Author and celebrated wit Mark Twain once said of Irish Whisky: “Give an Irishman lager for a month and he’s a dead man. An Irishman’s stomach is lined with copper, and the beer corrodes it. But whisky polishes the copper and is the saving of him.” Smooth, mellow, and favourable to any number of ways you wish to drink it, Irish Whisky is an ideal introduction for the newly-acquainted.
Here we’ll discuss the basics of Irish Whisky, from its early origins to distillation process, as well as all the ways you can enjoy it.
History & Origins
Irish whisky’s earliest known origins can be traced back to the 12th century, when Irish monks adopted the Mediterranean distilling technique to prepare perfumes, medicinal elixirs, and eventually spirits. The medieval whiskey our ancestors enjoyed, while certainly similar to the whiskey we enjoy today, would have had some marked differences: whisky at that time was infused with aromatic herbs and flowers, and would not have been aged.
Historians have struggled to document the exact production timeline of whisky in Ireland, as the industry was not yet regulated and sales were often illegal. A surviving record from 1405, located in the Annals of Clonmacnoise, details the sudden death of a nobleman after “taking a surfeit of aqua vitae” during Christmas festivities. By the 16th century whisky was regularly consumed, with Parliament passing a series of acts restricting unauthorised production and sales. This did little to tamp down on the illicit but booming whiskey trade, however, and eventually more lenient laws where initiated.
It’s worth noting that the popular use of unmalted barley in Irish Whisky was the result of a malt tax that was instated in the 18th century, which prompted distillers to opt for unmalted grains in order to dodge the tax. Although Ireland has long since done away with the malt tax, the unmalted recipe remained and is now part of the Irish Whisky tradition.
How Is Irish Whisky Distilled?
Just as every country has its own guidelines regarding whisky distillation and distribution, Irish regulations as we presently know them were set in place in the 1880s, with the Irish Whiskey Act of 1950 declaring that all labeled Irish Whisky must be distilled in Ireland using a mash of malt and cereal grains.
Irish Whisky is traditionally distilled from unmalted barley. The malt is dried in closed kilns to protect it from smoke, then put through a fermentation process to begin the conversion of starches into alcohol (additional “booster” enzymes may be added). The whisky is thrice-distilled in copper pot stills, although it’s worth nothing that some grain whiskies are distilled using column stills.
By Irish law, all Irish whiskies must be aged a minimum of three years.
Interestingly, the barrels used for ageing can be new or previously used, with many going on to house such spirits as rum, bourbon, or sherry. The ongoing evolution of Irish Whisky has seen distillers implementing a variety of new and time-honoured additions alike, from differing types of wooden casks to the use of peat, and even selected grains.
What Kinds Of Irish Whisky Are There?
Blended whiskies account for about 90% of Ireland’s whisky output, and consist of several different types of whiskey–usually of both high and less expensive quality–blended together.
2. Single Malt
Made from pure malted barley, Single Malt Whisky is made in a single distillery, using a single pot still.
3. Single Pot
Previously referred to as “pure pot still,” Single Pot Whisky contains a blend of both malted and unmalted barely grains distilled in a pot still.
Grain Irish Whisky is generally lighter than its counterparts, and consists of either wheat or corn. The whisky is produced in column, rather than pot, stills.
5. Single Grain
Single Grain Irish Whisky, while similar in many ways to grain whisky, contains only a single grain in the distillate.
The Irish equivalent of moonshine, Potcheen is a new-make spirit that, while distilled using traditional whiskey methods, does not meet the age requirement to be labeled Irish Whisky.
What Is The Difference Between Irish And Scottish Whisky?
Although Irish and Scotch Whisky share more similarities than not, there are a few notable differences where flavours and distillation methods are concerned. While Irish Whiskey is made from unmalted barley and typically displays a smoother flavour that makes it ideal for blending, Scotch Whiskey uses malted barley, which produces a bolder, heavier flavour.
Both Scotch and Irish Whisky favour copper pot stills, although Scotch Whisky is double distilled, while Irish Whisky typically uses the triple distillation method. Both whiskies are traditionally aged for three years in oak casks, which greatly effects the final flavour, particularly if the casks were used for the ageing of other spirits.
What’s With The Different Spellings?
You may have noticed the alternating spellings of whisky/whiskey, which can lead to some confusion concerning the proper spelling of the word. The good news is, you can keep or do away with the ‘e,’ as it all comes down to translations dating back hundreds of years.
In short, the Irish opted for the ‘e’ in whiskey, while the Scottish chose to leave it out, with other countries falling on either side. Because the Irish were largely responsible for the introduction of whiskey in America, American Whiskey naturally adopted the Emerald Isle spelling, while other countries prefer to use the Scottish spelling. Ultimately, it’s up to you how you want to spell it, as there’s no right or wrong way.
How Do You Drink Irish Whisky?
Because Irish Whisky is so smooth and adaptable, there’s really no limit to how you can enjoy it. Irish Whiskey can be taken neat, on the rocks, with water, or mixed in a cocktail–and of course you’ve heard of the world-famous Irish Coffee. Irish Whiskey has long been thought to pair extremely well with certain dishes, and gastro enthusiasts continue to incorporate whiskey into both traditional and updated Irish recipes.