In the world of whiskey, there’s Scotch, bourbon, Canadian and the ubiquitous Tennessee sipping whiskey Jack Daniel’s. But there’s nothing as smooth and silky as the legendary Irish whiskey.
To be certain, Irish whiskey is its own special kind of spirit and anything that calls itself Irish whiskey must be made in a very specific way. Otherwise, it’s not Irish whiskey, no matter what the label says.
But to get a grip on what makes whiskey distilled in Ireland something that can be called Irish whiskey, it’s instructive to consider what exactly whiskey is.
First off, you may have noticed that there’s whiskey and then there’s whisky. Please keep calm and know this: they are one and the same. The dropped “e” is not a typo and it’s not a function of a discrepancy in the manufacturing method. There’s really only one reason for the difference: in Ireland and the United States, they use the “e” and spell it whiskey. Most everywhere else, the “e” is dropped for the spelling of whisky. There are, of course, some limited exceptions to this rule, but for the most part, this is the lay of the land.
Also know this—the basic concept of whiskey originated in the Celtic lands of Ireland and Scotland. The word whiskey (or whisky) itself comes from an anglicized version of uisce beatha, which is Irish for “water of life.” In Scots Gaelic it’s called uisge beatha. Whiskey has been distilled in Ireland by monks since at least as early as the 11th century.
But what exactly is this life-giving water? How is it made? And how exactly does it differ from other spirits? Let’s take a look.
Whiskey is a distilled alcoholic beverage that can be made from any number of different grains—corn, wheat, barley, rye, even millet and sorghum. The grain is fermented into a mash (a substance with the consistency of watery oatmeal) and combined with water. There’s a complex chemistry that goes on in the creation of the mash, as enzymes break down the grain into sugars. Mash is also used in the production of beer.
Such are the basic requirements for anything that calls itself whiskey, whether it’s made in Ireland, Scotland, America, Canada, or even Japan, which has had a swiftly growing market share of the international whiskey trade since the country’s first commercial distillery opened in 1924.
But what makes up the mash is one of the primary ways to determine what kind of whiskey you are drinking. In the taste profile of many Scotch whiskys (no “e”), you will find a dark, smoky aroma and flavor that comes from the use of peat in the distilling process. Most (but not all) Irish whiskey eschews the use of peat, which gives Irish whiskey is well-deserved reputation as a smoother drink than Scotch. For the most part, Irish whiskey is made from barley, malted barley or a combination of the two. Nothing wrong at all with how they do it in Scotland, and if that’s what they prefer in Alba, so be it. But Irish whiskey is not Scotch whisky and don’t ever confuse the two.
The next step in the manufacturing process is the use of huge tanks called stills. Again, it’s something like a chemistry lab what goes inside these large copper machines, but it’s where the distillation process takes place.
Stills are also one of the ways that different whiskeys get their distinguishing taste profiles. Modern Irish whiskey uses any of the different types and methods of still production. But historic Irish whiskey was made only one way—in a pot still (something that several Irish whiskey brands boast as making their product superior).
Finally, the beverage must be aged in a wooden cask (or barrel). To be classified as Irish whiskey, the liquor must remain in the cask for a minimum of three years, according to the Republic of Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, though some are kept in the cask for much longer. (Production differences like these are what give individual whiskeys their specific taste characteristics.)
Irish whiskey was once the most popular whiskey in the world, peaking somewhere near the end of the 19th century. After having dozens of distilleries, the Irish whiskey galaxy condensed down to just three facilities by the mid-to-late 20th century, typically owned by large global corporate alcoholic beverage purveyors. Those brand names still exist, still carry on tabbed to some of the world’s finest spirits and continue to carry the flame for what most people in the globe consider Irish whiskey. But in just the past year, there’s been explosion of interest in Irish whiskeys and numerous new distilleries have opened.
One of those three survivors was Jameson, which remains the world’s best-selling Irish whiskey. First made at the Bow Street Distillery Dublin, Jameson has been distilled in Cork since the 1970s. It’s made from a blend of grain whiskey and single pot still whiskey.
Another, Bushmills, is made in Northern Ireland, as it has been since 1608. All Bushmills whiskey is made from water taken from a tributary of the River Bush, which flows through County Antrim.
The last of the three “original” Irish whiskeys is Powers, still today the best-selling whiskey within Ireland. Born in Dublin in 1791, Powers is now made in Cork at the New Midleton Distillery. Its flagship product, Powers Gold Label, is a triple-distilled blend of pot still whiskey and grain whiskey.
While those are the three best-known Irish whiskeys, there are many more, some of which are quite new. They’re distilled all over the island, each with differences in taste and appearance that can give a whiskey fan a lifetime of options.
One of the largest distilleries is the Cooley facility in County Louth. It is responsible for several different whiskey brands, including Kilbeggan and Connemara and is owned by the global beverage giant Beam Suntory.
Tullamore Dew is one of the world’s top-sellers and it’s made by William Grant & Sons at a distillery in its namesake town in County Offaly.
Dublin is still home to locally distilled whiskey, such as Green Spot, a single pot still whiskey, and its cousin Yellow Spot.
Redbreast is considered one of the most sought-after of Irish whiskeys, considered by world whiskey expert Jim Murray as perhaps one of Ireland’s best.
Then there’s the new breed. Teeling Distillery opened in Dublin in 2015, that city’s first new distillery in more than 125 years. Its whiskey strains have won numerous awards for their quality.
It’s also true that, in addition to the new breed of distilleries, that there’s also been a proliferation of variations and offshoots of the mainline brands. Thus, there’s not just Jameson. There’s also Jameson Black Barrel, Jameson 18-year Old Limited Reserve, Jameson Caskmates Stout Edition (yes, made with Irish stout), and on and on. It’s a lifetime’s worth of different whiskey to try.
And therein lies the huge appeal of whiskey tourism. You can visit these new whiskey labs (and surely their proprietors would love nothing better than if you did) and try rare strains that are available for sale nowhere else. For example, you can only get Jameson Black Barrel Cash Strength when visiting the distillery in Midleton.
Virtually all Irish distilleries have some level of availability for tours and visits. Check with each one for details.
For those who are already deeply immersed in the culture of Irish whiskey, the perfect place to find gifts and accessories for your hobby is ShamrockGift.com, which sells a wide assortment of items that complement any Irish whiskey offering. From a Bushmills glove and pot holder to a pewter whiskey flask engraved with a Celtic design, you’re sure to find something to match your Irish whiskey collection.
Now let’s venture to another part of the Irish spirits world that’s related, yet very distinct from whiskey, and that’s Irish coffee.
Made from Irish whiskey, hot coffee and sugar, Irish coffee is an alcoholic drink for those who haven’t yet developed a taste for straight whiskey (it IS a very strong drink, after all) or for those who really do have an intense sweet tooth.
For those who really want to get into the realm of desserts, there’s Bailey’s Irish Cream, which is a branded combination of Irish whiskey and a cream-based liqueur. Bailey’s is made from a combination of several different whiskeys, all of which are kept a secret.
Also available from ShamrockGift.com is a tea towel, based on the original recipe for Irish coffee, which would make a perfect companion when you are having guests and plan to serve an aperitif of Irish coffee.
But the original Irish coffee isn’t Bailey’s Irish Cream. Simply put, Irish coffee is a bartender’s standard cocktail that’s great for when it’s cold outside, but really any time of the year.
And, best of all, Irish coffee is made from a base of Irish whiskey. For those who really want to give Irish whiskey a chance, but maybe aren’t quite ready for the strong stuff yet, Irish coffee might be the best bet as a beginner’s guide to the world of Irish whiskey.