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During a rager of a party at the Bushmills Distillery, master distiller Colum Egan was in fine form. He had plenty of reason to be, because he and his entire team were celebrating the opening of the brand-new Causeway Distillery which has doubled production capacity at Bushmills, putting it on par with the biggest single malt distilleries in Scotland. Also, Egan was leading a tasting of a few unreleased single malts, including one that he enthusiastically described as being a whiskey interpretation of rum raisin ice cream.
Bushmills, located in Northern Ireland, is known as being the oldest licensed distillery in the world. That license dates back to 1608, but the actual distillery wasn’t built until 1784, which still makes it pretty damn old. Bushmills is owned by Proximo Spirits, the same company behind the boozy juggernaut Jose Cuervo, along with smaller brands like Stranahan’s and The Kraken Spiced Rum. Bushmills does one thing and one thing only: It makes single malt Irish whiskey, meaning whiskey made at one distillery from a mashbill of 100 percent malted barley. The core expression from Bushmills is a blend, however, so the grain whiskey used in that comes from Midleton in the Republic of Ireland (the distillery where brands like Jameson and Redbreast are made).
These days, most people associate single malt whiskey (the Irish spell it with the “e” like we do) with Scotland, but that is changing. The new Causeway Distillery cost Proximo £60 million to build, so this nearly 40,000 square foot distillery is a huge bet on the future of Irish single malt. Indeed, Bushmills cites double digit growth in sales of its single malt whiskeys, a portfolio that includes 10, 12, 16, and 21-year-old expressions which are some of the best you can find. Expensive 25 and 30-year-old whiskeys were recently added to the lineup, and there are also annual limited-edition releases in the Rare Cask series. These vintage whiskeys are aged for three decades or more and get a secondary maturation in different types of fortified wine casks.
“There are very few, if any other, distilleries in Ireland or Scotland that can claim the amount of aged whiskeys that Bushmills has,” said master blender Alex Thomas at a tasting of the Bushmills portfolio. She has been with the distillery since 2004, and was appointed to her current role in November of 2021. “We have over 460,000 casks, which is over 65 million liters of alcohol in our warehouses, and the majority of them are our single malts… We care for every single drop of whiskey we have.” According to Thomas, expanding annual production capacity at the distillery from five million to 11 million liters was a dream come true. “The new distillery is designed so we can stand in one place and see every single part of the process–the mill, the lauter tun, the washbacks, the distillation,” she said. “It was all about looking to the future, but also ensuring our whiskey doesn’t change.
Bushmills is a leader in Irish single malt, but of course it’s not the only player in the category. We’ve put together a list of 11 of the best Irish single malts to try, including some fantastic whiskeys from Bushmills and some other brands.
The 16-year-old single malt expression from Bushmills sits in that Goldilocks zone of maturation—not too old, not too young, just right. It’s aged for about 16 years in sherry and bourbon barrels before being put into port wine pipes for close to another year. The whiskey is sweet and rich with a bit of spice on the palate, a perfect after-dinner dram and a great introduction into the Irish single malt category.
The new 25 and 30-year-old expressions from Bushmills are both great, but the latter is perhaps the better of the two. This ultra-aged single malt spent 14 years in bourbon and sherry barrels, then another 16 years in Pedro Ximenez sherry casks. For those who are unfamiliar, that’s a rich, sweet sherry from Spain, and that lengthy secondary maturation has imbued this whiskey with wonderful notes of dried fruit, fig, raisin, sweet toffee, and vanilla. This is a special occasion whiskey that’s as good as any similarly aged scotch.
Waterford Whisky The Cuvée
Waterford is something of a disrupter in the Irish whiskey industry, a distillery that is focused on the effects of terroir on whiskey in a way that no others are. The Cuvee is the flagship release, a blend of about 25 of the distillery’s single farm origin whiskeys that was aged in several different types of oak. Visit the website and enter the code on the back of the bottle to dive deep into details about maturation and barley variety, but rest assured that this whiskey will please your palate with notes of berry, orange, baking spice, and bright apple.
Knappogue Castle 12
This Irish whiskey brand does not have its own distillery, so it’s sourced from other established operations. The 12-year-old single malt is the anchor of the range, triple distilled and aged entirely in bourbon barrels. This is a classic Irish single malt—with a palate full of fruit, biscuit, and vanilla notes, with some black pepper and nutmeg on the finish.
The Tyrconnell Madeira Cask Finish
This brand is owned by drinks giant Beam Suntory, and the whiskey is produced at the Cooley distillery. There are several single malts to try, but this 10-year-old whiskey finished in Madeira casks stands out. Madeira is a fortified wine from Portugal, and this finish after a decade of maturation complements the whiskey’s bright, fruity palate with dark berry, spice, and citrus notes.
When Teeling opened in 2015, it was the first distillery to operate in Dublin in over a century. The distillery both sources and produces its own whiskey, while using a variety of barrels to finish it. Blackpitts stands out in that it’s a peated single malt, which is unusual but not unheard of in Irish whiskey. It’s mostly aged in bourbon barrels, with some sauternes white wine casks in the mix as well. Don’t expect an Islay scotch level of smoke here—this is a bit more subtle, with notes of tropical fruit and honey on the palate.
This is a newer brand, founded by ex-Bushmills master distiller Darryl McNally. It’s owned by WhistlePig, the Vermont distillery known for its high-end rye whiskeys. The whiskey is sourced and aged in bourbon barrels for about five years before getting a finish in PX sherry casks. What makes it unique, aside from being a very high quality single malt, is that it’s a single barrel release—meaning each bottle comes from just one barrel instead of a marriage of many. That means the flavor will vary depending on the cask, so try a few different ones side-by-side to see if you can find the flavor differences.
The Quiet Man 8 Year Old
The Quiet Man distillery won’t open for a few more years, so for now the whiskey is sourced for this Northern Ireland brand. The single malt is an eight-year-old whiskey matured in bourbon barrels, and it’s bottled in Derry. It’s not as old as some other Irish single malts, but the flavor is rich with oak, honey, spice, and fruit nonetheless.
Writers’ Tears Red Head
This is the sister brand to The Irishman, both of which fall under the Walsh Whiskey umbrella. Most Writers’ Tears whiskeys are blends of single pot still and single malt whiskeys, but Red Head is a single malt aged entirely in Oloroso sherry casks. It’s non-chill filtered and bottled at 46% ABV, and has a complex palate of fig, orange, nut, and raisin flavors.
Glendalough 7 Year Old Mizunara Finish
Glendalough has a wide range of Irish whiskeys in its core lineup, ranging from blends to this seven-year-old single malt. The twist is that it’s finished in a mizunara cask. This rare Japanese oak has been used for whiskey maturation in Japan for decades, and it’s been gaining in popularity stateside over the past few years. The whiskey has the trademark spice and incense notes that mizunara famously adds, along with a healthy amount of fruit and vanilla.
West Cork Virgin Oak Cask
This distillery produces many different Irish whiskeys, including several single malts that are given various cask finishes. One of the most intriguing of the bunch is the Virgin Oak finish, which consists of single malt initially aged in bourbon barrels and then matured in virgin oak casks. This new wood treatment gives the whiskey an intensity of flavor with vanilla, caramel, and apple notes on the palate, and a burst of spice on the finish.
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