It’s almost impossible to come across a triple distilled Irish whiskey that could be described as anything other than “easy sipping”.
As smooth a whiskey as you are going to find on the planet today, there’s nothing in the world of spirits that can come close to offering you the same kind of rich, flavorful, and almost silky smooth experience that good Irish whiskey can.
At the same time, though, there are plenty of folks out there – newbies to the world of whiskey as well as hardcore connoisseurs – that operate under the impression of the “triple distilled” designation being nothing more than marketing mumbo-jumbo.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Irish whiskeys are (by and large) all triple distilled, after all – and it’s tough to describe your product the same way that all of your competitors are and think of it as some sort of advantage at the same time.
In the rest of this detailed guide we dig “under the hood” of incredible Irish whiskey, shining a light on what triple distillation is all about, why Irish whiskey producers love triple distillation, and how the process unfolds (amongst other things, too).
By the time you finish the inside information below you’ll know exactly what makes triple distilled Irish whiskey so special.
Just don’t be surprised if you want to run out and grab a dram (or bottle) of some right after, though!
Let’s jump right in.
Table of Contents – Sip this article!
- Irish Whiskey 101
- Triple Distilled Irish Whiskey
- The Best Triple Distilled Irish Whiskeys Brands
- Closing Thoughts
While the “rules” that govern Irish whiskey are a little more loosey-goosey than they are with Scotch (or even American bourbon), there are rules that dictate whether a spirit can be described as Irish whiskey or not.
Most importantly, Irish whiskey needs to be distilled in Ireland (the state of Ireland or Northern Ireland) from a mash of different cereals that:
- Have been fermented with yeast
- Is distilled to an alcohol strength level under 94.8% (by volume)
- Have had the complex carbohydrates in the serial mash broken down by internal malt ingredients
On top of that, Irish whiskey needs to have been matured in wooden casks that were physically located inside Ireland or Northern Ireland for at least three years (or longer).
Interestingly enough, even though the rules for creating Irish whiskey are distinct and separate from creating Scotch (Scotch begins entirely with malted barleys) the overall process for producing this amazingly smooth spirit is very similar.
The barley (malted and unmalted in the case of Irish whiskey) is traditionally dried inside of a kiln. Peat is very rarely used (the opposite of Scotch), and after the barley has been fully dry it’s then ground and steeped in clean water and allowed to ferment.
Don’t know what peated whisky is? Check out our article just on Peated Single Malt Whisky!
The fermented liquid is then siphoned off and pushed through a multilevel distillation process.
Most of the Irish whiskey expressions goes through three different distillations (and that’s where the triple distilled Irish whiskey designation comes from). From there, the “raw” Irish whiskey is moved into oak barrels and then allowed to mature for at least three years.
Unlike other spirits, the rules for Irish whiskey do not mandate that the oak barrels be brand-new and young, old and previously used for other spirits, or anything else for that matter.
Plenty of world-class triple distilled Irish whiskey producers like to use young/new oak barrels. But, even some of the more legendary “purity focused” distillers of Irish whiskey are starting to branch out and use fortified wine barrels, rum barrels, and even bourbon barrels imported from America.
After the maturation process has concluded the spirit is either bottled directly or cut with different blended grain whiskeys prior to the actual bottling process. That all comes down to how each distillery likes to handle things.
If this process seems a little simple and straightforward on the surface, it has to do with the fact that making Irish whiskey hasn’t changed all that much since the very first Bushmills distillery opened up in Northern Ireland back in 1608.
A legendary Irish whiskey producer, Bushmills is internationally recognized as the world’s oldest whiskey distillery – and the stuff they produce today is almost identical to the whiskey they were making back in the early 17th century.
Jameson is the most popular Irish whiskey on the planet right now, establishing itself as one of the top-selling whiskeys – Irish or otherwise – in the United States back in 1919 (and honor the company continues to enjoy today).
Four main distilleries in Ireland produce the overwhelming majority of Irish whiskeys in the nation:
The Old Bushmills Distillery
The Old Bushmills Distillery is the northernmost Irish whiskey distillery and the oldest distillery on the island of Ireland (and perhaps in the world). This operation produces Bushmills products and only Bushmills products.
The New Midleton Distillery
The New Midleton Distillery is located a little south of that ancient distillery mentioned above, and is one of the newest distilleries in all of Ireland.
Featuring cutting edge technology and all kinds of engineering gizmos and gadgets designed to modernize the triple distillation process, this operation produces Jameson, Powers, Redbreast, and Tullamore Dew Irish whiskey lineups (as well as Green Spot and a whole host of others).
