Beyond being made in Hibernia, Irish whiskey has a handful distinguishing characteristics, things that make it distinctive from the Scotch whisky made just across the Irish Sea.
The signature style, though, is single pot still whiskey. This style of whiskey-making fell onto hard times, along with the rest of the Irish whiskey industry, but has enjoyed a revival hand-in-glove with the broader resurgence of Irish whiskey in recent years.
Like Scotch whisky, the Irish make malt whiskey (100% malted barley, distilled in pot stills) and grain whiskey (mix of grains, distilled in column stills), and bring these together in blended whiskeys like Bushmills. Unlike the Scots, they have a third, traditional style thrown into the mix: pot still whiskey. The style is said to have originated as a way of skirting the British revenuer, when a tax on malted barley was imposed in 1785. Irish distillers responded by making whiskey with a mixture of malted barley and (untaxed) regular barley, incidentally creating a distinctively robust, spicier spirit. For much of the early 19th Century, pot still whiskey helped make Ireland the world’s leading exporter in the whiskey trade.
In more modern times, the Irish suffered heavily in the world whiskey bust of the 1970s, when (in quite a contrast to today) changing tastes left whiskey-makers around the world sitting on an ocean of aging, brown spirits no one wanted to buy. Rounds of distillery closures and brand consolidations left the Republic of Ireland with just one working distillery: New Midleton, home of Jameson and Powers. Bushmills was still around, but is in Northern Ireland, so technically is like making Irish whiskey in Britain.
Of the two, though, only Midleton remained committed to making pot still whiskey. This was largely thanks to the efforts of second-generation master distiller Barry Crockett, who stood at the helm of the distillery from 1981 to 2013. His work was instrumental in making Midleton the platform from which single pot still whiskeys rebounded, as can be seen in brands like Green Spot and Redbreast.
It’s only recently that “single pot still whiskey” could refer to a product made anywhere but Midleton, however. Dingle and Teeling now have their own single pot still whiskeys out, and these were joined just this winter by Kilbeggan Single Pot Still. Some of the other new Irish distilleries are known to be making it, but don’t have any ready for market yet. That will be coming soon though, and as the portfolio of single pot still whiskeys available grows and gains in variety, so the signature style of Irish whiskey will return to full flower.