Irish whiskey has been resurgent in the 21st Century, with the Distilled Spirits Council reporting a growth in sales in America of over 900% since the early 2000s, and the Irish Whiskey Association forecasts that this year will see Ireland’s whiskey exports tie or exceed the industry’s mid-19th Century peak.
Hand in glove with Irish whiskey’s revived popularity has been a distillery building boom on the Emerald Isle. Whereas in 2005, the island had just three working whiskey distilleries (this including Northern Ireland’s Bushmills), today it has 25, and most of those have gone operational in just the last few years.
This explosive growth has shaken the Irish whiskey trade to its core, with old venerable brands finding new homes and new ownership. Best known for their Scotch whisky, William Grant & Sons bought Tullamore Dew and brought them home to the town of Tullamore and a new distillery in 2014; bourbon-makers Brown-Forman picked up Slane Irish Whiskey and built them a distillery at their namesake castle in 2017.
But perhaps more interesting are the wave of true newcomers, some of which have bottles on shelves that are already a familiar site to whiskey lovers. Here is a sampling of the new Irish distilling scene.
Dublin’s Liberties Four
Most visitors to Ireland are only likely to see a whiskey distillery if it’s in Dublin, in which case they will absolutely see one of the new establishments, as new is the only option. Even better, it’s possible to see all four of the whiskey distilleries in Dublin in a single (long, boozy) day, as they’re all in the same district, The Liberties.
Distilling disappeared altogether from the city in the 1970s, when the world whiskey slump hit its lowest and Jameson was moved to its current home in County Cork (the Jameson Bow Street facility is essentially a museum and not producing spirits). That trend first reversed when Teeling Whiskey Company (TWC) fired up their stills in 2015. Started by two scions of one of Ireland’s premier whiskey families, Jack and Stephen Teeling, they are one of a few brands in Ireland with a full range of Irish whiskeys: blended, single grain, single malt and single pot still.
TWC got there first, but there were others working on building a distillery in Dublin in the early 2010s, so they soon had company. Alltech opened its Pearse Lyons Distillery, located in a picturesque, deconsecrated church practically across the street from the Guinness Storehouse, in 2017; the Dublin Liberties Distillery, home of The Dubliner and Dublin Liberties whiskeys, started making spirits in March 2019. Hard on the heels of the Dublin Liberties came the opening of the new home of Roe & Co. in summer 2019, just down the street from Pearse Lyons.
The West Country
The beauty of Ireland’s Atlantic coast is one of the country’s major tourist draws, with people flocking to places like Galway and Dingle to drink up the scenery. It just so happens that in Dingle the landscape isn’t the only thing to local thing to drink up.
Dingle Distillery was one of the first to open in the industry’s 21st Century revival, starting out by making vodka and gin in 2012. Their first single malt whiskey came out, after a few years of aging as required under Irish law, in 2016. Yet it was 2017 that saw Dingle become something very special indeed: they become only the second distillery in Ireland to release a single pot still whiskey in modern times.
A spicy whiskey made in pot stills from a wort of malted and unmalted barley, single pot still saw its production contract down to just one distillery when the industry hit rock bottom in the 1970s: New Midleton, home of Jameson. Thus, all pot still whiskey was by default “single” (i.e. unvatted) because it all came from the same place. Or so it was until Dingle joined the club, and that club has been growing steadily ever since.
On the other end of the country, in Ireland’s far northwest, is County Mayo and the Connacht Whiskey Company. Starting out in 2016, they are making whiskey, vodka and gin, although the whiskey is at present sourced (production of their triple distilled whiskey began in 2017, so we may see some soon).
Dingle are currently the only two operational distilleries that are actually by the sea on the West Irish coast, but the larger region is dotted with distilling projects. Kurt Maitland, who runs New York’s popular club Whiskey Selections, said, “Pull up a current distillery map of Ireland and it seems like every county has built a new distillery or has one in the works.”
And They Keep Coming
Distilleries continue to sprout up all over Ireland, and with them come new white spirits and, a few years later, new whiskeys. Clonakilty was the 23rd Irish distillery, opening in March 2019. Located in Clonakilty (often shorted to just “Clon”) in County Cork, they are in the center of Ireland’s whiskey country and have the giant of New Midleton as their neighbor. Like many a new distillery, they are making gin to start with; unlike most new distilleries in Ireland, they are focusing their whiskey production solely on single pot still for the time being.
Yet no one seems to hold the “newest distillery in Ireland” title for long these days. Killowen Distillery started up production just a couple of weeks after Clonakilty, becoming Hibernia’s 24th working distiller. Killowen is in Newry, in Northern Ireland. They have a lovely pair of stills, made by Hoga of Portugal, directly fired in antique fashion (most stills today are heated by steam) and equipped with old fashioned copper worm tubs. This is quite a divergent set-up from the usual and characteristically Irish triple of set of stills, and is designed to produce a heavier, more robust spirit.
The aforementioned Roe & Co. currently holds the title of the newest distillery in Ireland, but not for too much longer. Observers of the Irish whiskey scene expect the number of working distilleries there to grow from 25 to 30 by the end of the year.