At the heart of Dublin, there is Grafton Street. With St. Stephens Green to the south and Trinity College to the North, this is where a wandering novelist named James Joyce became friends with an affable pub owner, Davy Byrnes, describing his establishment thus: “Nice quiet bar. Nice piece of wood in that counter. Nicely planed. Like the way it curves.”
One block (and any number of other legendary pubs) over, next door to “the smallest pub in Dublin,” the Dawson Lounge, you’ll find an unassuming storefront: The Celtic Whiskey Shop.
The shop is tiny and crowded with whiskey lovers. Open bottles beg for tasting, and information is overwhelmingly available from aproned experts.
It’s the first and only whiskey specialty shop in all of Dublin. And it’s a monument to Irish stubbornness. During the 19th century, Irish whiskey was the most popular spirit in the world with hundreds of distilleries. But for the next century, while the Irish doggedly stuck to single malts and pot still whiskeys, the Scots raced past them in popularity by blending cheaper whisky for mass consumption.
What’s the state of Irish whiskey today? Four distilleries, single pot still quality, and a major comeback story in the making, as Irish whiskey just pushed past Scotch single malt sales, despite the massive production capacity advantage enjoyed by Scotch distillers. Still, drop into a typical liquor store in the U.S. and peruse the Irish whiskey selection. You won’t find much beyond Jameson and Bushmills — maybe a Michael Collins or a Redbreast on the top shelf.
That’s why you need to know Al Higgins. Al manages online sales and the e-newsletter at the Celtic Whiskey Shop, and he can hook you up. Here are five gorgeous and distinctive Irish whiskeys you’ve probably never heard of (without getting crazy on price), some of which aren’t even available in the U.S., but which you can get, if you know Al.
From Midleton distillery, home of Jameson:
Green Spot Single Pot Still — Whiskey writer, Jim Murray, describes this as “unquestionably one of the world’s great whiskeys.” In the early 1900s, the winemaker, Mitchell & Sons, would take their used sherry casks to Jameson and have them fill them with whiskey. Then they’d mark them with a green spot of paint so they could tell them apart from the wine casks. Green Spot is the oldest surviving single pot still brand. Very small production. Soft, with honey and fruit.
From Bushmills distillery:
Knappogue Castle 12 Year Single Malt — The Bushmills standard whiskey is 10 years old. Knappogue Castle is an independently bottled Bushmills whiskey, 12 years old and aged in bourbon casks. “Bushmills always has a creamy maltiness that gets accentuated in these bourbon casks, giving it almost a marshmallow-y sweetness,” Al says. “It’s been selling very well, and people always seem to come back for more.
From Cooley distillery, formerly independent, now owned by Beam Inc.:
Greenore Single Grain 8 Year — Al calls this an easy-drinking Irish whiskey. “Its softer, gentle style is very popular with younger drinkers. Personally, I wouldn’t mix it with anything. I wouldn’t even put ice into it. If you’re looking for something very simple, something lighter, especially on a summer day or after dinner with a dessert, this would work very well.”
Connemara Peated Single Malt — The complete opposite of the Greenore, but milder than a peated Scotch whisky like Laphroaig or Lagavulin, the gold medal winning Connemara is a smoky Irish whiskey. The smokiness is there, but not overpowering. If you want big smoke, go with the Connemara Turf Mór (literally means “big turf”). “It’s their young, peat monster,” says Al.
Tyrconnell 10 Year Sherry Finish Single Malt — Anima Negra is probably the best Mallorcan wine producer, and supplies the casks in which this single-cask edition is finished. “Normally I’m not a huge fan of wine-cask finishes,” says Al. “The wine can actually take over the natural flavor of the whiskey. But this finish actually enhances the natural flavors, giving it a spicy, leathery aroma. It’s very popular, and the Irish Whiskey Society has rated it very highly — definitely worth trying.”