Irish whiskey is all the rage these days, but where should you start?

Ireland's top shelf

(Aidan Crawley/Bloomberg/Getty)

(Aidan Crawley/Bloomberg/Getty)

Not being an economist, my idea of someone rich in liquid assets is best personified by publican John W. Maxwell, whose venerable Irish-American tavern, Allen’s, on Toronto’s Danforth Avenue, features a selection of no fewer than 500 different whiskies. The majority hail from Scotland. But an increasing number are from Ireland. That’s because Irish whiskey is enjoying a renaissance. Its U.S. sales were up a staggering 23% last year, driven by newly aggressive advertising and, perhaps, neophyte drinkers’ desire for lighter, less challenging whiskey.

“You have to start somewhere,” Maxwell ventured sensibly at the start of our session, as he lined up glasses and bottles. “You don’t have Stilton for your first bite of cheese, or 60-day dry-aged beef as your first steak.”whisky-map

As much as one can generalize, Irish whiskey distinguishes itself from Scotch whisky in two obvious ways. It is almost always triple distilled (rather than double) for greater smoothness. Secondly, peat is almost never burned to arrest germination of its constituent barley—so smokiness is not one of its characteristic flavours. Taken together, they help make Irish whiskey singularly approachable. They also once made it the world’s most popular spirit: both Queen Elizabeth I and Peter the Great were loyal fans. But U.S. prohibition dealt a near death blow to the industry in the 1920s, and what’s left is now largely in the hands of Diageo, Beam, and Paris-based Pernod Ricard.

We started with the French conglomerate’s biggest success—Jameson—and found it surprisingly smooth, with an enticing sweetness to its nose. Next, Locke’s 8-year-old single malt: fruity, full-bodied and viscous. Writer’s Tears pot still offered less complexity in both nose and finish, but it was smoothly creamy. Then Redbreast 12-year-old: delicate, with a syrupy whisper of charred woody notes. The Jameson 18-year old was a showstopper, rich with notes of the fermenting fertility of the Irish bog, a delicious funkiness that was echoed in the next bottle, a rare peated Irish whiskey: Connemara Cask Strength single malt.

I thought it was a tasting of impressive quality, great range and good value. But Maxwell had reservations. He suddenly saw fit to introduce to our pleasantly crowded table yet more fresh glasses, and one more bottle: Midleton Barry Crocket Legacy—a triple-distilled single-pot still whiskey aged in both bourbon and new American oak casks. It is released to the tune of about 2,500 bottles each year.

“It is a sensationally special whiskey, supremely elegant, while it still has great complexity,” Maxwell remarked, after nosing. His voice trailed off as he went in for a sip.

I did the same. And indeed—it was honeyed and silky, with a streak of fruity lightness to it. This whiskey has sunshine in it. And as I learned later it won a gold medal at the 2014 Wizards of Whiskey Awards. If you spot one for sale anywhere, grab it.