“Too much of anything is bad, but too much of good whiskey is barely enough.”
The name ‘Whisky’ is derived from both Uisce beatha (Irish Gaelic) and Uisge beatha (Scottish Gaelic) which were both translated from the Latin ‘aqua vitae’ meaning ‘water of life.’ There is a long disagreement about the first recorded production between Ireland and Scotland. One of the most common questions we are asked at the bar is what the main differences between Irish and Scottish whisky are. Here is a brief guide for those that love a dram as much as us.
Whisky or Whiskey?
You may have noticed there is a cheeky spelling difference between whisky and whiskey. This is down to an Irishman called Aeneas Coffey who perfected the continuous still. The continuous still, or the ‘Coffey still’, led to an era of cheap, mass produced grain spirit which was made by an inferior distillation method, according to the Irish producers. At the time, Ireland was the world’s whisky powerhouse and they wanted nothing to do with this cheap, light spirit - condemning it as a bastardization of the pot still technique and flavour, not fit to wear the name whisky on its label. Demonised and exiled, Coffey took his method to the Scots and is one of the reasons that Scottish whisky dominated the whisky world for so long. As a result, the ‘e’ was added to the name by the Irish to signify that theirs was a premium product and not to be confused which what they saw as cheap pish. It is thought that the American market adopted whiskey with an ‘e’ due to the large amount of immigration and trade between Ireland and America.
For a “whisky” to be legally defined as Scotch whisky, it (obviously) must be produced and matured at a distillery in Scotland. Furthermore, it must be composed of water and malted barley, to which only whole grains of other cereals may be added. It also must be aged in oak barrels for a minimum of 3 years. Typically, Scotch is distilled twice in copper pot stills.
The six whisky regions of Scotland are Highlands, Speyside, Lowlands, Campbeltown, Islay and Islands. Each are known for a distinct profile of flavours characteristics. An example is that Speyside is generally known for its sweet and slightly spicy single malts that either have very little or no peat added to their production. If this sounds like your kind of dram then consider a Balvenie or Glenfiddich. In contrast, Islay whiskies are known to be powerful, peat-fuelled ‘punches in a glass’ that often have notes of sea salt and smoke due to the distilleries being located on the rocks close to the harsh Scottish sea. Ardbeg, Laphroaig and Lagavulin are some of the world-famous distilleries from this region. Delving into the differences between these regions and the dispute of whether there are ‘officially’ six regions is something that we will be doing in a later newsletter section.
Let’s now move across the channel to Ireland. Irish whiskey must be distilled on the island of Ireland and be produced from a mash of malted cereals with or without whole grains of other cereals. It must be aged to a minimum of three years and can be matured in a barrel that is new or one that has previously contained Bourbon, Sherry or Rum. The whiskey must also be a minimum of 40% ABV.
The majority of Irish whiskey is distilled three times, leading to a smoother spirit as more ‘impurities’ are taken out of the spirit, as opposed to the two-time distillation of scotch. Most Irish distilleries do not use peat in the production of their whiskey; the smoky flavours that arise from using peat in the production of the whiskey are seen to detract from or even destroy the intricate characteristics of Irish whiskey. While it is not a legal requirement to follow this method it is the more preferred style, though you can find distilleries, such as Connemara, who follow more of the Scottish method in producing peated Irish Whiskey, which is also distilled twice.
Around 90% of all Irish whiskey production is blended. Blended Irish whiskey is a mixture of single malt whiskeys from either the same or different distilleries. The Irish whiskey market has been shifting towards more production of Single Pot Still Whiskey. These whiskies contain a mixture of malted and unmalted barley that is distilled in a pot still. Midleton, Redbreast and Teeling are amongst the distilleries producing Single Pot Still whiskey that is taking the whiskey world by storm.
Whether you enjoy your whiskey, with an ‘e’ or without, it is the different production methodologies that make the big differences to the drams we love. As Shakespeare wrote “What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Whether it is Irish or Scottish, we should love our finely produced drams all the same.