Know Your Irish Whisky

Know Your Irish WhiskyAccording to the Distilled Spirits Council, the Irish whisky was the fastest growing sales category in the United States in 2011. Its popularity was in part due to its easy drinkability; Irish whisky is a sweet, smooth, and yet complex brown spirit. It’s a good start for people who want more than vodka cocktails. Irish whisky is also less expensive compared to Scotches, making it a better choice for younger consumers. But what makes Irish whisky the way Irish whisky? Read on to find out more about the history, the distillation, and some of the major distillers and brands of Irish whisky.

What is Irish Whisky?

The United States has the Code of Federal Regulations to determine what makes a whisky (or whiskey). But for whisky to be Irish whisky, well it must be manufactured in either the Republic of Ireland or in Northern Ireland. And the United States, wisely, refers to the Irish law on defining Irish whisky and how to make it.

The Irish Whiskey Act of Ireland states that for spirits to be called Irish whisky, the spirits should be distilled either in the State of Ireland or in Northern Ireland from a mash of cereals which has undergone:

  1. Saccharification by the diastase of the malt contained therein, with or without the use of other natural diastases;
  2. Fermentation by the action of yeast; and
  3. Distillation at an alcoholic strength of less than 94.8 percent by volume in a way that the distillate has an aroma and flavor from the materials used.

And the spirits shall have been matured in wooden casks in warehouse in the State (Ireland), or Northern Ireland, or a combination, for a period of not less than three years.

Saccharification is a process of breaking down starches into sugars. And a diastase is an enzyme responsible for breaking down the starches. Simply put, the cereal’s starches must be broken down by the enzymes in the malt, with or without other enzymes. This differentiates Irish whisky from single malt Scotch, which cannot contain additional enzymes.

In most cases, the barley is dried in a kiln without the use of peat smoke. Then it is ground and fermented by steeping in water. Most often for Irish whisky, the fermented liquid is distilled triply and then aged in oak barrels for a minimum of three years. Barrels previously used to age fortified wine, rum, or bourbon, may be used in aging Irish whisky. Some Irish whiskies are then blended with grain whiskey prior to bottling. The process of manufacturing Irish whisky is similar to that of Scotch, except that Scotch starts with entirely malted barley, while Irish whisky starts with a mixture of malted and unmalted barley.

Common Misconceptions on Irish Whisky

There are two major misconceptions on Irish whisky commonly talked about by spirits retailers, bartenders, and consumers. It’s time to lay these to rest.

Misconception 1: Irish whisky is smoother compared to Scotch because Irish whisky is triple distilled. This may have some truth in it, which makes it easier to fall for. Irish whiskies are indeed triple distilled, but not all of them. There are also some Scotches which are triple distilled. So no, not all Irish whisky is triple distilled, neither is all Scotch double distilled.

Misconception 2: Irish whisky is smoother compared to Scotch because Scotch is made with smoky peat, while Irish whisky is not. Much like the first misconception, this is not true because not all Irish whisky is unpeated and not all Scotch is peated. This may be true to most Irish whisky and Scotch but not to all.

Perhaps a third misconception is that the Irish invented whisky and the Scots stole it. This is still a little unclear yet. Read on.

History of Irish Whisky

Malahide Castle, Dublin Ireland

History of Irish Whisky

The manufacturing of whisky in Ireland goes back centuries ago. Historical records going back all those years can be messed up but most writers seem to agree that Irish missionaries learned the technique of distillation about 800-1000 years ago in the Middle East. They then brought it home to Ireland. What is unclear is where the Scots picked up the technique. Either the Irish spread the technology to Scotland, or Scots got it from mainland Europe, through Scandinavia and Russia.

Who invented whisky is unclear, but one thing’s for sure, in 1608 the Bushmills (in what is now Northern Ireland) was granted to distill whisky by the British Crown. And Bushmills claims to have the world’s oldest whisky distillery and the Irish whisky the oldest whisky.

At the start of the 20th century, The Irish whisky industry was booming. In the 1900s, the Irish whisky was the leading spirit in Great Britain. And by 1919, Jameson was one of the top-selling whisky brands in the US. Irish whisky was greatly supported by London exporters, carrying it worldwide and providing the industry a global market.

However, today, there are only four Irish whisky distilleries remaining (i.e. Old Bushmills, New Midleton, Cooley, and Kilbeggan). Irish whisky has now been overpowered by Scotch and, to a lesser extent, bourbon in the global market.

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