Most people buy Irish whiskey by the bottle, but not Kerry Browne and her husband, John McClain. The owners of Browne’s Irish Market prefer a whole barrel, and they recently purchased one, a Knappogue Castle 12-Year-Old Single Malt Irish Whiskey.
It’s their third barrel in as many years, and it adds to the 50 or so Irish whiskeys they already stock. That might seem like a lot for a store known more for its corned beef sandwiches, Irish music sessions, festivals and rooms full of imported goods than whiskey, but Browne said it’s an important part of her heritage.
“My dad and grandpa both would love that whiskey’s a big part of our store,” said Browne, whose 131-year-old family-owned business is at the corner of 33rd Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. “It’s a connection with them.”
Bottles from the first two barrels sold out quickly, as did the Knappogue Barrel Aged Imperial Stout that Browne’s and Torn Label Brewing Co. released in 2017.
Other retailers are just as enthusiastic about barrels. Cellar Rat Wine Merchants and the Kansas City Irish Center went in on their own Knappogue Castle barrel this year, and Gomer’s Fine Wines & Spirits also bought one (not all locations participated; call for availability). Another went to The Celtic Ranch in Weston.
Each barrel is 12 years old and yields about 216 specially labeled and numbered bottles. Each is 92 proof, and each tastes just a bit different than the others. There’s room for variety, though, given how quickly the market is growing.
Americans bought 4.2 million cases of Irish whiskey in 2017, an almost 880 percent increase over 2002, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. To meet that demand, both established and new distilleries are releasing new whiskeys ranging from the easy-drinking and mixable to those that are complex, longer-aged and reminiscent of bourbon or Scotch.
“Irish whiskey is a really hot category, and we’re seeing more than the usual suspects coming to us,” said Kevin Hodge, the owner of Cellar Rat, which carries about 20 Irish whiskeys.
The most usual suspect is Jameson, which accounts for 70 percent of global Irish whiskey sales, according Bloomberg. Its light-bodied, approachable namesake blend long defined the category, and it remains a favorite of enthusiasts like Robert Hall of Kansas City.
He fell for the brand when he and his wife, Alison Hall, visited the distillery in Midleton, County Cork, not far from where Hall’s forebears were from in Ireland. Still, he’s always up for sampling other whiskeys.
“If it’s got a good story, and I find it interesting, I will try it,” Hall said. “It’s about the experience, not just what looks cool.”
As far as stories go, Restless Spirits Distilling Co. in Kansas City has a good one. Mike and Benay Shannon incorporated their own Irish heritage into the brand, and their Stone Breaker blend combines the malted whiskey distiller Benay Shannon makes with one from Ireland’s Great Northern Distillery.
“They’re not trying to say they’re making Irish whiskey, but this whiskey is a representation of who they are — part Irish and part American. They’re putting it together,” Hall said. “I like their story.”
Restless Spirits also bottles Great Northern’s four-year-old whiskey solo under the Sons of Erin label. Last year, it launched a 15-year-old version that’s been aged in used bourbon barrels and finished in apple brandy casks.
Benay Shannon’s limited edition Pádraig’s Rebellion Poitin (pronounced pot-cheen) is another nod to Ireland’s distilling tradition. Her version is triple distilled and this year includes a bit of elderflower to add a subtle, sweet finish.
And her own malt whiskey? She ages it in small, new charred oak barrels, and then transfers it to full-sized, ex-bourbon barrels for another 12 to 18 months. Restless Spirits just released the first batch as Gully Town, a reference to one of Kansas City’s early nicknames.
“The only Irish reflection in the Gully Town is the fact that I’m using Irish-style pot stills to distill it, then finishing it in used bourbon barrels, like they do in Ireland,” Benay Shannon said. “I’m taking some good things from everything, but it’s not an Irish malt.”
For a locally owned brand that is entirely Irish, there’s Five Farms Single Batch Irish Cream Liqueur. Holladay Distillery in Weston worked with a dairy farm cooperative and whiskey distillery in Ireland to create Five Farms, which blends cream with 10-year-old pot still Irish whiskey. That accounts for 10 percent of the alcoholic content; the remainder is neutral spirits distilled using whey leftover from the cream-making process.
The resulting liqueur tastes fresh, with toffee and caramel notes coming from the whiskey rather than any artificial add-ins, said George Vial, the regional sales manager for CSM Beverages, a broker that markets Knappogue Castle and other spirits brands (but not Five Farms).
“That is our guilty pleasure,” admits Vial, a native of northwest Ireland who leads about 20 Irish whiskey tastings at Browne’s, the Kansas City Irish Center and other locations throughout the year.
There’s certainly plenty to learn about. All Irish whiskey is made in Ireland (a designation that includes the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and their islands), and it must be distilled from grain, aged in wooden barrels for at least three years and hew to one of a handful of styles.
There’s grain whiskey, made with cereal grains, including no more than 30 percent malted barley, using a column still. Pot still whiskeys include a mix of malted barley, unmalted barley and other grains and are distilled in copper pot stills. Malts contain only malted barley and are also produced using pot stills; single malts are so-called because they come from a single distillery. Blends are a combination of two or more of these.
After that, it’s practically distiller’s choice. Some whiskeys are matured entirely in bourbon barrels, like Tipperary Boutique Selection “Knockmealdowns Mountain Range” Single Malt and Bushmills Red Bush. Others begin in bourbon barrels but then are transferred to casks that previously contained wines, spirits or beers, such as Tullamore Dew XO Caribbean Rum Cask Finish.
Craft beer barrels are used to make Jameson’s Caskmates IPA Edition, which has a spicy hoppiness, and the cocoa and coffee tinged Caskmates Stout Edition.
Teeling Single Malt Whiskey combines whiskeys finished in sherry, port, Madeira, white burgundy and Cabernet Sauvignon casks for a complex, textured flavor. The Sexton Single Malt eschews bourbon barrels all together, instead using Oloroso sherry casks for the entire four years, yielding enough dried fruit, spice and wood to bring a young Scotch whisky to mind.
Other brands focus on age, like Redbreast and its 12-, 15- and 21-year-old bottlings. Knappogue’s line includes whiskeys that are 12, 14 and 16 years old; Vial recently led a tasting at Browne’s that also featured Knappogue Castle 1951, which was distilled that year and bottled in the 1980s.
So there’s something for everyone, no matter how adventurous the drinker is, said Terry Kast, the owner of The Celtic Ranch.
“As you drink more whiskey, you ask for more out of your whiskey,” said Kast, who’s expanding her store’s whiskey snug to better display about 70 Irish whiskeys she stocks, provide additional event space and add private lockers for members. “It’s a journey.”