Why Irish Whiskey Is Better Than It's Ever Been Before

Craft distillers bring new life to one of the world’s great whiskeys.

<p>Courtesy of Micil Distiller</p>

Courtesy of Micil Distiller

The origin of whiskey is tricky. While experts agree that its heritage is Gaelic, the agreement stops and the arguments start when it comes to Ireland vs. Scotland. Both countries coined the term “water of life” for the spirit—uisge baugh in Scotland, uisge beatha in Ireland. Pronounced ‘wishka ba-ha,’ the phrase was later Anglicised to whiskey. Both countries can offer compelling evidence they were using the term before the 15th century, but neither can firmly settle this centuries-old dispute.

Still, after a short stint of living on the west coast of Ireland last summer, I’m inclined to go with the Irish. Was I really going to correct an Irishman, in Ireland, when he was standing in front of a room of his fellow countrymen sharing the story of how his relatives used to make an “unlicensed” version of it in the rustic hills of Connemara in the 1800s? Not a chance.

That Irishman was Pádraig Ó Graillais of Micil Distillery. His distillery tour includes a brief history of whiskey, which according to him, originated in Ireland. Micil is the creation of Pádraig and his brother, Jimín, and in 2016 the Ó Graillais brothers opened the first legal distillery in Galway in over 100 years, making a variety, among them Irish whiskey, which must be triple-distilled and matured in Ireland for a minimum of three years.

Irish whiskey is having a bit of a moment. Last year it became the third-fastest-growing spirits category behind premixed cocktails (sigh) and agave spirits (namely tequila and mezcal). Yet despite its rocketing popularity, there are only about three dozen distilleries in Ireland, partly because iconic brands such as Jameson and Bushmills have dominated the category for decades. But an increase in craft distilleries over the past decade has prompted a wave of unique whiskies from across the island, and Micil is just one of those examples.

Related:11 Unique Barrel-Finished Irish Whiskeys to Drink Right Now

You’ll find great whiskey and good craic—that’s Gaelic (Irish) for “good fun”—in all corners of the country. But expert guide can help, not only with navigating the countryside’s ridiculously narrow roads but also by sharing stories and facts along the way. So thank goodness for Tadhg O’Brien, owner of the tour company Shannon Airport Transfers. A cheerful Limerick native, he seems to know every tidbit of Irish history, politics, and culture imaginable (and also the absolute best dining spots in any town.)

O’Brien’s itinerary for me included a drive through the wild Burren region, home to the towering seaside Cliffs of Moher, and the Dingle Peninsula, with its sandy beaches and craggy cliffs. Just west of the town of Dingle itself, the Dingle Distillery, established in 2012, sits along a quiet ocean inlet.

There, head distiller Graham Coull and his team make single malt and single pot-still whiskies. Since the pandemic, visits are limited, and by appointment, but if you can’t make it in, head to Dick Mack’s Pub in the center of town for a taste. In addition to plenty of Dingle Distillery choices, the bar offers more than 100 whiskies from around the world. After I finished my tour, I checked in to the Lake Hotel Killarney, a cozy boutique hotel nestled along the quiet shores of Lough (Lake) Lein in the Killarney National Park. Sipping a nightcap of Dingle Single Malt on my balcony as moody grey clouds blanketed the peaks of the distant mountains was a perfect end to the evening.

Related:This Is the Difference Between Bourbon and Whiskey

The next morning, we made our way through County Cork to the southern tip of the country to Clonakilty Distillery, named for its home town. Owner Michael Scully and his family have been farming along the windswept Atlantic coastline for nine generations, and in 2016, opened a distillery to spotlight one of their primary crops, heirloom Irish barley.  Master distiller Oisin Mulcahy uses those grains for Clonakilty’s Irish whiskies and single malts. All are triple-distilled on the premises, then aged in a warehouse on the family farm along the coast, the sea air playing into the flavors as they mature.

Our next stop required a six-hour drive to the other side of the country. O’Brien expertly chose the most scenic routes along what’s known as the “Wild Atlantic Way.” Views of the vast blue sea to the west and endless mazes of stacked rock fences framed verdant green pastures to the east. A few stops at local pubs verified two truths about Ireland: The first is that Guinness really is the only beer that’s appropriate to order. Second, the Irish truly do have the gift of gab, and I found myself sitting at the bar for long spells among new friends regularly.

Finally we arrived at Limavady, just north of the border with the Republic in Northern Ireland, home of a new eponymous distillery from celebrated master distiller Darryl McNally. A native of the town, McNally was head distiller at Bushmills for 15 years before leaving to start his own project: a single malt that spotlights the rich whiskey-making heritage of his home. Thus, the Limavady Single Malt, released in 2021 as part of the Vermont-based Whistle Pig’s portfolio. Made with 100% Irish malted barley harvested from his family farm and aged in Spanish PX sherry casks, it’s a whiskey that is as much about McNally’s pride for his home as it is about the spirit inside the bottle.

Related:21 Whiskey Cocktails for Your Repertoire

My last days in Ireland ended with a few in Dublin, where I was keen to check out Dublin Liberties, a craft distillery that launched with Darryl McNally’s help. The Liberties, located outside the original city walls, was historically a tawdry, no-rules, working-class district known for mayhem and debauchery. But today, this urban distillery celebrates the district’s lively history by way of several whiskies, including their well-known Dubliner Irish Whiskey and several limited, small batch, long-aged single malts: Copper Alley, Murder lane and Keepers Coin.

I flew away from Ireland this summer with a sense of the romantic aesthetic of Irish whiskey, a spirit as engrained in the fabric of its culture and heritage as the Irish barley that gives the whiskey its unique flavor. The best way to experience this feeling for yourself?  See it with your own eyes, meet the people bringing these spirits to the bottle—but if you can’t go that, track down a bottle, pour you and your friends a few glasses, and raise a toast: “sláinte mhaith,” to good health!

Five Great Irish Whiskies to Try

Micil Distillery Earls Island Single Pot Still Whiskey ($30)

This peated whiskey initially matures in ex-bourbon barrels, then is finished in both ex-peated whiskey and ex-Bordeaux barrels. The result is a rich vanilla and red berry complexity, backed by toffee and soft earthiness.

Clonakilty Single Batch Double Oak Finish ($50)

Clonakilty’s flagship bottling has fragrant notes of vanilla and ripe summer pear, and a gingery-peppery finish.

Limavady Single Malt Whiskey ($50)

Made with 100% Irish malted barley and aged in Spanish PX Sherry casks, this golden-toned single malt whiskey is silky, with notes of berries and figs and a marzipan finish.

Dublin Liberties Copper Alley 10 Year Old Irish Whiskey ($75)

This limited-release single malt was aged in bourbon casks and finished in oloroso sherry casks. Named for a coin first minted in Dublin on a street that no longer exists, it’s spicy, ending on a nutty caramel note.

Dingle Distillery Single Malt Triple Distilled Irish Whiskey ($100)

Highlighting notes of toasted barley, this excellent dram has a silky texture with a creamy, grain finish.