A Beginner’s Guide to Irish Whiskey

The Ultimate Irish Whiskey Guide

A selection of whiskey bottles on a glass bar shelf

Whiskey is a much-beloved beverage around the world, but it has many more aficionados than connoisseurs who know about its origins and making. Given that Ireland is generally considered the birthplace of whiskey, it is no surprise that Ireland produces some of the best and most unique whiskeys in the world. Read on to find out about the production of Irish whiskey, its history, how to best enjoy it, and a host of other facts about this emblematic beverage.

What is Irish Whiskey, and how is it made?

Irish whiskey is whiskey made on the island of Ireland. Irish whiskey is made from grains, most commonly barley. The process has many steps, and each one must be carefully controlled to ensure the whiskey has the desired flavour in the end.

Firstly, some of the grains are usually left in water, so that they start germinating, and are then dried out, in a process known as ‘malting’. This allows the grains to develop enzymes which will be important later on.

A malting floor, covered in grains of germinating barley

A mix of malted and non-malted cereals is then ground and warm water is added, creating a cereal mash which is stirred for several hours in a special tank called a mash tun. The enzymes in the cereal itself break down starch into sugar, which is released into the water. Sugar water is slowly filtered out of the tun.

Next comes fermentation: yeast is added to the sugar water (or wort) and left to ferment for 48 hours or more. The result is a low-alcohol liquid called ‘wash’.

The next step is distillation, which consists in the evaporation and cooling of a liquid in order to purify it. The desirable components of the wash evaporate faster and condense in a separate tank, while the impurities are left behind. Distillation happens in large tanks called stills, which are either made of copper or have copper tubing. Copper effectively removes sulphur-based impurities which would otherwise spoil the taste.

a whiskey still: large tank used for distilling Irish whiskey

Irish whiskey is traditionally triple-distilled, which means it passes through three different stills in order for as many impurities as possible to be removed. Distillation also increases the concentration of alcohol – which is at least 40 percent ABV for Irish whiskey.

The final step is maturation, or aging: whiskey is put into oak casks, often ones which have been previously used to age other spirits such as sherry. Aging allows the whiskey’s flavour to develop as it absorbs aromas from the wood. The whiskey is then bottled and sold.

Fun fact: although whiskey is made from cereals, it is gluten-free and safe for celiacs to consume.

Casks of Irish Whiskey

A History of whiskey in Ireland

The Romans used the phrase aqua vitae, meaning ‘water of life’, to refer to distilled spirits. This was translated into Gaelic as uisce beatha, the phrase which the word ‘whiskey’ comes from.

The technique of distillation, originally used in places such as Egypt to make perfume, was brought to Ireland by well-travelled monks around the 11th century. It is believed that production of whiskey started around the 12th century, and the oldest written records of whiskey date from the 15th century. Medieval whiskey was very different from the kind we know today – it was not aged, and a variety of herbs were usually added.

Recipes were rarely written down and production was often unregulated, so there are not that many records of Irish whiskey production. It was King James I who tightened laws around the production of whiskey in the 17th century. However, illegal whiskey distillation was widespread.

Regulations slowly tightened until the 19th century, when laws were changed to make it much easier for distilleries to operate legally, causing a boom in the industry. Irish whiskey was massively exported to the US and Britain. This phenomenon was known as the Dublin Whiskey Peak, as whiskey produced in this area was especially well-regarded.

Several factors led to the decline of the industry during the 20th century. Irish distillers were reluctant to adopt the Coffey still, a new, cheaper and more efficient model. This meant they were hard-pressed to compete with distilleries in other countries, which did use this still. Political turmoil in Ireland, Prohibition in the US and new economic policies adopted both by Ireland and by Britain wreaked further havoc on the Irish whiskey industry.

Outside of the Kilbeggan distillery, built next to a river

Irish whiskey experienced a resurgence in the late 1980’s, and has been the world’s fastest growing spirit since then, with many new distilleries opening.

What’s the difference between Irish whiskey, bourbon and scotch?

Bourbon and scotch are also types of whiskey, but there are several differences between them and Irish whiskey.

Bourbon is mostly produced in the US, usually from corn, as opposed to the barley used in Irish whiskey and Scotch. It is also aged in new barrels, which are charred in order to give the liquor a fuller flavour. There is no minimum aging period.

‘Scotch’ refers to certain whiskeys produced in Scotland. It is usually made only from barley. The famous phrase ‘single-malt’, often applied to Scotch, refers to whisky which has been made only with malted barley, from a single distillery.

Scotch whiskys are often peated. This means after malting (being left to germinate) the barley for Scotch is usually dried out in a kiln heated by a peat fire. Peat is a substance found in bogs which can be used as fuel, similarly to coal, which gives Scotch a distinctive flavour.

Scotch is usually double-distilled, and aged for at least two years.

Irish whiskey has several distinctive characteristics. Firstly, it is usually made with a mixture of malted and unmalted grains, which gives it interesting nuances. Secondly, the triple distillation gives it a smooth taste. Irish whiskey must be aged for at least three years, and the longer aging period also influences the taste.

Five Irish whiskeys you can enjoy without breaking the bank

Irish Whsikey: Bottle of Teeling, Millstone and Mackmyra

There are many expensive, old whiskeys out there, but they are not necessarily the best. The five whiskeys below are all worth a try, either for the uniqueness of their taste, for their rarity, or for their quality, plain and simple. The fact that they are all relatively inexpensive is a handy bonus.

Connemara Peated Single Malt

Commonly described as honeyed and smokey, this whiskey brings together Scottish and Irish distilling philosophies. Connemara is named after the region where it is produced.

Jameson Black Barrel

This whiskey from the iconic Irish label has been aged in sherry and bourbon casks, giving it a spicier and more intense flavour than regular Jamesons. If you want the most bang for your buck, this affordable bottle will definitely deliver.

Knappogue 12-Year Single Malt

Light and fruity, this whiskey is a sure bet for anyone who shies away from heavy, smokey liquors.

Teeling Small Batch

This mellow whiskey has been aged in rum casks, instead of the usual bourbon or sherry, for a spicier taste. Another affordable option for those who believe quality is not always expensive.

Bushmills Black Bush

A sippable, versatile whiskey described as woody and vanilla-flavoured. Its fans enjoy mixing it into cocktails or drinking it straight.

How to serve Irish whiskey

Even a forgettable whiskey can flavour a cake or be improved with some honey. Here are some ways you can enjoy your favourite whiskey.

By itself

Many people like to enjoy their whiskey neat (with nothing added), or on the rocks (over ice). However, experts say that the best way of enjoying a good whiskey is by adding a little water, to stop the alcohol from overwhelming your taste buds. If you like your drinks nice and chilly, it’s best to ensure the ice is high-quality (from either spring water or distilled), in order to avoid affecting the taste.

With coffee

Cup of Irish coffee topped with cream, and a bottle of Jameson whiskey behind it

Mix up some coffee, sugar, cream and your favourite Irish whiskey to create the perfect Irish coffee. Alternatively, use whiskey to replace brandy in a carajillo, a traditional Spanish digestif.

As a cold remedy

Whiskey is the main ingredient in the hot toddy, a drink believed to alleviate flu symptoms. Aside from the liquor, a hot toddy usually contains honey, herbs and spices, and is served hot. It is also the perfect drink to enjoy curled up under a blanket on a stormy day.

Make a whiskey cocktail

We’ve already mentioned a few, but there are many great cocktails that can be made with whiskey. Try your hand at some: the Manhattan, the Whiskey Sour and the John Collins, for example, are classics. Go for a Mint Julep for something more refreshing, or a Pickleback for the authentic Irish experience.

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