Words: Shamim de Brún
Artwork: Paul Smith
Whiskey is the national drink of Ireland. Or it is at least in fierce competition to Guinness. Whiskey was relegated to an old man’s tipple for a long time but in recent years it has been experiencing a renaissance. Whiskey has managed to shed its conservative image and these days innovation is off the charts. Every day whiskey folds in more and more discerning drinkers across the world. This can make it feel difficult to start your own whiskey journey or buy one for someone else. Here we have a basic guide to buying a whiskey, be it for yourself, or for the dram-atic in your life.
Irish whiskey was enshrined and defined in law by the Irish Whiskey Act of 1980. It’s a whole document of cans and can’ts that incites rage and admiration in equal measure. But the long and the short of it is that whiskey is a spirit distilled from grain on the island of Ireland and aged for a minimum of three years in wooden barrels.
There are 4 basic styles of whiskey. Single Malt, Single Grain, Single Pot Still, and Blended. If you wade into the minutia there are more but these ones dominate. Mostly they’re single as fuc (This just means one distillery, it’s not a denotation of quality).
If you’re gonna buy a whiskey then buy style; it’s the key to buying whiskey.
Single Malt whiskey is made using only malted barley from a single distillery in a pot still. Malting is a chemical process that breaks down the barley to make it more suitable for fermentation. The malting process gives the grain toasted biscuit aromas that are carried through into the end-product.
Single Malt is acclaimed. It’s what everyone in Mad Men orders all the time. Single Malt is referenced in every major wealth porn oriented tv show. No other whiskey style in the world dominates the global cultural consciousness quite like Single Malt. In 2019 a bottle of 1926 Macallan with a label designed by Irish artist Michael Dillon sold for a record €1.5 million.
Ireland, England, America, Canada, Japan, Taiwan, Sweden, Spain, Tasmania, and India all make single malt whiskies of exceptional finesse but Scotland is at the helm of this style internationally.
You can have high-quality single malts or you can have grand ones with great marketing and everything in between.
Crafted by Master Blender Alex Thomas, one of Ireland’s few female whiskey blenders this Single Malt is quintessentially biscuity. Tastes like a tea dunked digestive on a cold day.
From €33 at Tesco, Celtic Whiskey Shop, O’Briens
They use first-fill only casks to produce a richer flavour. Lovely balance of sweet and spicy. Old enough to be well rounded and not outrageously expensive.
From €55 at Mitchell and Son, Celtic Whiskey Shop, Sweeneys.
This award-winning single malt is aged for 10 years and finished in top quality Pedro Ximenez sweet sherry casks.
From €100 at Mitchell and Son, Celtic Whiskey, Irish Malts and direct from Echlinville.
Single Grain whiskey is any whiskey made from grains other than malted barley. The grains used vary from distillery to distillery but are commonly maize, wheat, or rye. Single Grain whiskies are also typically distilled on a column still as opposed to a pot still. By law, Irish Single Malt and Single Pot Still whiskies must be distilled using a pot still, but that doesn’t apply to Single Grain.
Single Grain is an often maligned whiskey style but it has its devotees. Single Grain whiskey is an excellent entry point if you’re just getting into whiskey. It generally hovers around the 40 per cent mark and it takes on the flavour of the barrel it’s aged in really well.
It’s a relatively new category in the Irish Whiskey market after arriving with the advent of the column still. The juice itself takes most of its flavour from the barrel as the distillate is clean and clear. There is only a small list of exceptional Irish single grain whiskeys on the market but there’s enough to play with.
The combo of Bourbon and Olorosso casks makes a taught, light and drinkable whiskey that’s also complex and tastes like it’s got years on itself.
From €33 at O’Briens Wines, Mitchell and Son, Tesco, Celtic Whiskey Shop
A firm favourite this whiskey tastes like it should be top shelf and is my go-to whiskey to lure in people who “don’t drink whiskey”.
From €55 at O’Briens Wines, Mitchell and Son, Celtic Whiskey Shop,
This is a limited release of only 850 bottles so it can be trickier to track down, but it is so good it’s almost deviant.
From €70 at Celtic Whiskey Shop, Irish Malts
A pot still is like a giant copper kettle that is heated to distil grain into whiskey. They come in a range of shapes and sizes but are thought to make more flavourful whiskeys than column stills.
Single Pot Still is regarded as the quintessential Irish style of whiskey. Predominantly made in Ireland there are some tributes to it across other countries. It is made as a combination of malted and unmalted barley with up to five per cent other grains.
Single Pot Stills are temperamental and take a few years longer to round off than malt or grain but generally, they bring with them a full bounty of diverse flavours. They’re the most sought after among aficionados and there has been such a surge in new Single Pot Stills on the market that it’s almost hard to keep up. Not bad for a category that almost died in the 1970s. Unfortunately, they start around fifty euro so they’re not as easy to cut your teeth on.
This is a non-age statement Single Pot Still that’s a minimum of 5 years old. Powers is a robust muscular whiskey that tastes like a hefty slice of Christmas cake
From €33 at O’Briens Wines, Mitchell and Son, Celtic Whiskey Shop, Tesco, SuperValu.
The only Single Pot Still with an unbroken history Samuel Beckets favourite tipple is still growing strong. It has a vibrant green apple note that dances with delicate panettone flavours like Fred and Ginger whirling around.
From €50 at Mitchell and Son, Celtic Whiskey, Tesco, O’Briens.
This is a high-end luxury whiskey. In a fierce competitive collectors market, the Very Rare collection is hard to find, but there are a few last-minute Christmas miracles that landed this week. It’s a divine vigorous drink that you could taste for hours and never run out of things to say about it
From €250 at Brown Thomas, Mitchell and Son, Celtic Whiskey Shop and direct from Bow Street Distillery.
Blended whiskey is when you mix any two or more styles of whiskey together. Single Malt and Single Grain. Single Pot Still and Single Malt. In any proportion at all. Most entry-level whiskey is blended a la Jameson but there are high-end ones too like Midleton Very Rare. Blended whiskey can be maligned but brings its own complexity to the table.
This mixing allows the blender to reach a specific taste. There is more dexterity required to assemble a blended whiskey and it can take aeons to crack it but once you do there is so much variety to spice your life with. Blended whiskey is the most affordable category
It’s just the gold standard is our Jemmy. All baby blendeds wish they could be as popular and as nice as Jameson’s smooth bright juice. There’s some stiff competition these days but I think bang for buck wise safety is sexy.
From €18 at Lidl, Dunnes, O’Briens, Super Value and more
Pearse Lyons was the first Irish man to receive a Masters in Brewing and Distilling in 1968. His whiskies all show a scientific thirst for the best and a creative flavourful flair. This 7-year-old blended whiskey is a go-to for many and is worth way more than it’s sold for.
From €49.50 at Celtic Whiskey Shop
This is a limited-edition premium release from Two Stacks. Made up of a complex blend of malts and bottled at 65 per cent, this is a hefty heavy hitter with a cracking right hook.
Limited to 222 bottles this is exclusively available from Celtic Whiskey Shop at €103.50