Why is Irish Whiskey Different?
For many non-whiskey drinkers, a whiskey is a whiskey, but that is not the case. There are essentially four different whiskey styles – American (which includes rye and bourbon), Irish, Canadian, and Scotch. The differences are sometimes subtle, but there are differences, and not just the spelling of whiskey. (Note: Both "whiskey" and "whisky" are acceptable spellings. In the U.S., whiskey is the norm, but Scotch is ALWAYS whisky.)
Many locations over the years have laid claim to being the birthplace of whiskey, but some of the first written records point to Ireland. English soldiers returning from Ireland in the 12th century spoke glowingly of the local uisce beatha, or water of life in Gaelic.
But how is Irish whiskey different?
If you're thinking, "Because it's distilled in Ireland," well, that is one difference, but it's not the only one. For instance, there's the barley, or more specifically, unmalted barley combined with malted barley, and usually distilled in a pot still. Irish whiskey uses malted barley dried in enclosed kilns by indirect heat over coal fires, which gives a very different flavor from the peat smoked barley used in Scotch whisky. One exception is Coonemara, which offers peated malt Irish whiskeys.
Another important factor is the distilling. Most Irish whiskies are distilled three times, while other whiskeys are usually distilled twice. The third distillation results in a greater smoothness, since it removes more of the impurities that cause harshness or burn. Irish pot stills are also quite a bit larger than those used by the Scots, which also has an effect on the whiskey's flavor.
By law, Irish whiskey must be aged for a minimum of three years, although most distillers age their whiskey for much longer. Irish whiskeys can be aged in a variety of barrels. Most are aged in American white oak barrels that have previously been used for aging bourbon, but some distillers use oloroso sherry casks or port casks. Each type of cask gives the resulting whiskey a slightly different flavor.
Blended or Single Malt?
There are plenty of people that will swear that single malt is the only way to go. A single malt whiskey is distilled at a single distillery, and made completely from a single type of malted grain. A single malt whiskey, though, will probably be a blend of whiskeys from several different years (the age on the bottle will be of the youngest whiskey used). Like all blending, this creates a consistent style and flavor for the label.
The majority of whiskeys, though, like other spirits, are blended, and the skill of the blender is as important as the skill of the distiller. Irish whiskey may be a blend of pot still whiskey, grain whiskey (usually made from corn), and malted whiskey. It may also be a blend of whiskeys aged in different types of barrels.
Who Makes the Best Irish Whiskey?
It's hard to imagine, but while there are quite a few well-known brands of Irish whiskey, there are only three distilleries in Ireland. Bushmill is in Northern Ireland, and is the holder of the oldest distillery license in the world (since 1608). Midleton and Cooley Distilleries are in the Republic of Ireland. Midleton, in County Cork, is the largest of the three, and produces a number of the world's most famous Irish whiskeys, including Jameson, Tullamore Dew, Powers, Murphy's, and Dunphy's.
But which is the best? Experienced whiskey drinkers include Bushmill's, Jameson, and Tullamore Dew among the best labels. Midleton Vary Rare is arguably one of the finest Irish whiskeys, but as the name implies, it's difficult to find and quite expensive.
Easier to find but still outstanding whiskeys include Jameson Gold, Jameson Limited Edition 15 years, and the Jameson 1780 12 year old single malt, Bushmill's 12 year old Distillery Reserve or Bushmill Malt 16 years, Black Bush Irish Whiskey, and Tullamore Dew 12 years old.
But which one is the very best? That, of course, is purely a matter of personal taste and opinion!