Green beer and shots of Bailey’s aren’t the only ways to raise a glass to St. Patrick. A better option? Stand out from the bar crowd—and earn a bartender’s approval—by ordering Irish whiskey with an expert’s eye.
“Irish whiskey is about its viscosity, smoothness, and subtle sweetness—I would say that’s the holy trinity to gauge any Irish whiskey off,” says Jack McGarry, managing partner of two of New York City’s best bars, The Dead Rabbit and BlackTail.
If that sounds delicious, but your only experience with whiskey is bad mixed drinks and ill-advised shots in college, here’s everything you need to know about ordering Irish whiskey like a boss.
Irish whiskey 101: How it’s made
By definition, Irish whiskey is whiskey that’s distilled and aged for at least three years on the island of Ireland. Unlike Americans and bourbon, though, the Irish aren’t picky about percentages of grains or what their whiskey is aged in—and that’s where things can get a little confusing.
“Irish whiskey is distilled from a mass of malted cereals, with or without whole grains,” McGarry explains. There are four types of Irish whiskeys, all with relatively similar names, so the devil’s in the details. Here goes:
- Single malt whiskeys (also simply called malt whiskeys) are made at a single distillery in pot stills from malted barley and only malted barley. From there, flavor ultimately depends on what kinds of barrels the whiskey is aged in. Single-malt whiskeys can be spicy or peaty, or they can be more delicate, with floral, dried fruit, and bread notes. Bushmills, Tyrconnell, and Connemara all offer single malts.
- Single pot still whiskeys (also called pot still whiskeys) are also made at a single distillery, also in a pot still, but are made from a combination of malted barley (at least 30%), unmalted barley (at least 30%), and other cereal grains. Pot still whiskeys are the most intense in flavor, featuring lots of spice, and can have an oily mouthfeel compared to other varieties of Irish whiskey. Redbreast, Green Spot, and Powers John’s Lane are names you might see on a menu.
- Single grain whiskeys (also called grain whiskeys) are made in a single distillery, but contrary to what their name suggests, they are made from a mixture of cereals, including malted barley (no more than 30%), unmalted barley, corn, or wheat. (The term “single grain” refers to the actual mix that is used to make the whiskey.) Look for Cooley Single Grain, Teeling’s Single Grain, or Method of Madness Single Grain, McGarry says. These sweeter, lighter whiskeys are often found in blends.
- Blended Irish whiskeys, as the name implies, are made by blending together at least two Irish whiskeys, whether single pot still, single grain, or single malt. Blended whiskeys tend to be lighter and more approachable in flavor. Classic Bushmills, Jameson, and Tullamore D.E.W. are all blended Irish whiskeys.
Irish whiskey is most often aged in American ex-bourbon barrels, “which impart a lot of caramel, vanilla, tropical fruit, and citrus notes,” McGarry says. Sherry barrels are also commonly used, and lend the whiskey notes of dried fruit, cinnamon, chocolate, coffee, and tannins. Distillers are starting to use a wider range of barrels to mature whiskey, McGarry adds, whether rum, other varieties of wine, or even cider.
How to get the best taste out of your whiskey
Now for the fun part.
If you’re new to whiskey, some experts recommend watering it down—and that’s not a bad thing. “If you’re not used to it, start with whiskey and ginger,” says Mark Gillespie, host of the podcast WhiskyCast. That’s a few ounces of whiskey plus ginger ale or ginger beer, whichever you prefer. “The flavors compliment each other, and this way you can get used to the taste of it,” he says. He recommends any blended Irish whiskey, but adds that Jameson is most often used because it’s the best-selling Irish whiskey.
You could also ask for half whiskey, half water. “If you order anything above 50 percent alcohol, this will dilute it down to about 20 percent alcohol, which is how whiskey evaluators nose and judge when blending,” Gillespie explains. “The water opens the whiskey up and releases flavors and aromas you wouldn’t get otherwise.” As your palate develops over time, start cutting back on how much water you add until you like it neat, or with a few drops of water.
If you’re a balls-to-the-wall kind of guy and want to try your whiskey neat, blended is the way to go. “Nothing about blended Irish whiskey is going to smack you,” says Lew Bryson, author of Tasting Whiskey. “You can sit down and relax with it and not shudder every time you take a sip.” Credit the fact that most Irish whiskey is triple-distilled, which makes for a cleaner, purer taste, Gillespie explains.
And if you’re in the mood for a cocktail, “blends work much better in shaken drinks, such as sours and Irish coffees, as they bind the other ingredients really well,” McGarry explains. “For Manhattans and Old Fashioneds, I’d go for single malts and single pot stills, as they are much more flavorful and contribute better to the drinks.”
Whatever you do, especially if you’re in an Irish pub, don’t order a “car bomb.” “It’s pretty much an insult to the bartender [if he’s Irish], and you’re wasting perfectly good Guinness and whiskey,” Gillespie says.
How to read the price of an Irish whiskey
Like any alcohol, the cost of Irish whiskey runs the gamut, but blends tend to be cheapest because they’re less intensive to make, McGarry says. Age also factors in, with older whiskeys typically costing more—but that doesn’t necessarily mean they taste better. “Some older whiskey tastes phenomenal and some just tastes…old,” Bryson says.
And if your selection makes you wish you’d ordered a green beer, try another type of whiskey first. “There is a whiskey out there for everybody,” Gillespie says.