Irish whiskey experts share their favorite facts and tips about the spirit

Including why Irish coffee was invented in an airport.

There's no better way to become a whiskey expert than to start drinking.
There's no better time to learn about Irish whiskey. –Flickr/Joshua Rappeneker

Dozens of Irish bars in Boston are stocked with bottles of Irish whiskey among their brown liquor collection. Whether you’re a newcomer to the world of Irish whiskey or have been sipping on it for as long as you can remember, now is as good of a time as any to learn about the spirit’s storied history.

We talked with a couple of experts who shared some tips and lesser-known facts about Irish whiskey. Here’s what they had to say.

Ireland is the only country to produce pot still whiskey.

While other countries that make whiskey produce grain and malt varieties, Ireland is the only country that produces pot still whiskey. The style is created by using a mix of malted and unmalted barley distilled in a pot still, and its birth in the 1700s was more of a political rebellion.

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“Pot still whiskey was invented to avoid paying the malt tax,” explained John Quinn, global brand ambassador for Tullamore D.E.W.

In 1785, the British government instituted a malt tax on Ireland. Distillers got around it by using unmalted barley along with malted barley in the production of whiskey, and though the tax was eventually repealed, the style stuck.

Irish coffee was invented in an airport.

Irish coffee

For Cathal O’Connor, Kilbeggan Distilling Company’s regional Irish whiskey brand ambassador for Massachusetts, the story about the Irish coffee’s origins is a favorite one. The drink — made with hot coffee, Irish whiskey, sugar, and cream — originated in the 1940s at the now-closed Foynes airport in southwest Ireland.

“One day, a flight bound for America was forced to turn around, mid-Atlantic, because there was a storm,” O’Connor said. “The crew radioed back to the airport, and there was a young Irish gentleman there named Joe Sheridan. They said, ‘Look, Joe, you’re going to have a small bunch of pretty angry customers who aren’t getting home to America tonight, so you’re going to have to do something to make them happy.'”

Sheridan had been working on a version of the drink, and when the guests arrived, they all tried the warm, creamy cocktail. They asked him if it was Brazilian coffee, which was popular at the time. Sheridan told them no — it’s Irish coffee. The name stuck, and the beverage eventually made its way to America and throughout the rest of the world.

The 1900s were a rough time for Irish whiskey.

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Despite being the birthplace of whiskey, Ireland saw a decline in the spirit in the 1900s due to prohibition, World War I, World War II, and the Irish War of Independence, events which strained relationships with markets in other countries.

“[During that time], Scottish whiskey kind of took the opposite trajectory and took our place at the top,” O’Connor said. “Huge numbers of distilleries ended up shutting down in Ireland, whereas in Scotland they were opening up. So it meant that the taste didn’t exist for Irish whiskey throughout the early 1900s up until the 1980s and 1990s when it started to come back, thanks to some innovation on the part of Irish whiskey distilleries.”

Now, according to Forbes, Irish whiskey is the fastest-growing spirit in the world, with the U.S. being its No. 1 importer.

There’s (almost) no such thing as bad Irish whiskey.

Despite being experts in their field with years of drinking Irish whiskey behind them, both O’Connor and Quinn are adamant that personal preference is the most important factor when trying Irish whiskey.

“I just would say to any casual drinkers in the Irish whiskey category: Just try as many different spirits as possible,” O’Connor said. “Try single grain whiskey, try rye whiskey, try blends, try pot single malts. And don’t be afraid if the one you really like isn’t the one that everybody else likes. We’ve all got different tastes.”

Many popular brands — such as Jameson — produce blended whiskeys, which often leads people to assume that they’re drinking a blend. But O’Connor and Quinn said that trying as many types as possible will help you develop your palate.

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“Give it a go, try it out,” Quinn said. “Just understand that [the whiskey] spent many years in dark, aromatic warehouses to age and come to fruition and gain its color and flavor. Respect it, firstly.”

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