate part, saying Irish whiskeys have a “silky, smooth finish.”
“Irish whiskeys have the least amount of ‘alcohol burn’ compared to most other whiskeys on the market,” says Vadenboncoeur. It’s a feature that makes them very approachable to someone who is not only new to whiskey, but even new to spirits in general.
Pot Still: Make A Point Of It
Pot still whiskey, made from a mashbill of malted and unmalted barley and distilled in a copper pot, is at the heart of the Irish whiskey tradition. If you are designing a starter Irish whiskey flight, some pot still choices must be included to achieve a proper exposure to Hibernian whiskey. Those who are starting out one whiskey selection at a time should make a pot still their second choice, if not their first.
“If you want to know what the ‘big deal’ is with Irish whiskeys,” said food and drinks blogger Jenn Wong, “I think trying a great pot still whiskey is the way to fall in love with the Irish.”
“I personally prefer pot still whiskeys because they have a bigger body and better coated mouthfeel,” agreed Vadenboncoeur.
Don’t Splurge If You Can’t Help It
As with our advice on choosing a starter bourbon, both The Whiskey Reviewer and other experts agree there is no need to spend a lot of money to get a good start on Irish whiskey. Indeed, both Shocair and whiskey blogger Steve Ury pointed at some $20 or less offerings, such as Clontarf and 2Gingers, as sound starter choices.
The admonition to not splurge doesn’t contradict trying pot still whiskeys either. “[Luckily] there are many choices that won’t break the bank,” said Wong.
Top Starter Irish Whiskeys By The Experts
After polling our own staff plus a mixture of whiskey sommeliers, bloggers and knowledgeable celebrities, we drew up this list of the five best introductory choices for Irish whiskey:
Green Spot: By far the most popular choice of our experts was Greenspot, the Midleton single pot still that has served as the introduction for so many to pot still whiskey. Greenspot was created as an independent bottling by Mitchell & Sons, wine merchants to Dublin. The name “spot” comes from the marks painted on the butts of the whiskey casks as they were aging in the warehouse. The modern version is roughly eight or nine years old, and is usually a mix of 1/4 sherry cask-aged whiskey and 3/4 ex-bourbon barrel-aged whiskey.
Redbreast 12 Year Old: This is the other Midleton single pot still whiskey that has whiskey nerds of virtually all stripes buzzing. As the entry-level Redbreast, the 12 Year Old is the most all-around approachable, and it knocks the socks off of most everyone who tries it. Whisky Advocate founder John Hansell named it his top buying choice in his buyer’s guide, and Whisky Bible author Jim Murray made it his top Irish whiskey of the year in 2010.
Clontarf: On the subject of whether to use Jameson as a starter Irish whiskey, our experts were divided, with those who were opposed being very strongly opposed indeed. As a rule, most whiskey drinkers have already had a little exposure to Jameson, so there is little need to go back and cover that territory again.
So, if you want to include a mass market blended Irish whiskey in your starter line-up, go for Clontarf. Light and flavorful, represents what blended Irish whiskey is about adequately enough. But more to the point, it is dirt cheap in America, where you can expect to pay about $20 and perhaps even less.
Teeling Small Batch: Stepping up from Clontarf and others of its type is what is fast becoming the most identifiable of the premium blended Irish whiskeys, Teeling. We at The Whiskey Reviewer are pleased to have been the very first of the whiskey media to review this spirit. Finished in rum casks, it is a sweet and tasty treat, and a sound example of why no one should turn up their nose to blends.
Bushmills Single Malt 10 Year Old: While you can get by without trying a single grain whiskey, no one can really said to have started Irish Whiskey without trying at least one single malt. The most logical choice is to go north of the border with Bushmills. The 10 Year Old is moderately priced, widely available, and represents what Ireland’s second biggest distillery is all about.