The Cooley Distillery
The Cooley Distillery used to be a totally independent operation (the only one in all of Ireland), but that ceased to be the case in 2011. The Beam, Inc. organization (an American operation known for their gym beam products, amongst others) snapped this distillery up that year.
One of the most interesting things about this distillery is that all the products produced here go through a double distillation process instead of a triple distillation process. Cooley feels that this changes the complexity and profile of their whiskeys enough to distinguish them from the rest of the pack.
The Kilbeggan Distillery
Finally, you have the Kilbeggan Distillery pumping out Locke branded products as well as a whole bunch of other “house brand” bottles of whiskey. Capable of moving 250,000 bottles of whiskey a year, the overwhelming majority of the Irish whiskey made here is only for sale in Ireland, United Kingdom, and Europe.
The distillation process is the factor that separates spirits like Irish whiskey from beer.
The idea here is to gently boil the fermented ingredients you’re working with (fermented barley mash in the case of Irish whiskey), maintaining a temperature that allows the alcohol to boil and become steam while leaving the water part of the mash left behind.
As the hot air rises, so does the alcohol vapors. It then gets funneled through a series of copper coils. The alcohol vapor cools when it gets far enough away from the heat source, condenses, and then becomes a liquid all over again – a liquid that is (close to) pure alcohol!
Triple distilled spirits, though, go through a distillation process not just one time (not even twice) – but three times!
Two distillations are necessary to make traditional “whiskey”, but as we highlighted a moment ago the overwhelming majority of top-tier Irish whiskeys (and Irish whiskeys in general) is triple distilled whiskey as a way to guarantee a smooth, superior finish.
That last distillation, though, is far more complex and requires sophisticated equipment as well as finally dialed in protocols. At that point you are really trying to separate every last bit of alcohol from every last bit of water – resulting in a buttery smooth whiskey unlike anything else – and that requires a lot of painstaking attention.
The biggest reason distillers shoot for that third distillation process is to produce a whiskey that is smoother, more flavorful, and (often) more potent than anything that would have come out of the second distillation phase.
Don’t get us wrong. There’s plenty of good (even great) double distilled whiskey, even Irish whiskey. We’ve mentioned below that there’s a distillery in Ireland that focuses exclusively on producing top-tier double distilled whiskey options and they are crushing it.
The reason to go to the extra step, though – and really push for that extra mile – is to bring out characteristics and qualities in this spirit that simply wouldn’t have been present otherwise.
That extra distillation smooths everything out, removes a lot of “impurities”, and also allows master blenders to play with whiskey in its purest possible form.
Sure, after going through a triple distilled protocol some Irish whiskey is going to lose a little flavor and even become dulled. That’s part and parcel with the process.
Master blenders, though, can extract the best tasting whiskey from these distillations and blend them with others – producing something that is consistent, uniform, and luxurious all at the same time.
A triple distillation is a much more involved process, a process designed not just concentrate the alcohol left behind but also to produce lighter, almost fruity flavors.
You end up with something really clean, something really smooth, and something foolishly enjoyable.
Here’s how the triple distillation shakes out:
- First, the fermented mash is heated in the first still. This process is sort of like a rough draft. You really only trying to separate alcohol from water to shoot for a 20% ABV rating.
- That concentrate gets pushed through the second still, ramping up the ABV (getting rid of more water) while also concentrating flavors and aromas. It’s not at all uncommon for stills to have multiple “heads” or foreshots built-in during the second stage. The idea here is to separate different compounds (and more water) to end up with even purer flavors and aromas than you would have had otherwise.
- Finally, that super concentrated fermented mash is moved through the third still and then gets cut into “heads” “hearts”, and “tails”. The heart is usually where you’re going to find the strongest alcohol content – 80% ABV – but master blenders will cut with heads and tails to brew something a little less hot alcohol wise but also more flavorful, too.
When you triple distilled you’re able to run any of the alcohol cut during the head, heart, and tail deviations back into the second still all over again. That means you don’t waste a drop of your raw material and can squeeze even more whiskey out of your ingredients without compromising the quality along the way.
No, not every single Irish whiskey under the sun is triple distilled (though the overwhelming majority of them certainly are).
The Irish have really perfected the triple distillation process to a degree that few other distillers around the world have.
The Irish understand how to coax everything they can out of their raw ingredients, but more than that they know how to concentrate (and how to blend) the distillates that they end up with to produce something really spectacular.
