A Taste for Irish Whiskey

A spirited primer on spelling, types, and more
Irish Whiskey

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Learn more about this popular spirit.

Whiskey-lovers defy stereotypes and aren’t shy about public exclamations of their affection. For example, Mark Twain, who was a serious bourbon imbiber, once said, “Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.”

Throughout history, famous men like Winston Churchill, William Faulkner, Frank Sinatra, and George Bernard Shaw have been known to drink a glass or two, but women have often figured prominently among whiskey’s public proponents as well. According to CBS News, just under 40 percent of U.S. whiskey drinkers are women and “some of the most famous whiskey bars were either opened, owned, or managed by women.”

From former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (who appreciates a bit of Canadian rye from time to time) to Mad Men star Christina Hendricks, Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton, and Lady Gaga, all sorts of women sip whiskey. Ava Gardner even declared, “I wish to live to 150 years old, but the day I die, I wish it to be with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of whiskey in the other.”

Like these famous women, I have to admit I fell victim to this spirit’s charms years ago. Although I love rye, a good bourbon, and a Speyside, it’s Irish whiskey that makes my heart go pitty-pat. Maybe it’s my Irish heritage, but there’s something familiar, comforting, and friendly about Irish whiskey, just like the people. Despite America’s recently reinvigorated fondness for brown spirits, especially bourbon and other whiskeys, there still seems to be some confusion about what whiskey is, where it comes from, how it’s distilled, and what makes one whiskey different from the other.

After lengthy, ahem, “study,” it was high time to create a whiskey Cliffs Notes guide to Ireland’s brown stuff.

 

What’s up with the spelling?

The next time you are offered a dram, pay close attention to how the word “whiskey” is spelled on the bottle. It may sound crazy, but there are two accepted spellings for the spirit, depending on where it's made. In Ireland and the United States (except in the federal regulations, which for some reason spell it “whisky”), — and nowhere else — whiskey is spelled with an “ey” if it's singular and “eys” if it's plural.

No one — neither we Americans nor the Irish — can say why whiskey is spelled with an “ey” in these two countries, especially since timeworn bottles of Irish whiskey exist that include labeling spelled “whisky.” Somewhere in the past, the Irish switched and never looked back. Just remember that everywhere else whiskey is made around the world (such as Scotland, Canada, Japan, India, and France) whiskey is spelled “whisky” without the "e" and the plural is “whiskies.”

 

So what is whiskey?

Whiskey is a spirit distilled from any fermented grain mash including malted barley (considered the one that started it all), rye, corn, wheat, or a combination of these grains. Each country regulates what kinds of whiskey (this includes Scotch whiskies, Irish whiskey, rye, bourbon, and Tennessee whiskey) can be made, where it can be made, the types of stills used, minimum and maximum ABV levels, how it’s distilled, the types of barrels used, and more.

 

Thank a Celt for whiskey

For ages, Celtic Ireland and Scotland have each claimed whiskey got its start in their respective backyards (some say as early as the third and fourth centuries), even in the face of evidence that shows Ireland, not Scotland, first invented whisky.

No one disputes malt whisky has been made in Scotland for at least 500 years. The proof (sorry, pun unavoidable) is in detailed written accounts and records kept by Scottish Catholic monks attempting to satisfy the inevitable reach of the tax man. The account dates to 1494 and can be found in King James IV’s Exchequer Roll (that’s the tax man’s ledger, for us Yanks) for his household expenses. Contained in the ledger were entries that stated King James IV granted Friar John Cor of Lindores Abbey “eight bolls of malt wherewith to make aqua vitae.” (Back then, malt whisky was called "uisge beatha" — pronounced “ooshkie bayha” — which means “water of life,” but clerics called it aqua vitae, which means the same thing in Latin.)

Some evidence suggests that the Irish Celts were fiddling with the fiery drink in pre-Christian times, so they continue to claim the precedent.

