Irish Whisky 101

Irish whiskey must originate in Ireland. In most cases, it is a mixture of pot and column-stilled, malted, and unmalted whiskeys. Other times, it contains triple distilled malted barley (a single malt), such as Bushmills. But whichever Irish whiskey you jam to, it’ll rarely disappoint. Most Irish whiskeys are delicious, smooth to drink, and a fun ingredient to mix with your favorite cocktails. 

We can attest to the uniqueness of the drink to Ireland’s limited distilleries. But the limited production enhances the sophistication of these smoothly blended whiskeys. Aside from single malts, small-batch whiskeys, and barrel-aged whiskeys, there are several noteworthy Irish whiskeys you’ll want to try. Here is the Irish whiskey story, from a luxury splurge to an everyday mixed drink. 

The History of Irish Whiskey

In the early 1500s, Irish missionary monks brought distilling to Ireland. Old Bushmills Distillery became the first whiskey distillery in Northern Ireland when it opened its doors in 1608. The whiskey industry snowballed from there. As with all great tales, Irish whiskey’s history combines inspiration and challenge that ends in triumph. Ireland began distilling whiskey in the 6th century, and the earliest written records date as far back as the 1400s.

It has been a rollercoaster ride ever since. Around 80% of all whiskey sold in the 20th century came from the Emerald Isle. Bushmills Irish Whiskey has always been a constant throughout the highs and lows. Bushmills has crafted Irish whiskey for over 400 years and has survived the test of time to tell the incredible story of the Irish whiskey industry. 

The Conditions Needed to Make Irish Whiskey

We know Irish whiskey for its complex blend and unique drying process. In which the Irish dry malt away from heat and smoke in a kiln. To preserve the delicate, toasty honey flavor, distillers keep the temperature low during the distillation.

Distilleries age most Irish whiskey for at least three years in bourbon barrels or wine casks. Irish whiskey can age for extended periods like all whiskeys, affecting both the smoothness and market price. As mentioned above, there are three basic types of Irish whiskey:

  • Pot Still
  • Malt 
  • Grain

Whiskies made from malt and grain are almost identical to their counterparts in Scotland. The Irish make whiskey only from malted barley in pot stills and grain whiskey in columns from a mash bill, primarily corn. Pot still whiskey is a uniquely Irish creation that differs from any other whiskey.

Each of the major brands of Irish whiskeys, such as Jameson, Tullamore Dew, Bushmills, and others, is a blend, meaning that it is a combination of two or more types of Irish whiskey. Irish expressions include single malts, single grains, and single pot stills (all pot stills come from the same distillery). Most of the whiskey mature in used barrels, and most barrels are ex-bourbon. 

But there are also some:

  • Ex-sherry
  • Ex-port
  • Ex-wine
  • Ex-Madeira Casks
  • New Oak—the New Irish Oaks

The Irish Whisky from an Emerald Climate

While triple distillation is one of the Irish whiskey’s hallmarks, the other is the pot still whiskey tradition combined with the climate. They not only make it in copper pot stills but also with malted and unmalted barley. Unmalted barley makes pot-still whiskey different from Irish and Scottish whiskeys containing 100% malt. The British Crown’s efforts to raise taxes from the Irish whiskey industry by increasing the tax on malted barley in 1792 might have sparked the blending art.

The whiskey flavor produced from malted and unmalted barley was the preserve of Midleton whiskeys and appeared in blends such as Jameson. You can find another example of Irish whiskey in its purest form in expressions such as Redbreast, and Writer’s Tear is another Irish blend using the pot still whiskey.

While many people believe pot still whiskey or triple distillation makes Irish whiskey special, the one feature people cite is the mild Irish climate. The weather has a significant impact on the maturation process. Hibernian winters further aggravate the process since they are a couple of degrees Celsius warmer than those from Scotland. A further contrast between the cold winters and hot summers of Kentucky and Tennessee. In the end, this produces a smoother, mellower product that almost matures uniformly.

The Growth in Popularity of Irish Whiskey

It’s important to note that Irish whiskey must comply with several laws:

  • Both distillation and aging must take place on the island of Ireland—North Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
  • The distillate must have a purity of 94.8% or less from yeast-fermented grains.
  • Age it in wooden barrels no larger than 700 liters (185 gallons) for at least three years
  • A blend of Irish whiskeys must have the label “blended.”

The difference between Irish whiskey and Scotch goes beyond an “e.” During the pot still phase, they make Irish whiskey from a blend of unmalted and malted barley, while Scotch whiskey uses only malted barley (soaked and sprouted grains). 

While Scotts make their whiskey from malted barley smoked over peat, which imparts a distinct flavor, Irish whiskey comes from kiln-dried barley, giving a more pure taste. Unlike the Scotts, who double distill their whisky, the Irish triple distills the whiskey, resulting in a smooth, high-alcohol spirit. John Jameson—a Scotch immigrant— who operated one of Ireland’s most successful whiskey distilleries in 1780 introduced the art.

How to Best Enjoy it

We’re getting to the good part now. An aficionado drinks Irish whiskey neat or with a dash of water to appreciate its subtle flavors. It complements an Irish coffee superbly. 

Whiskey and Ginger

Some experts recommend watering down whiskey if you’re new to it, and that’s not necessarily a bad idea. If you are starting, try whiskey and ginger.  According to your preference, that would be a few ounces of whiskey plus ginger ale or ginger beer. It helps you to get used to the taste since the flavors complement each other. Any whiskey blended with Irish whiskey works, but Jameson is famous because it’s the most sold Irish whiskey.

Half Whiskey, Half Water is also an Option

If your order has over 50 percent alcohol, this will dilute it to a level of about 20 percent alcohol, which is the level whiskey evaluators use to describe and judge whiskey. You get new aromas and flavors through the water while your palate is developing. As your taste buds adapt, cut back on the water until you are happy with a few drops of water or a neat whiskey.

For Whiskey Lovers

If you prefer drinking your whiskey neat, try blended whiskey. Blended Irish whiskey doesn’t hit you hard. It’s easy to drink, and you won’t shudder every time you take a sip. It is the triple distillation process that makes Irish whiskey taste pure.

Choose single pot stills and single malts for Manhattans and Old Fashioned, as these have a much better flavor and contribute more to the drink. Do not order a “car bomb,” especially in an Irish pub. It’s an insult to the bartender if they are Irish, and you’ll waste what might otherwise be great Guinness and whiskey.”

Its smoothness makes Irish whiskey cocktail-friendly to no end. Enjoy Irish whiskey to the fullest. Here are some beautiful bottles you can order and keep.