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World Whisky Day 2022: The best Irish whiskeys to sip neat or on the rocks

We sampled a golden selection from the Emerald Isle

Hannah Jane Thompson
Friday 20 May 2022 15:06
<p>While taste came first, we also had a keen eye for distinctive, descriptive packaging</p>

While taste came first, we also had a keen eye for distinctive, descriptive packaging

Irish folk band The Dubliners famously sang about having whiskey in their jar, and you’ll fast be wanting to join them (on the whiskey, anyway) with this excellent selection. In fact, Ireland can even claim to have named the drink itself; the Irish “uisce beatha” means “water of life” and it’s easy to see why.

Yet, Irish whiskey – spelt with that all-important “e” – sadly suffered something of a decline in the 19th century, with distilleries dwindling as fast as you can say “Sláinte”. Happily, it’s now undergoing a major revival.

From just two distilleries in 1966, the Irish Whiskey Association said 25 were open as of December 2019, with a further 24 in planning, and more opening all the time. That’s a heck of a lot of taoscáns (the Irish word often used like the Scottish term “dram”).

And while Irish whiskey is known as one of the oldest categories of drinks, and sometimes thought to begin and end with Jameson’s, it is heartening indeed to contemplate the sheer variety, creativity, and modern innovation coming out of the Emerald Isle today.

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How we tested

Of course, the taste was paramount, and we made sure we gave the liquid time to reveal its true aromas and flavours beyond the initial, inevitable hit of alcohol. We diluted with a few drops of water to allow this. We gave bonus points for particularly distinctive, descriptive or intriguing packaging, especially as Irish whiskey presents more of an interesting variety than some (*cough* Japan *cough*).

We also considered whether the whiskey would be drunk neat (or with some water), or whether it would be extra well-suited to a mixer. Lastly, we gave extra marks for varieties with especially absorbing stories or heritage that we felt added to the rich history of Irish distilling, or which deserved a mention for their notable creativity. Affordability and good value for money were also factors. Here are our favourites...

The best Irish whiskeys for 2022 are:

  • Best overall – Kinahan’s the kasc project Irish whiskey: £34.95, Htfw.com
  • Best for sipping straight – Mitchell & Son green spot single pot still Irish whiskey: £49.95, Fortnumandmason.com
  • Best single malt – The Sexton single malt: £28.84, Masterofmalt.com
  • Best for quality – Bushmills 16-year-old single malt Irish whiskey: £72, Masterofmalt.com
  • Best strong whiskey – Knappogue Castle 14-year-old twin wood, £63.95, Thewhiskyexchange.com
  • Best for affordability – Walsh Whiskey writer’s Tears copper pot Irish whiskey: £35.95, Amazon.co.uk
  • Best for a taste of Dublin – Teeling small batch - gold tube: £37.95, Masterofmalt.com
  • Best for gifting – Drinks by the Dram whiskey tasting set: £49.95, Drinksbythedram.com

Kinahan’s the kasc project Irish whiskey

Best: Overall

Rating: 9.5/10

  • ABV: 43%
  • Size: 70cl

As its name suggests, this whiskey is a riot of casks, with not three, not four, but five casks used in what is termed the “hybrid cask method”. This original “experiment” process includes American, French, Portuguese, and Hungarian Oak, plus Chestnut – all of which produce a deep, reddish hue reminiscent of treacle on pudding.

The result is a complex taste with far more punch than some others we tried. There are layers of everything here, from dark chocolate and raisins to orange and mango (no, seriously), and a whiff of smoke more commonly found in Scottish, peaty drams. Robust yet comforting, and a real celebration of new, creative, sometimes-even-controversial ideas coming out of Ireland distilleries today.

Mitchell & Son green spot single pot still Irish whiskey

Best: For sipping straight

Rating: 9/10

  • ABV: 40%
  • Size: 70cl

With a distinctive bottle that puts this whiskey’s history front and centre, the Green Spot makes its mark with gusto. From the deep bourbon and sherry colour – courtesy of its maturation casks – to the peppery, barley-rich taste it leaves lingering on the tongue, this is a robust variety with a hint of just-sweet-enough fruit. With a name that comes from the Mitchell & Son practice of daubing their whiskey with paint to denote their age, this triple-distilled option is a seriously satisfying choice.

The Sexton single malt

Best: Single malt

Rating: 8/10

  • ABV: 40%
  • Size: 70cl

This variety gets serious points for its distinctive, six-sided, squat bottle; but also for its master blender Alex Thomas, who is one of the only women working in the still-male-dominated Irish whiskey industry. Triple distilled in copper stills and finished in Spanish oloroso sherry casks, this variety has the characteristic banana scent of many Irish whiskeys, but offers a spicier hit of pepper and pear than any others we tested, with more than a lingering suggestion of honeycomb.

