The splendor of Irish Whiskey: The basics and history

Sean Ludford is a regular contributor to TaylorEason.com. He is a veteran spirits educator and publishes at BevX.com. Check out Sean’s bio here.

In a world that is becoming increasingly smaller with each year, you are hard pressed to find yourself far away from an Irish Pub regardless of your location. Stuck in Manila? I can point you to a great Paddy bar. Ditto for Reykjavík, Rome, Bordeaux, Guadalajara, Munich, Brussels, Hong Kong, and just about anyplace that you could name.

The Irish Pub is the world’s friendliest and most covert church where the flock congregates daily. An essential element of the doctrine is Irish Whiskey. Whiskey and Ireland are inseparable and the rest of the world is catching up. Irish Whiskey is enjoying a revival worldwide and America is no exception. In fact the US may well be pulling the bandwagon. Irish Whiskey; it’s not just for St. Paddy’s Day anymore.

Why should it be saved be for St. Paddy’s Day? In the world of Whiskey — and dare I say brown spirits — there is nothing as inviting, as silky and agreeable as Irish Whiskey. While Scotch Whisky, a great favorite indeed, asks something and occasionally much of its patrons, Irish Whiskey offers pleasure with no strings attached. This does not suggest that Irish Whiskey is not worthy of contemplation. There is much to be discovered in a glass of Irish Whiskey. Luckily more and more spirits drinkers are discovering this fact.
Where Have All the Distilleries Gone?
With spirits growing in popularity, the current, huge disconnect in the world of Irish Whiskey is the fact that few distilleries remain. Worse yet, damn few rumors of new distilleries persist. Ireland is speckled with the ruins of distilleries long abandoned. The sad truth is that all of Ireland’s Whiskies of note are made at one of the country’s three active distilleries. There is Cork Midleton in County Cork, Cooley (the latest distiller – 1987) in County Louth, and The Old Bushmills Distillery in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. That’s it.

So how did a nation of thousands of distilleries get reduced to just three? Of course many factors have contributed to our present circumstance.

Ireland fell victim to a perfect storm of local and world events that conspired to cripple the Whiskey industry. The first, and enormous factor was the Irish war of independence. Once freedom was secured the Brits were quick with an embargo on all things Irish. This of course eliminated the numerous outposts of the empire including Canada, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as the UK itself.

Of course Ireland still had the vastly growing market of the US to rely upon. Not so fast. In 1920 the US entered the dark period of Prohibition that lasted for 13 years. 1933 came just in time to save a good number of Irish distillers clinging to their last thread but in less than a decade the Second World War broke out and with it a massive grain shortage in Europe. Without grains there is no Whiskey. In a matter of three decades, the once thriving Irish Whiskey industry was nearly mortally wounded. This may seem like a long, long time ago but the effects of this period in history affects the Irish Whiskey business to this day.

While that brief walk through history may leave you a bit glum, the reality of Irish Whiskey in the 21st century is very positive indeed. We are now privileged to find more Irish Whiskey labels available on our store shelves and in our local pubs. It is always a remarkable exercise to sit down with a dozen, or more, labels and appreciate the common threads that unite them while savoring the unique flavors found in each bottle. Don’t settle for just the singular label that is being pushed by nearly every bar in the nation. Hint, the Whiskey that is being thrown down in shot form by newly minted drinkers is not likely to be Ireland’s top Whiskey ambassador. Whiskey is made for sipping.

If it has been some time since you last enjoyed an Irish Whiskey, get to it. An Irish pub lies within your reach and they are waiting for you.

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Defining Irish Whiskey
Irish Whiskey differs from its Scottish counterpart by being triple-distilled as opposed to the double distillation used by most of Scotland’s malt distillers. Much of Ireland’s Whiskey is of the blended variety, meaning that it is a blend of malt and grain whiskey. In Ireland, grain whiskey is almost always made exclusively with maize and made in column stills (like Bourbon). Much of the malt whiskey is made in pot stills. True Irish Pot Still Whiskey is made with a significant portion of unmalted barley giving it a great, rustic aromatic profile and unique flavors.

What’s With the “E”?
In short, Scottish Whisky has no ‘e’ while Irish Whiskey does. There are many theories to explain this subtle difference including the cheeky suggestion that the Scots were too frugal to buy the additional vowel! The most credible explanation is that in the mid 1800s Scotch Whisky brands saturated the marketplace with loads of cheaply made whisky. Producers in Ireland, in an effort to further distinguish their products, adopted the use of the extra vowel. Certainly, this is not a condition that exists today but the subtle spelling variation endures. In the world of whisky we generally find that Canada, Japan and Wales follow the Scottish spelling while the US uses both spellings. In no way should consumers believe that the choice of one spelling over the other is any indication of style.

Types of Irish Whiskey:
Blended – this is by far the greatest volume of Irish Whiskey. As the name suggests, it’s a blend of grain Whiskey and malt Whiskey.
Grain – In Ireland grain Whiskey is most often made with maize. It is produced in column stills as it is in Scotland and the USA.
Malt (single malt) – is made with malted barley as is the single malt Whisky in Scotland. It is distilled in pot stills and is much more weighty than grain whiskey.
Irish Pure Pot Still – is much like the malt Whiskey as it utilizes malted barley in a pot still with the distinctive difference of including unmalted barley. This style is very distinctive.

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