This weekend, The Dead Rabbit cofounders Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry bring their first-ever Irish whiskey festival to New York City. The New York Irish Whiskey Festival will take place on Saturday, November 2 at Pier A Harbor House in two sessions, one in the afternoon and one in the evening. There will be many Irish whiskey brands represented at the event, including Bushmills, Egans, Knappogue, Roe & Co, Slane, Tyrconnell, Teeling, and many others. Irish whiskey has certainly been having a moment over the past few years, with popularity and sales increasing in the United States as small distilleries pop up throughout Ireland and established operations continue to innovate with new expressions. Jack McGarry spoke with The Manual recently and provided some insight on the origins of the festival, why Irish whiskey is good in cocktails, and the state of Irish whiskey in general.
The Manual: When did you first come up with the idea of doing an Irish whiskey festival, and how long did it take to put together?
Jack McGarry: We had been working on another project with Moira Breslin of Articulate Ventures when she approached us with the idea at the end of last year. We thought it was a fantastic concept and fits in with our philosophy of bringing more visibility to the Irish whiskey category to educate entry-level consumers and connoisseurs alike. Irish whiskey is one of the fastest-growing spirit categories in the world. We want to show consumers that there is a lot of versatility to Irish whiskey.
TM: To what do you attribute the growing popularity of Irish whiskey? Do you think it’s more about newer brands or new innovations from established distilleries?
JM: Jameson and the work of Midleton, Pernod Ricard, and Irish Distillers LTD are a large part of the reason Irish whiskey didn’t go extinct during the 1960s and 1970s. They built an amazing distillery in 1975 in Cork and closed the legendary urban distillers of Dublin: Jameson and Powers. They incorporated blends (using single grain) to produce a lighter whiskey, and put a lot of money into branding. Then Pernod Ricard came along and opened up their distribution networks and poured more money into branding to make it sexy. The whole growth of the category is off the back of that.
I think a lot of people have gotten into Irish whiskey from a consumer perspective because of its accessibility. It’s sweet, light, adaptable. Since the late 00s, early 10s, single-pot still has come back into the fold off the back of Redbreast’s cult-like status, and that category has taken off. Similarly, people are also starting to appreciate the amazing single malts of Ireland like those from Bushmills, which are now being held in the same regard as our Scottish counterparts.
TM: What are some of your favorite recent Irish whiskey releases?
JM: I love single-pot still (SPS) Irish whiskey. My favorite is Powers John’s Lane, which is representative of the style of SPS from the 19th century — super viscous, spicy and spirit-driven. Teeling is focusing on experimentation with maturation profiles, mash bills, yeast strains, etc., and it’s fantastic to see an SPS released from outside the Midleton family. I’m also excited right now by what the Waterford Distillery is doing in terms of utilizing blockchain technology to make whiskeys from specific farms and barley strains, which I’m excited to taste through to establish the different flavors they bring to the table. In terms of the classics, I’m also a huge fan of Bushmill’s 10-year single malt. It’s exceptionally complex and has got an incredible smoothness to it that you can’t find in many other whiskeys.
TM: Do you see parallels between the growth of distilleries in Ireland and the craft distilling movement here in the U.S.? Do you think new Irish distilleries are generally transparent about where they are sourcing from?
JM: There’s a bit of a tussle right now in the Irish whiskey community back home. Bartenders and enthusiasts alike want to know everything they can about the blending constituents for blends, the mash bill percentages for SPS whiskeys, where whiskeys are being sourced for those who’ve just started distilling or don’t have a distillery as yet.
It was pretty easy to establish where the sourced whiskey came from a few years ago, but now the lines have become more blurred and we definitely need more transparency. One distillery we know for sure that has always been grain to glass is Bushmills. I really hope the Irish Whiskey Association gets behind the need for more transparency.
Someone who’s been disruptive in this regard, and someone we highly admire, is Louise McGuane of JJ Corry. She’s resurrected the lost tradition of bonding/blending in Ireland which involves sourcing whiskey, maturation, and then blending in-house. She’s extremely transparent on the marketing of her whiskeys and this is something I’d like to see a lot more of. I would also like the bigger guys to be transparent about component breakdowns for blends and maturation profiling.
TM: Can you explain why Irish whiskey works well in cocktails? What is it about the flavor/character/ABV that allows it to work with other ingredients?
JM: Irish whiskey works well in cocktails because it’s so versatile and has numerous applications. [The blends and single grains] integrate well in shaken drinks with citrus and fruits because of the single grain component being sweet, light, and inoffensive. They are perfect gateway cocktails and great introductions to the category. For the connoisseur and bartenders, single malts and single pot stills work really well in stirred drinks, with the SM’s working with lighter fruits, fortified wines, sherries, Martini/Manhattan type drinks, and SPS’s working well with darker spirits and modifiers and drinks like the Tipperary and Old Fashioned. I genuinely believe Irish whiskey is the most versatile whisk(e)y category in the world, with the three styles we make and four categories in total.
Tickets to the New York Irish Whiskey Festival can be purchased here.
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