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.