Taxfreetravel guide to Irish whiskey
Irish whiskey gets a rough deal in duty-free. Even in fairly small airports the spirits shelves groan with Scotch whisky of every sort, from obscure single malts and quirky cask finishes to luxury blends and rare bottlings. Yet away from the main US and European hub airports Irish whiskey enthusiasts will be lucky to find anything other than a few bottles of the two leading international brands, Jameson and Bushmills.
This state of affairs is reflection of the relative strengths of the two categories generally. Sales of Irish whiskey may have been growing steadily at about 10% per year since the early 1990s, but total annual volumes still only stand at roughly 4.5 million cases. Sales are dwarfed by Scotch whisky’s volumes, which exceed 90 million.
It wasn’t always such a mismatch. Wind the clock back to the beginning of the twentieth century and Irish whiskey sold 10 million cases throughout Ireland, the US and the British Empire. The quality of much blended Scotch whisky available in the market at the time was often terrible so Irish distillers decided to adopt a different spelling of “whisky”, adding an “e”, to distinguish their higher-quality product.
The good times weren’t to last. A combination of factors conspired to derail the Irish whiskey industry’s fortunes. A British export embargo imposed during the Irish War of Independence and Prohibition in the US between 1920 and 1933 both cut deeply into export sales.
The Irish whiskey industry also shot itself in the foot by refusing to adopt new technology. Its attachment to the slower, traditional pot still method of distillation put it at a great disadvantage to its Scottish rivals, who were able to make whisky faster and more cheaply with the newer column still.
Happily, those decades of decline are now a distant memory. As Ireland began to put its troubled past behind it, emerging as a confident, vibrant and economically powerful force in the 1990s so Irish whiskey’s fortunes also changed. The country’s fun-loving, life-affirming culture was marketed abroad more aggressively and it wasn’t long before every major international city boasted any number of “authentic” Irish pubs.
Irish whiskey certainly benefited from the rise of the ‘Celtic Tiger’, but there are other reasons for its growing popularity. For a generation of male drinkers in places such as the US, northern Europe and Australia, whose Dads may have drunk Scotch, Irish whiskey suddenly seemed like a lighter, trendier alternative.
Why is Irish whiskey so smooth tasting? Two reasons. Firstly, with a few exceptions it is triple-distilled, making it generally lighter and yes, smoother in taste, and more easily mixed than Scotch, which is invariably distilled only twice. Secondly, because peat smoke isn’t used to dry the barley it made is from, Irish whiskey has none of the smoky flavour associated with many Scotch malts and blends.
Another important difference between most Irish whiskeys and Scotch whisky is the use of “pot still”. This is spirit made from both malted and unmalted barley, which lends the finished whiskey a spicy, uniquely Irish flavour. These days most Irish whiskies tend to be a mixture of pot still and cheaper grain whiskey, but there are a couple of examples of pure pot-still whiskeys still being produced, the most famous being Redbreast
Back in 1822 there were 800 distilleries in Ireland, most of them illicit bootleg operations. Today, there are only four, by far the biggest of which is the massive Midleton Distillery in County Cork, which belongs to French drinks multinational Pernod Ricard. It produces the world’s best-selling Irish whiskey Jameson, which sells over 2m cases a year, as well a number of smaller brands such as Powers, Paddy, Midleton Old Rare and Redbreast. Midleton also produces several brands under licence for other companies, the most notable example being Tullamore Dew.
North of the border on the windswept Country Antrim coastline is Bushmills, which lays claim to being the UK’s oldest licensed distillery, being established in 1608. Now resting in the hands of British drinks giant Diageo, which incidentally also owns the classic Irish drinks brands of Guinness and Baileys, Bushmills produces an excellent range of aged single malt whiskeys, similar in style to Scotch single malts.
The only independent Irish producer of Irish whiskey is Cooley Distillery, based in County Louth on Ireland’s east coast. Set up by Irish businessman Jack Teeling in 1987, Cooley Distillery has battled hard in the proceeding years to set itself on a firm financial footing.
Critical and commercial success eventually arrived and the company now produces a varied range of award-winning whiskeys such as Connemara, Ireland’s only peated single malt, Tyrconnell single malt, and Greenore, Ireland’s only single grain whiskey.
Cooley is committed to reviving Ireland’s whiskey-making past. To that end in 2007 the company restarted production at the mothballed Kilbeggan distillery in County Westmeath, which hadn’t been working since the 1950s. Cooley was using the site just to store its whiskey, but now is running the stills and by 2010 will be legally allowed to sell whiskey produced there.
For those travellers wanting to buy Irish whiskey today the best airport shop selections are obviously in Ireland • Cork and Shannon airports have good offers, but the best range on offer is undoubtedly at Dublin airport. Here, you will find such choice selections as the Bushmills 1608 Anniversary Edition at €57 (£50), the travel-retail exclusive Jameson Signature Reserve 1780 at €35 (£30.70) and the must-be-tried Connemara 12 Year Old Peated Single Malt at €77.95 (£68.35). Other brands stocked there include the likes of Redbreast, Clontarf, Michael Collins and the Irishman. You can find full details of the offer and promotional deals at http://www.airportshopping.ie/retail/store/dublin.asp
Outside of Ireland the choice is much more limited, but it is improving as the range of Irish whiskeys available grows each year and the category gains in popularity. The World of Whiskies shops at London Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Edinburgh and Glasgow airports offer a pretty decent range, for example. Away from the British Isles, the US airports on the Eastern Seaboard such as New York JFK are worth a try. In addition, many of the leading airport shops in the Middle East such as at Bahrain, Cairo and Qatar’s Doha airports, which are co-run by an Irish duty-free operator, Aer Rianta International, also offer a reasonable selection.
If you're looking to experiment or for a last minute gift, pick up the new Wild Geese Irish Whiskey miniature collection comprising three 50ml mini decanter bottles of The Wild Geese Rare Irish Whiskey, The Wild Geese Single Malt and The Wild Geese Limited Edition. This multi-award winning whiskey Collection has received rave reviews in many international whisky publications - its Limited Edition being described in one as 'simply stunning'. Better still, in some Duty Free outlets the Wild Geese Collection (full 70cl bottles) comes with a free branded backpack offer.
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