 

Irish character begins with a pot still

In Ireland, whiskey is called “the brown stuff,” and like their Calvinist cousins to the northeast, the Irish are persnickety about quality but are less specific about how to achieve it. It just has to taste good. The regulations in Ireland don’t specify double or triple distilling, so the next time someone tells you that Irish whiskey is always triple distilled, you can say, “Actually…” The same thing goes for peat. Irish whiskey can be made either using peat or not, and either with or without malted barley and other grains. For the Irish, character matters, and the best Irish whiskeys are complex, aromatic, smooth, slightly sweet, and always enjoyable to drink.

To call a whiskey an Irish whiskey, it has to meet these standards:

— The spirit must be produced in Ireland or Northern Ireland

— It must be produced from a mash of malted or unmalted grains

— It must be distilled to no more than 94.8 percent ABV to transmit the natural aromas and flavors from the grains and the wood barrels

— It must be aged in wooden casks for a minimum of three years in Ireland or Northern Ireland

Despite a long, proud heritage of distillation, reputation for quality, and global sales, until about five years ago there were only three working distilleries on the entire Emerald Isle. The list now includes 16 — many of whose products can be found on websites like Celtic Whiskey Shop — and the burgeoning Irish whiskey industry has been covered in depth by outlets like Chilled Magazine and The Journal.

In Ireland, these distilleries produce one of the four government-classified whiskeys, which include Irish pot still, malt, grain, and blended whiskey. Irish pot still whiskey is straightforward (but is often mistakenly also used to describe single pot still styles) and is made with both non-peated malted barley (minimum 30 percent) and unmalted barley (minimum 30 percent) and other unmalted cereals distilled in a pot still. The unmalted barley is used to add a spicy flavor and give a creamy mouthfeel, and for old-school character, the pot still is a winner.

 

They do malt whiskey in Ireland too

Irish malt whiskey (also distilled in a pot still) is made with 100 percent malted barley and is a powerful yet refined style that gets its smooth, velvety texture and sweet caramel taste from the time-tested use of malted barley. For your learning pleasure, start with a traditional single malt made by Bushmills, Ireland’s oldest distillery. But for a dram that will leave you wanting more, you have to sample The Dubliner Irish Whiskey Limited Edition 10-Year-Old Single Malt — it was first released in Dublin, Ireland, in 2015, but now you can find it in markets across the U.S.

 

Another Kind of Still

For centuries, the British crown’s tax on whiskey and malt in Ireland made it expensive to make the brown stuff. To save money on the malted barley, distillers began adding in unmalted barley, wheat, or corn, and the result was a sweeter, softer style of whiskey that could save even more money if distilled in a column still.

The government in Ireland calls this “grain whiskey,” not because it’s made with just one kind of grain (this style must contain no more than 30 percent malted barley along with corn or wheat) but because it’s distilled at just one distillery. The new Glendalough in Wicklow is Ireland’s first craft distillery, and its Glendalough Double Barrel is a fabulous example of grain whiskey, but don’t stop the tasting there. Try every whiskey in their range; they are all fantastic.

 

Go for style and rarity

For delicious taste and complexity, an Irish blended whiskey is the way to go. By law, it can be a blend of two or more of the three types of whiskeys, and master blenders are rare individuals able to utilize expert sensory skills to blend many whiskeys from different distilleries with a variety of tastes and textures. Give Jameson a try; it's recognized for its deep flavors and easy drinkabiliy.

If it’s rarity or one-of-a-kind style you seek, track down a single pure pot style whiskey. It’s the only whiskey made exclusively in Ireland, and it’s unlike any other whiskey. First produced in the 1800s at the Midleton Distillery in Midleton, County Cork, it’s unique because the whiskey is made with a mash bill of both malted and unmalted barley. This whiskey’s “pot still character” is a pleasure to drink because it combines spicy cinnamon notes with tropical fruit flavors (like pineapple and mango), and it has a lovely long finish, made most famous by the distillery’s Red Breast.

 

Sláinte!

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