The history of Irish distilling
The origins of all whiskey (or ‘fuisce’, from the Irish ‘uisce beatha’ or ‘water of life’) trace back to the 12th-century Irish monks who began experimenting with Arabic distilling techniques. By its 19th-century peak, Irish distilling reigned, with over 100 whiskey distilleries operating throughout the country and many of them exporting abroad.
During the 20th century, Prohibition, Irish Temperance and wars (both real and trade) saw Ireland lose its pole position to Scotland. That luck has turned and the early 21st century has brought a renaissance in Irish whiskey along with the distilling of other spirits old and new.
What had been four working distilleries in 2010 has jumped to 40 and counting. They are breathing new life into big cities and small towns alike, building bright new futures for historic country house estates, small family farms and reimagined industrial factories. Two thirds of today’s distilleries welcome visitors, and that healthy competition has channelled the best of the Irish imagination into some unforgettable experiences.
Want to learn the difference between Ireland’s signature styles of whiskey, from spicy single pot still to bright grain whiskeys? Or fancy diving into the social history of Irish whiskey production or fine-tuning your mixology skills for that next cocktail party? Maybe you’d like to concoct your very own botanical balance for a personalised bottle of gin?
Irish distilleries offer chance to meet the makers, learn hands-on skills from the shakers and get under the skin of unique localities all around the country.
The heavyweights: Classic Irish whiskey distilleries
For decades, you went to one place to witness Irish whiskey production: Cork's Jameson Distillery Midleton, where Dublin’s last two whiskey distillers, Powers and John Jameson, relocated in the 1970s. Today you can still get up close with the world’s largest pot still (with a capacity of 143,872 litres), taste whiskey straight from the cask during a whiskey maturation warehouse tour or go behind the scenes at a busy microdistillery where experimental distillations are pushing things forward.
If you can’t make it to Cork, the historic site of John Jameson’s former original distillery at Jameson Distillery Bow Street in the heart of Dublin 7’s atmospheric Smithfield neighbourhood offers a range of insights and experiences, from cocktail making to blending or bottling your own whiskey.
Other big names have developed their own impressive attractions. Slane Distillery has transformed 18th-century stables on the grounds of Slane Castle into a modern facility with immersive, sensory whiskey tours that trace whiskey’s journey from grain to glass. You'll watch as the distillers use water from the nearby River Boyne and barley that's grown on the estate to create their triple casked whiskey.
Diageo’s Roe & Co distillery beside their Dublin HQ at the Guinness brewery offers imaginative experiences such as al fresco food trucks with paired cocktail menus, a blending experience and a flavours workshop to better understand your own unique palate and whiskey preferences.
At the recently reopened Tullamore D.E.W. Distillery Experience you can sip an Irish coffee on arrival, ‘dip the dog’ to sample straight from the cask, or bottle your own customised whiskey, blended to your personal tastes.
Game-changers: new-wave Irish whiskey and gin distilleries
Teeling Whiskey Distillery opened in 2015 as Dublin’s first operational distillery in 125 years, kickstarting the regeneration of the city’s historic Golden Triangle of distilleries. Their visitor experience explores that Spirit of Dublin legacy, taking you through the custom-built distillery floor, and concludes with a handcrafted cocktail at the Bang Bang Bar.
In a bucolic old mill house at a riverside country house estate, Wicklow’s Powerscourt Distillery features an intimate screening room and tours of the working distillery and maturation warehouse. Don’t miss their unique Distillery Tour and Food-Paired Tasting led by an Irish food historian and starring local cheese and charcuterie paired with Fercullen Irish Whiskey.
Detour deep into rural Co Louth for a sensory experience at Ireland’s first gin school, Listoke Distillery, which is as fun as it is fascinating – and a short spin from the historic high cross and roundtower at Monasterboice. A happy subplot of the Irish distilling story has been Ireland’s recent love affair with craft gins. You’ll leave knowledgeable on the history and production of gin, well fed on local artisan produce, and with your very own bespoke bottle to take home with you.
In an old jam factory in Drumshanbo just outside the lively riverside town of Carrick-on-Shannon, the curious mind of PJ Rigney has been creating award-winning spirits like Drumshanbo Gunpowder Irish Gin since 2014. The Shed Distillery’s purpose-built visitors centre will engage all the senses on a Curious Journey tour, before enjoying a complimentary tasting in the Honey Badger Bar, set in their botanical glasshouse. Enjoy local Leitrim flavours like boxty with bacon at the excellent Jackalope Café.
Small can be mighty too, as proven by Ireland’s family-run microdistilleries. The field-to-glass operation at Ballykeefe Distillery is reviving the tradition of family farm distilleries and a tour here explores their commitment to environmental protection, carbon neutrality and sustainability, as well as sharing the secrets of their distiller.
Beyond the cask: Other Irish distilleries
Other distilleries around the country have introduced their own spirit schools, with a distinctive twist. At Rebel City Distillery in the old Ford factory in Cork City’s docklands, where they make the award-winning Maharani Gin as well as akvavit and Ireland’s only absinthe, you can choose your own adventure at the Spirits School Experience and learn to craft your spirit of choice. Or if you prefer to sit back and let someone else do the work, choose their Afternoon Gin & Tea experience which includes a dive into the alchemy and artistry of distillation.
Irish poitín has enjoyed a thrilling resurgence since it was legalised some 300 years after its 1661 ban. This clear and uncasked spirit has returned from the status of illicit moonshine to take its rightful place alongside other quality Irish beverages. Run by brothers Pádraic and Jimín Ó Griallais, Micil Distillery in Galway’s Salthill is the perfect place to rethink poitín; their educational visitor experiences draw on a distilling legacy started (albeit illicitly) in 1848 by their great-great-great grandfather, Micil Mac Chearra.
Some distilleries are as creative with their products as their experiences. Stillgarden Distillery has brought new life to a Dublin 8 industrial estate just off the Grand Canal, where a multisensory botanical garden heralds the unique experience within, including a spritz experience featuring their own herbal liqueurs and a gin-themed afternoon tea.