How Irish Whiskey Made a Comeback

Lauren Tamaki
Lauren Tamaki / Lauren Tamaki

Irish whiskey almost died in the 1970s. To survive, it needed a little luck.

Scotland may steal today’s European whiskey spotlight, but for centuries, Scotch was very much the underdog fighting against the rich fruits of Ireland’s pot stills. Throughout the 19th century, Irish whiskey’s smooth approachable flavor made it the choice of European drinkers; as Irish immigrants flocked to the United States, they brought the taste of home with them. Irish whiskey was so popular that Scottish distillers shipped casks of their booze to Ireland and had it relabeled as Irish whiskey to fetch a higher price.

But then Irish whiskey distillers fell on a rash of bad luck. As the 20th century began, their Scottish counterparts harnessed more efficient stills to create lighter, milder whiskeys to appeal to more drinkers. American Prohibition, World War I, and the Irish War of Independence further suppressed demand. Irish whiskey kept declining past World War II. By the 1970s, only one company was making it and much of the country’s output was consumed in Irish coffees, an American concoction.

Other countries might have packed it in at that point, but not Ireland! After weathering this slump, Irish whiskey came roaring back in the 1980s and ’90s. After the fall of communism, Eastern Europeans were eager to sip anything besides vodka, and once global spirits giant Pernod Ricard acquired the Jameson brand, Irish whiskey’s subtle, smooth flavors became trendy again. In fact, according to the International Wine & Spirit Report, Irish whiskey has been the world’s fastest-growing spirit for each of the last 23 years. On March 17, don’t settle for another pint of Guinness; raise a glass of Irish whiskey and find out what all the fuss is about.

5 to Try...

1. Kilbeggan

Kilbeggan Distillery

Smooth grains and elegant, leathery flavors greet less experienced drinkers with a note of "Hi, I'm whiskey. It's so nice to meet you!"

2. 2 Gingers 

Liquor Barn

Perfect for cocktails, this is delicate and pillowy enough to drink neat (making a face) but brash enough to go toe-to-toe with ginger ale.

3. Jameson Select Reserve Black Label

Drink Up NY

Jameson's refined older brother doesn't punch you in the jaw—it offers you whiskey's answer to fruit salad.

4. Tullamore Dew Phoenix


Vanilla and toffee give way to the spritzy, lively citrus and firm bite of an angry leprechaun running a lemonade stand.

5. Redbreast 12-Year-Old

Drink Up NY

This nutty, peppery pour manages to be both floral and bold, like a marigold that's really into kickboxing. It's a sipper's dream.

This story originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Subscribe to our print edition here, and our iPad edition here.