Punchy enough to stand alone, Sexton nevertheless recommends it in a “Midnight Highball”, mixed with ginger soda, lemon juice, dry cider and cherries, and we imagine it creates an indulgent, syrupy-yet-super-smooth treat.

Bushmills 16-year-old single malt Irish whiskey

Best: For quality

Rating: 8/10

  • ABV: 40%
  • Size: 70cl

As with many of the best Irish whiskeys, this Bushmills malt is matured in multiple casks; sherry, bourbon, and port, lending it a woody, polished richness. With the year “1608” stamped solidly across its packaging, there’s no mistaking its impressive history. Bushmills, on the Irish north coast, claims to be the world’s oldest whiskey distillery, giving a sense of occasion to this variety. Strong flavours of almond mix with deep berry and treacly molasses for an imposing, grown-up glass.

Knappogue Castle 14-year-old twin wood

Best: Strong whiskey

Rating: 8.5/10

  • ABV: 46%
  • Size: 70cl

As the second-most-expensive choice we tried, we expected big things from this grandly-named bottle, and we weren’t disappointed. The “twin woods” of bourbon and oloroso sherry casks lend a glorious, strawlike tone to the liquid; and the flavour offers a buttery, caramel, fruity experience, not unlike a homemade apple pie baked with love – as the Gaelic translation of Knappogue, “hill of the kiss”, romantically suggests. The golden signature of distiller Mark Andrews III (son of the original Mark Edwin Andrews who bought the eponymous Irish castle in 1966) the bottle adds an extra, familial touch.

Walsh Whiskey writer’s tears copper pot Irish whiskey

Best: For affordability

Rating: 8/10

  • ABV: 40%
  • Size: 70cl

The vividly-named Writer’s Tears is one of the lightest and sweetest varieties we tasted (somewhat ironically, this writer noted), and yet it’s plenty bold to merit a place on this list. From its frankly beautiful packaging – dusky tones and a simple tear design pair memorably with the golden glow of the whiskey – to its lemon-and-honey scent, the mouthfeel is creamy and as moreish as crumble and custard.

Named in honour of great Irish writers, such as Oscar Wilde and James Joyce to name a few, this won’t help you become a literary icon, but it’s a solid option to taste as you contemplate your next book idea. You might need to wait a little while to let your creative (and whiskey) juices flow though, as this inspiring dram is currently out of stock. Fortunately, you can join a waiting list and order it as soon as it’s back.

Teeling small batch, gold tube

Best: For a taste of Dublin

Rating: 8/10

  • ABV: 46%
  • Size: 70cl

The packaging promises “The Spirit of Dublin” and showcases Teeling’s history as “the first distillery to open” in the capital in 125 years, bringing some cosmopolitan class to our list. And, in addition to the more common sherry and bourbon casks, this is finished in Central American rum casks, giving this flagship bottle a noticeably-spicy flavour with overtones of smooth and sweet banana.

We tested the “Gold Presentation Tube” version of this Teeling Small Batch (sold at no extra cost) which would make an excellent bling gift for a friend (or a gilt touch to your own bar cart). As Teeling itself says, “this is not how everyone makes Irish whiskey”, and this small batch certainly stands out.

Drinks by the Dram Irish whiskey tasting set

Best: For gifting

Rating: 8/10

  • ABV: 44.7%
  • Size: 15cl

Packaged like a mini advent calendar, but suitable all year round, this tasting set is obviously not a single whiskey, but it would make a good gift for a friend (or the more indecisive among us). With 12, 30ml bottles, it offers a pleasing array of some top choices, including one that made it onto this list elsewhere: the Teeling small batch. Others include the deep, caramel tones of the West Cork Distillers’ black cask; the honey-tinged, light-gold maltiness of Waterford’s the cuvée, and the fruity, oak bourbon notes of the Egan’s vintage grain.

A seriously good selection at an affordable price, with enough variety, colour and tastes to please even the fussiest (or easily bored).

The verdict: Irish whiskey

While The Sexton stood out for design, the Green Spot for its history, and the Writer’s Tears for its sweet lightness, we had to give the ultimate prize to Kinahan’s the kasc project for its sheer blend of complex flavours, originality, and innovative approach, at a fair price. As a whiskey to drink neat, this would be a solid choice, with notes that linger long after the first taste.

As a welcome counterweight to the more traditional options, we loved how it contrasted vividly to the still-excellent Teeling and woody Knappogue Castle.

Ireland may be better known for its rained-soaked greenery than blue skies, but George Bernard Shaw once described whiskey as “liquid sunshine” and that works just fine for us. If you need us, we’ll be over here sunbathing.

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