Why does it seem like Irish whiskey lurks in the shadow of its nearby whiskey-producing Gaelic cousin? For starters, Scotland has more than 125 distilleries; Ireland has just a handful. The years of American Prohibition didn't help either; lack of demand, among other things, made the bottles run dry. But things are looking up for the brown spirits of the Emerald Isle. From our seemingly endless thirst for Jameson (which produces nearly 4 million cases annually) to new, rarefied bottlings, the following libations illustrate the range and appeal of proud-to-be-Irish potables.
Kilbeggan ($24) above
For more than 60 years the Kilbeggan Distillery sat unused until the owners of Jim Beam (Beam Global) bought out the owner (Cooley Distillery), remodeled the old digs, and put the bottles back in action. Spicy and citrusy, a little grainy, and with undertones of honey and cracked pepper, Kilbeggan is a good choice for sipping on the rocks or mixing into a gingery toddy.
A blend of 80 percent malted barley and 20 percent grain-based whiskies, Bushmill's Blackbush gets its fruit-full nose from aging 8 to 10 years in oloroso-sherry casks. The spirit has an unexpected but pleasingly "slippery" mouthfeel and flavors of brown sugar, apple, and caramel, as well as a spicy, lingering finish.
Tyrconnell Single Malt ($35)
Those in the know seek out this offering from the Cooley Distillery for its cloverlike aromas, gentle lemon-honey flavors, and mellowness—qualities that make it oh-so-easy to sip when having more than one.
Bushmill's 10-Year Single Malt ($40)
The whiskies in this sweet Northern Ireland sipper have spent a minimum of 10 years in bourbon barrels (plus some time in sherry casks). The result: a full, rich mouthfeel that leaves you with the sensation of having consumed a juicy pear (just, you know, one that's been doused in whiskey).
Connemara Peated Single Malt ($45)
While not at all of Ireland is known for peating its whiskies, this unusual entry from Connemara (owned by Cooley Distillery) combines a rounded, soft-and-sweet fruitiness with a smoky bit of bonfire character. It's the best of both Gaelic worlds.
Jameson 12 Year Special Reserve ($50)
A big step up in complexity from your basic shot-and-a-can Jameson, this velvety-smooth sipper boasts cinnamon spice and pine-nut flavors with a toasty, orange-peel finish. Savor this one instead of tossing it back with a chaser.
Powers John's Lane ($70)
This single-pot-still Irish whiskey hits our shores just in time for St. Patrick's Day this year. Maturation in both seasoned sherry and bourbon casks adds caramel and nutty notes, as well as an unexpected earthy quality of heather, wood, and spice that gives this offering from Midleton Distillery some depth.
Redbreast 12 Cask Strength ($82)
If the bigger-is-better trend in high-alcohol spirits is your bag, then the cask-strength version (57.7 ABV) of this Irish champion should please your palate. Add a tiny bit of water and its heady, warm honey-cake aromas will rise to the surface. You may sense a little sweetness on the tongue at first, followed by notes of allspice, orange peel, and hard candy.
Jameson 18-Year Limited Edition ($115)
We're not sure if this is the ultimate whiskey for the true Jameson fan or the one that will win over folks who've been avoiding Irish whiskey altogether. Either way, it's silky and rich from start to finish, with intensely fruity apricot-pear flavors and a toffee nose, giving it a decadent, dessertlike quality.
Barry Crockett Legacy ($250)
Mr. Crockett, the soon-to-retire master distiller from Midleton Distillery, began setting aside barrels to cement his liquid legacy several years ago, and the result—a blend of his favorite single-pot-still whiskies—is worth stamping his name on. The booze has spent over 20 years in seasoned bourbon barrels, giving this creamy, layered whiskey the aromas of vanilla and caramel, with luscious notes of tangerine, apple, and raspberry.