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Forget the big brands: Exclusive Irish whiskey hits shelves for St. Patrick’s Day

jonathan phelps

Forget about Jameson Irish Whiskey.

Set aside Bushmills, at least for now.

Irish whiskey is said to be more popular than ever, with a growing craft distillery market on the Emerald Isle, but only a small fraction of those products make it across the Atlantic. Some of those options are now available here in the Granite State for a limited time.

This month, New Hampshire Liquor & Wine Outlets will feature 20 “rare and ultra-premium” whiskeys with limited or no distribution in the United States. Most of the products will have hit the shelves of the state’s 65 outlets in time for St. Patrick’s Day.

Shaskeen Pub and Restaurant on Elm Street in Manchester recently added Clonakilty Distillery’s Double Oak to its mix. The whiskey is finished in virgin American oak and re-charred European oak casks, according to the company’s website.

The Shaskeen offers 23 different Irish whiskeys.

“I’ll have some customers come in and they say ‘the dealer’s choice’ for whiskey,” said owner Neal Brown, who is from Belfast in Northern Ireland.

Others are set in their ways.

“People come in and want a Jameson and I say, ‘Let’s try something else,’ and you kind of introduce them to a whole new world of flavors they’ve never experienced before,” Brown said.

The Liquor Commission worked with Bord Bia, the Irish government agency for food and drink, for more than a year to come up with the exclusive selection to be imported. New Hampshire and Ireland’s historical ties date back to 1719, and more than 20% of Granite Staters are of Irish descent, according to a New Hampshire Senate news release.

Recently, Gov. Chris Sununu signed into law the New Hampshire-Ireland Trade Council, which will allow its members to explore trade opportunities and academic exchanges.

Here in the Granite State, Irish whiskey sales jumped 16.1% in fiscal year 2023 over the previous year. Irish whiskey hit records in the U.S. in 2022.

“The whiskey category overall is seeing a huge increase: American whiskey, Irish whiskey,” said Mark Roy, director of marketing, merchandising and warehousing for the liquor commission.

“A lot of Irish whiskeys now are following American whiskeys and coming out with flavors,” Roy said. “Jameson Orange just hit, which is a first in that category. Tullamore D.E.W. is coming out with a honey.”

The commission held a sold-out event earlier this month, where $20,000 worth of whiskey was sold. The top-sellers were Clonakilty Irish Port Cask ($59.99) and the Whistler Dark Symphony ($39.99).

In the past decade, the number of distilleries in Ireland jumped from four to almost 50 in 2024, said Daragh Flanagan, Bord Bia’s vice president for drinks in North America.

“There are more being built as we speak,” he said. “The vast majority are independent, newly formed companies and products.”

International partnerships

In 2018, the New Hampshire Liquor Commission and the Mexican government forged a similar partnership for access to exclusive tequilas.

The commission worked with ProMéxico to carry 23 new tequila selections from eight distilleries. Some of the products are still for sale.

Offering such exclusive deals has been a goal since 2013, the liquor commission’s Roy said.

“There are a lot of companies that when they come out with new products they release it in New Hampshire because we are a good testing ground because we have customers from Mass., Vermont, Maine. People come down from Canada,” Roy said. “They are hitting multiple markets.”

The commission has an extensive single-barrel program with products from companies like Jack Daniel’s.

“They send it up here with the barrel,” Roy said. “No other state in the country has that particular whiskey. No two barrels are the same, so once you have that flavor profile you can’t ever get it again.”

The Irishman 17-year-old Single Malt Irish Whiskey is offered at the outlets for $199.99. Only three casks of the product were available worldwide.

Two “rare selections” of Fercullen Whiskey, including a 22-year-old single malt and 5-year-old triple-distilled, also will be available once they clear customs, Roy said.

Joseph Mollica, chairman of the liquor commission, said New England is known for its immigrant connection to Ireland.

“With the growth of Irish whiskey and whiskey in general, I just think it is a natural progression to take on something like this,” he said.

Whiskey history

Shaskeen’s Brown grew up visiting the Bushmills distillery every year with his father. Granted a license to distill in 1608, it is the oldest licensed whiskey distillery in the world. It’s the flavor he “grew up” on and is still a favorite.

Many believe whiskey was invented in Ireland by monks in the 14th century. “Uisce beatha” in Gaelic means “water of life.” The whiskey-making techniques were then brought to Scotland by Irish fleeing religious persecution.

“Most evidence points to it arriving from Ireland,” Brown said.

Hundreds of years later, Prohibition in America in the 1920s and ’30s killed much of the profit for distilleries.

“It wiped out 90% of the distilleries back in Ireland after that,” Brown said.

Bushmills, Jameson and Tullamore D.E.W. were among the major brands to survive.

“Now Irish whiskey is back,” Brown said

One of Brown’s current favorites is McConnell’s Irish Whiskey, which has returned after a 90-year hiatus. The brand started in Belfast in 1776, and while the distillery survived a massive fire in 1909, Prohibition caused its business to dry up.

“I was shocked it was from my hometown of Belfast, but I had never heard of it,” Brown said.

Expanding market

Bord Bia wants to showcase the growing Irish whiskey industry.

“There is more to Irish whiskey than the one or two big brands that they know,” Flanagan said.

“We have a hell of a lot more innovation and experimentation going on in Ireland with gins and poitín, which is our long-lost moonshine cousin, which has had a revival,” he said.

Ireland has fewer restrictions on distilling than the U.S., including allowing finishes from bourbon or tequila casks.

“They are doing things that you will never have tried before,” Flanagan said.

Brown compared the distillery movement in Ireland to the microbrewing industry in America.

“Whiskey-making itself has evolved technologically,” Brown said. “There are more ways of crafting it and introducing new flavors.”

Some distillers are using spent bourbon barrels to add a new flavor profile.

“You are going to get the influences from those original bourbon tastes into your whiskey,” Brown said. “It is a whole new portfolio of whiskey.”

Brown is glad the state is giving special attention to the expanding Irish whiskey market this St. Patrick’s Day.

“There is no such thing as bad whiskey,” Brown said. “There are just some that are just better than others.”