The world of whisky is an ever-changing one, and every year, it seems as though yet another country enters the global whisky scene. It’s been a long time now since the East Asian whisky scene took off in spectacular fashion, with countries like Taiwan, Korea, and – of course – Japan making tsunami-sized waves on the whisky market. Scandinavian nations like Sweden and Norway are tipped to be the next big thing in whisky, and there’s little doubt about the fact that we’re in for plenty more surprises in the very near future.
However, no matter how many ‘new’ countries get involved in distillation and the production of our favourite spirit, our hearts will always primarily belong to those nations which are synonymous with whisky production, and the whole culture which surrounds it. It goes without saying, naturally, that those nations are the great Gaelic countries of Scotland and the Republic of Ireland; green and pleasant lands where the water springs clear, and where the grain grows to utter perfection. It is in these countries where whisky culture, whisky identity, and the blueprints for the rest of the world’s whiskies were forged long, long ago… and yet, few people really understand what separates them when it comes to their admittedly rather similar national spirits.
In this blog, we’re going to be taking a closer look at Irish whiskey, and considering what it is that sets these marvellous bottles apart from their Scottish cousins across the Irish sea. Whether you’re a committed Scotch fan or you’re on team Eire, there’s plenty to discover in Irish whiskey, and even more to fall in love with.
Long, long before Arthur Guinness set up his eponymous brewery in the cobbled streets of Dublin, and centuries before Americans starting going wild for St. Patrick’s Day and adding green food colouring to everything they could get their hands on, the proud and ancient nation of Ireland gave birth to Irish Whiskey. While Guinness may well be good for you (at least according to the popular slogan, and the fact that its high iron content saw it prescribed to pregnant women for decades), it’s important to note that the word ‘whiskey’ comes from the Irish Gaelic for ‘water of life’. This was no mere spirit – it was considered a magical, medicinal substance, a cornerstone of an emerging culture, and it continues to be a key point of Irish identity to this day.
The exact origins of whiskey in Ireland are, as one might expect, lost in the mists of time. One popular legend is that St. Patrick himself first brought the art of distilling grain to Ireland from the Middle East. While distillation was almost certainly an Arabic invention, it seems a little too convenient that the patron saint of the country brought it to the Emerald Isle for it to be true. What is fairly well agreed upon (albeit begrudgingly in some quarters) is that it was the Irish who first introduced whiskey to the Scottish, rather than the other way round. As such, without whiskey, we’d have no whisky. Just don’t bring this up next time you’re in a bar in Glasgow.
As mentioned, nobody really knows for sure when whiskey was first distilled in Ireland, and most people generally agree that it would have been happening throughout the Middle Ages in some form or another. The first Irish whiskey distillery, however, is well recorded: this was Bushmills in Northern Ireland, which was founded in 1608, and which continues to produce its history-making nectar to this day.
The differences between Irish Whiskey and Scotch are many, and most of them are immediately apparent upon tasting. However, we can’t possibly continue examining any of them without first paying close attention to that additional ‘e’. After all, it went on to give identity to the entirety of the USA’s whiskey scene, and it’s by far the most noticeable of the differences, present on every bottle for at least the past hundred years.
Why do the Irish add an ‘e’ to their whiskey labels? Well, it’s again a subject of some dispute, and the reality behind it is probably disappointingly dull. Most historians agree it came down to little more than marketing and a way of distinguishing one product from another. Before the 19th century, the spelling of whisky (indeed, the spelling of most things) was considered flexible, without any fixed rules. However, at some point at the end of the 19th century, it was agreed that Irish and US whiskies would feature the ‘e’, and Scotch and Canadian products would not. It’s not particularly romantic, but the truth rarely is.
As for production methods, there is quite a lot which differs between the Irish produce and the whiskies made across the water in Scotland. The most significant of these is that Irish whiskey is typically made with a blend of malted and unmalted barley in the pot still phase. Scotch, on the other hand, only used malted barley (which is soaked grain which has started to sprout). What’s more, Scotch is typically dried over peat smoke, which provides that unmistakable flavour. Irish whiskey, on the other hand, maintains the real punch of grain flavour, as a result of it being made from kiln dried barley.
Finally, there’s a key difference in the distillation method. Scotch whisky goes through the distillation process twice, while Irish whiskey is triple-distilled, resulting in a considerably smoother – albeit stronger in alcohol content – spirit. Interestingly, the process of triple distilling is one which was introduced by a scotsman, John Jameson, who set up one of Ireland’s most iconic and enduring distilleries back in 1780.
Aficionados will doubtlessly be able to inform you of several other grand and subtle differences, borne of different water sources, different historic practices, and differing attitudes and visions as to what whisk(e)y is, was, and should be. Whatever your opinion on Irish whiskey, however, there’s no getting away from the fact its influence across the globe has been monumental, and it deserves every ounce of our deepest respect and admiration.