Mention whiskey to most people and they’ll likely think of the Scottish stuff or, perhaps, Kentucky bourbon. Suggest “Ireland” and many will think of beer, or to be more specific, the black ale known as stout.
To a growing segment of spirits aficionados, though, those two concepts merge together most deliciously in the increasingly popular beverage known as Irish whiskey.
As the late drinks writer Michael Jackson once noted, a case could be made for the charm of Irish whiskey being found in its easy approachability, certainly as compared with the richness and complexity of its Scottish neighbors. Where Scotch malts are multitudinous and vary widely in character, Irish whiskeys are certainly fewer—there are but three distilleries in all of Ireland, fewer than half the number currently in operation on the tiny Scottish island of Islay—and generally lighter and a bit sweeter in character. This combination makes Irish whiskey perhaps less intimidating and almost certainly more universally appealing.
Another point of difference is found in spelling, the Irish embracing the “e”, as in whiskey, and the Scots preferring the more simplified approach of whisky.
A part of this friendliness of character stems from the habit Irish distillers have developed of using a combination of malted and unmalted barley in their whiskeys—except, of course, for in those labeled single or pure malt—which, again according to Jackson, lends these spirits a familiar and soothingly aromatic scent of tanned leather. The majority, however, could be said to come from another distinctly Irish distiller’s habit, that of triple distillation. The more a spirit is distilled, the less assertive its flavor typically becomes—think of seven times distilled vodkas. The extra pass Irish whiskey takes through the still usually results in a cleaner, less boisterous finished spirit. For at least two of the island’s distilleries, this third distillation is considered all but essential.
Another attribute of Irish whiskey, although no longer a universal one, is the avoidance of malt that has been kilned over a peat-fuelled fire, the very stuff that gives Scottish whisky it’s characteristically smoky, sometimes almost oily appeal. At one time, this was a strict rule for Irish whiskeys, although of late several have appeared offering elements of peatiness that range from exceptionally mild to aggressively extreme.
The lack of smoky interaction not only adds to the accessibility of the best-selling Irish brands, it also emphasizes the spirit’s natural sweetness, which in turn makes it even more popularly enjoyable. Also, in this age of cocktail consciousness, it is worth noting that all the above attributes lend a mixability to Irish whiskey that its Scottish brethren generally lack, and which makes a bottle all that much more versatile behind the bar.