The whisky world is always turning and never stops revealing new surprises, new flavors, and new local and regional characteristics to explore - indeed, it seems as if a new country enters the global whisky industry with each year. It’s been many a year since the Asian whisky scene took off in remarkable fashion, introducing worldwide whisky fans to the delights coming out of Japan, Taiwan, Korea, and other such countries, with their meticulous attention to detail, finesse, and local specialties.
Tipped to be the next big thing is the Scandi-whisky explosion, and impressive results are already starting to emerge from Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland, which - with their access to pure glacial waters - are already capturing the hearts and minds and whisky enthusiasts on the lookout for new taste sensations.
Despite the endlessly expanding global whisky stage, however, and no matter how many ‘new’ countries kickstart their distilleries and begin producing our favorite spirit, there will always be a small handful of nations which are inexorably linked to whisky production, and whose culture has grown around this particular drink. We’re talking, of course, about the great, proud, and ancient Gaelic nations of Ireland and Scotland; those green and pleasant lands where crystal spring water abounds, where the grain grows tall and strong, and where mountain and sea air lends its magic to the bottles produced. These are the countries most deeply and romantically tied to whisky, and which carry whisky as a central aspect of their national identity. Furthermore, they’re the countries which laid the foundations for the rest of the world’s spirits long, long ago… and yet, when it comes to Scotch and Irish whisk(e)y, not many people grasp what unites and separates them when it comes to their similarities and differences.
We’re going to be taking a close look at Irish whiskey, and thinking carefully about what distinguishes Ireland’s whiskey output from their neighbors across the sea in Scotland. Whether you’re already a committed fan of Irish produce, or whether you’re a diehard Scotch drinker, there’s plenty to uncover when it comes to the effortless charms of Irish whiskey, and even more to find yourself falling in love with.
A Brief History of Irish Whiskey
Irish whiskey is a proudly ancient drink. Indeed, long before the world-renowned brewer, Arthur Guinness, first set up his self-named brewery on the cobbled streets of Dublin, and many centuries before the Americans began celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, the nation of Ireland gave birth to Irish whiskey.
Whiskey’s Gaelic Influence
The clue’s in the name: the word ‘whiskey’ is derived from the Gaelic for ‘water of life’, suggesting that the origins of our favorite spirit weren’t intended for enjoyment and drinking, but rather as a magical, alchemical elixir, and a cornerstone of a developing nation keen to establish its own identity.
The precise origins of Irish whiskey are, as you might imagine, somewhat lost in the foggy mists of time. There are, naturally, plenty of legends; many will proclaim, hand on heart, that St. Patrick himself brought the art of distilling grain spirit to Ireland from the Middle East. Now, there’s no doubt about the fact that distillation was an innovation first developed by Arabic alchemists… but it would be a huge stretch of the imagination to claim with all seriousness that the patron Saint of Ireland would be the one to bring it over to the Emerald Isle.
Is Whiskey Scottish or Irish?
One thing which does seem to be true, however (and much to the annoyance of the Scots) is that it seems highly likely that it was the Irish who introduced whiskey and whiskey production methods to Scotland, rather than the other way around. As such, if there was no whiskey, there would be no whisky. Feel free to bring this fact upon your next visit to Ireland… but keep it to yourself if you find yourself in a bar in Glasgow.
As mentioned, it’s unsure and perhaps unknowable as when whiskey was first distilled in Ireland. However, most scholars would agree it would have arisen at some point in the late middle ages, either as a happy accident or with the genuine intention to create something both pleasant to drink and medicinal. The first whiskey distillery in Ireland, however, is a recorded historical fact: that would be Bushmills up in Northern Ireland, an operation which was founded way back in 1608, and which - miraculously, given the turbulent history of this land - continues to produce quality whiskey to this very day.
Irish vs Scotch: The Top 3 Key Differences
There are several differences to note when it comes to identifying and tasting Scotch and Irish whiskey, and many of them are actually surprisingly obvious from the first sip. We will break down the top three differences between these similar spirits.
1. Irish Whiskey and Scotch Whisky Are Spelled Differently
We can’t possibly look at any other differences without first examining the most obvious one: that addition ‘e’ in the name. After all, this ‘e’ was the key to the identity of the USA’s entire whiskey scene, and remains by far the most noticeable difference, due to it being present on every bottle of Irish and American whiskey over the past century and beyond.
For those looking for some great ancestral spelling battle between the Scots and the Irish, prepare for disappointment. The divide in spelling is a matter of some historical dispute… but the reality is actually a little dull, with it just coming down to a simple and obvious way of distinguishing one country’s product against another.
The 19th century was the first time any spelling reforms were really put in practice on consumer goods, and before this, spelling was something of a free-for-all, with producers being allowed to spell things more or less however they wanted. At some point, towards the end of the 19th century, it was agreed somewhere, by somebody, that Irish and US whiskies would be spelled with an ‘e’... and Scotch and Canadian whiskies wouldn’t be. OK - it’s not a romantic story, there are no surprising twists, but that’s history for you.
2. Irish Whiskey and Scotch Have Different Production Processes
When it comes to production methods, there’s quite a lot of differences to look out for when it comes to identifying and tasting Irish and Scotch products. The most significant of these is that Irish whiskey continues to be made with a heady blend of unmalted and malted barley while in the still pot phase… whereas Scotch only uses malted barley (that’s grain that’s been soaked and which is beginning to sprout seedlings).
The process of peating, in which the barley is dried over smoking and glowing clods of earth, is very much a Scottish thing, rarely seen nowadays in Irish whiskey production. Indeed, the Irish like to maintain the pure punch of grain flavor, which they achieve by drying their barleycorn in a kiln rather than over smoke.
3. Irish Whiskey and Scotch Are Distilled Differently
Irish whiskey tends to be triple-distilled, a process which results in a considerable smoother finish, and which also gives the whisky a higher alcohol content. This method was established first by a (whisper it) Scottish distiller, the iconic John Jameson, who moved across the Irish sea to establish one of the country’s most famous and long-lasting distilleries back in 1780. Scotch, typically, is double distilled, maintaining its rougher edges and allowing for a wider range of potential flavor expressions.
Are There Other Differences Between Whiskey and Whisky?
Fans, enthusiasts, and aficionados will no doubt be more than happy to talk yours through the other subtle and grandiose factors which make Irish whiskey the world-beating drink it is today, and will surely be armed with facts about historic practices, and differing visions regarding what whiskey can and should be. However, whether you’re an Irish whiskey lover who wouldn’t dream of even trying the product of another country, or a whisky explorer always seeking out new taste sensations, there’s no doubt that this country’s influence has been remarkable and enduring, and the Irish deserve our full admiration.
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