Our Reco: Irish Whiskey

March 14 2014 - 9:00 AM

A tutorial on the history of Irish whiskey is all well and good, but let’s get to the fun part: drinking.

With the category growing over 20% per year for over a decade now, there are more options than ever. And, with so much competition, prices remain remarkably affordable. Here are some Chicago Foodies picks for every palate.

KilbegganThe most popular Irish whiskeys are blends. Affordable and widely available, these staples are representatives of the typical style: light and uncomplicated, smooth-finishing and clean. Brands like Jameson, Bushmills Original, and Tullamore DEW are a great way to get an introduction to the style, but our choice for your house blend is…

Kilbeggan ($24). At the same price as its competitors, this whiskey somehow manages to be even smoother and even fresher. Fruit and sweetness dominate, but there is a sturdy backbone and nice balance that make it nice enough to sip straight rather than down as a quick shot. It’s a good everyday pour and a great bargain.

Bushmills Black BushAfter working through the standard blends, it’s time to try something new. For just a few bucks more, there are some great options for “step-up” whiskeys. These blends all have a lower percentage of grain whisky, making room for other flavors to shine.

Bushmill’s Black Bush ($30) is older than Bushmills Original and includes a large proportion of malt whiskey. Both these differences make it rounder and more satisfying with an almost earthy, peppery aroma. But the real trick is that the whiskey is finished in Oloroso sherry casks giving it a deep caramel, raisin and apricot sweetness. No one hates this whiskey. No one.

Jameson Black BarrelJameson Black Barrel ($35), on the other hand, wants to play up the spice. Billed as a bourbon-Irish hybrid, this one starts with strong notes of cigar, pepper and even cinnamon – which come from using double-charred barrels – along with some dried fruits and butter. The finish, though, is as creamy and soft as any blend, melting away slowly and lightly with vanilla, cream, butterscotch and even floral flavors. Such a sharp juxtaposition could have been a disaster. Instead, a perfect balance is achieved.

Teeling Small BatchTeeling Small Batch($35) is a new kid on the block, hitting shelves in Chicago this month. This blend of single malt and grain is married and then finished for nine more months in ex-Flor de Caña rum casks. It is bottled at 46% ABV, so it’s a little hot on the first sip, but that gives way quickly to rich, dried fruit ester and baking spice mixed with clean, sweet cereal. At the front of your mouth, there is a warm layer of orange peel and burnt caramel sweetness from the rum, pleasantly drying. That subtle overtone makes this one unique.

But, to really know Irish whiskey, you have to get historic. Until the 1960’s, Ireland did one thing and did it well: single pot still whiskey. The mix of malted and unmalted barley is unique to Ireland and the practice of distilling three-times in giant pot stills gives a robust, yet light spirit.

RedbreastRedbreast 12 year ($60) is the archetypical single pot still whiskey. It is sweet but not cloying, light but not weak, and long finishing with no bite. Twelve years in a mix of bourbon and sherry barrels means this has rested longer than most Irish whiskeys, giving the spirit exactly the right balance between grassy, grain flavors and rich chocolate, caramel and fig. If you drink only one Irish whiskey, this should be it.


The Embittered CocktailMany Irish whiskeys are a little too light for cocktails; they get lost in among the other ingredients. But anything on this list would be robust enough to mix with.

Let us suggest The Embittered, a riff on a classic whiskey sour put together by Chicago’s Hubbard Inn. Built around the Jameson Black Barrel and topped with a float of Malbec, it’s easy to drink and pretty to look at at. Check our the full recipe here>>

Got a go-to Irish whiskey? Prefer yours neat or mixed? Let us know in the comments!