All that said, the Cooley Distillery (now owned by Beam, Inc.) has been experimenting with double distilled Irish whiskeys and having a lot of success, too.
The American management behind this operation feels that a triple distillation inevitably dulls some of the flavors and some of the characters from the Irish whiskey produced during a double distillation.
The whiskeys produced by the Cooley Distillery are fantastic, but they are totally distinct and “different animals entirely” from traditional Irish whiskey that gets triple distilled.
Kilbeggan, Greenore, and Tyrconnel are just some of the iconic double distilled whiskeys being made out of the Cooley operation that shine a light on how special double distilled options can be.
Now that you have a better idea of what triple distillation means, why Irish whiskey is triple distilled, and how the actual process shakes out, let’s run you through some of the best triple-distilled whiskey brands.
Affordable, accessible, and undeniably the most popular Irish whiskey on the planet today, you can’t go wrong starting off your triple distilled Irish whiskey journey with a green bottle of Jameson.
Distilled three times (and then later way for at least four years in oak casks), there’s nothing particularly fancy or exotic about this Irish whiskey – but that’s its biggest selling point.
This is just damn good whiskey, no matter how you slice it!
Though not quite as popular as Jameson, Bushmills in all its different variations is nothing to sleep on if you’re serious about trying top-notch whiskey from Ireland that’s been distilled three times.
The oldest Irish whiskey producer on the planet (operating for more than 400+ years now), Bushmills offers blended whiskey as well as some really special single malts.
The single malts of the 10, 16, and 21 year varieties are where you’re going to want to focus your attention. If you’re going after just one of those single malts, though, aim for the 16. It really offers the best of all worlds.
This Irish whiskey used to be a bit of an insider secret amongst serious and passionate fans of this spirit, but now the word is starting to get out.
Cooked up by a unique combination of both molted and unmold it barley, it goes through three different copper pot stills and then gets aged in oak for 15 years. There’s a little fruitiness, little maltiness, and even a little bit of caramel in this Irish whiskey that you won’t find anywhere else.
If single malt Irish whiskey is where you like to focus your attention, shoot for one of these 16-year-old single malt expressions.
For 14 years this Irish whiskey lives inside of oak barrels that have been previously used to make American urban. After the 14 years are up, though, the resulting spirit gets moved into sherry casks for another two years of finishing.
That’s how you get those vanilla, fruity, malty flavors impossible to find elsewhere.
A relative newcomer to the Irish whiskey world, Tipperary was established in 2016 with the mission statement to produce only the best single malt triple distilled whiskey possible using local ingredients all sourced from a family-owned farm.
Bottles are only now hitting the market after being aged for anywhere from 3 to 6 years, and the praise for this boutique operation has been just shy of unanimous. The flavors here can only be made possible by the local sourcing of the ingredients.
It’s a fingerprint kind of whiskey, the sort of whiskey that literally can’t be made anywhere else or by anyone else.
Folks that love to start their morning or end their day (usually in the winter) with an Irish coffee will want to reach for this single GRAIN triple distilled option more often than not.
Produced in a single location using malted barley (and just one other grain) – corn in this specific circumstance – you end up with a foolishly smooth Irish whiskey that has a little bit of nutmeg, little bit of vanilla, and even a little bit of butter on the front and back end of the flavor.
You’ll love adding a splash or two into your coffee.
Though there may not be anything particularly fancy about this Irish whiskey that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t belong in your home bar.
When you don’t need something to “posh”, just something to sip on – or something to mix with – you’ll want to reach for this Tullamore DEW bottle more often than not.
Smooth, luxurious, and with a unique flavor profile made possible by aging in bourbon and sherry casks (and then undergoing a fantastic blending process), this Irish whiskey does just as well in mixed drinks and cocktails like whiskey gingers or added to a bit of coffee like the option we mentioned a moment ago.
Best of all, because it’s triple distilled, you can sip on this Tullamore DEW without any issues whatsoever, too!
So there you have it, just about everything you need to know about triple distillation and why the whiskey coming out of Ireland is so unique.
Yes, the triple distillation processes little more expensive and definitely a lot more time-consuming (not to mention more technically challenging).
Sure, that means the end result is Irish whiskey that’s a little more expensive than some of the whiskeys and bourbons you might find that only go through a double distillation process.
But you’d be hard-pressed to argue with paying the premium triple distillation whiskeys command after you had a sip or two of a really good example.
Get your hands on some today and see what all the fuss is about!