Whiskies of the World: The Types of Irish Whisky
Last week, we learned about the fascinating history of Irish Whisky; how it grew to become one of the most popular spirits in the western world, how it almost died a death in the late 1800s and how it’s seen a spectacular resurgence in recent years. (If you’re not up to date, check out last week’s post here).
Now that we know the history, it’s time to find out more about the drinks themselves. If you’re up to date on our Scotch 101 series, you’ll know that Scottish whisky takes the form of blends, single malts, single casks and cask strength varieties. There’s some cross-over in Irish Whisky, but thanks to the specificities of Irish whisky production, there are also some discrepancies.
Before we get into the types of Irish whisky, though we’ll talk a bit about what makes Irish Whisky… well, Irish Whisky!
The Rules of Irish whisky
Just like with Scotch, there are some pretty clear rules laid out in Ireland about what does, and does not constitute Irish whisky.
The Irish Whiskey Act of 1980 (more on the appearance of that “e” in “whiskey” in a minute) defines the basic requirements of Irish whisky. Here’s a pretty neat summary of everything that you need to know via the folks over at Whisky Advocate.
“Irish whiskey must:
- Be made from a mash of malted barley, plus other cereal grains (optional);
- Be mashed, fermented, distilled to no more than 94.8% ABV, and matured in wooden casks, such as oak, not exceeding 700 liters for a minimum of three years in the Republic of Ireland and/or Northern Ireland;
- Not contain additives other than water and caramel coloring (e150a);
- Retain the characteristics of its raw materials (in other words, smell and taste like whiskey);
- Be bottled at no less than 40% ABV.”
To be honest, this is all pretty standard stuff, not dissimilar to the Scottish rules, and indeed, the rules many counties have for the making of their domestic whiskies across the world.
What about that “e,” though? Well, the “e” in Irish “Whiskey” is simply a regional spelling variation. As a rule, the Americans and Irish tend to spell whisky with the “e,” while other countries, including Scotland, drop the extra vowel. This isn’t set in stone though, and plenty of Irish brands forgo the “e” on their labelling, or stick with the traditional “uisce beatha Eireannach.”
Single Malt Irish Whisky
Like with Scotch single malts, Irish single malts are made from a mash of 100% malted barley, and crucially, are made at a single distillery. Where Irish single malts often differ from their Scotch counterparts, though, is in the distillation. Distillation is the process during which alcohol created during fermentation is removed to form the concentrated liquid that is eventually matured into whisky.
For the most part, Scotch whiskies are distilled twice. In Irish single malts, however, triple distillation is the norm.
Well, received wisdom often states that triple distilled whisky is smoother than its double distilled counterpart. However, as this post from “The Whisky Professor” on Scotch Whisky notes, that’s not strictly the case and there are plenty of other factors involved.
That said, Irish single malts do tend to be on the smoother side of the flavor spectrum; Bushmills 10 Year Old Single Malt, with its spicy fruitiness and dark chocolate notes, is exemplar. The strong, peat flavors you’d expect from Islands region Scotch rarely feature Irish whisky, though peated examples such as Connemara are the exception to that rule.
Single Grain Irish Whisky
Similar to single malt Irish whisky in that it’s produced by a single distillery, single grain Irish whisky is made up of mash using grains other than malted barley. Typically, these grains are maize or wheat.
Distillation of single grain Irish whisky takes place in continuous column stills. These were actually the continuous stills that the Irish whisky industry fought against using until 1909, and for a long time, distillers only used the single grain whisky produced through this method for blends.
However, with the Irish Whisky revival of the 1980s and the 1990s, single grain examples became increasingly abundant.
Greenore and Teeling are revered single grain examples these days. The former is smooth and vanilla flavored with hints of caramel and menthol, while the latter is slightly floral and with notes of treacle and dried fruit.
Single Pot Still Irish Whisky
Unique to Irish whisky, single pot still is made with a mash of unmalted and malted barley (roughly 60% unmalted to 40% malted). As the name would suggest, single pot still whisky produced in pot stills, and, like single malt and single grain, is the product of a single distillery. As with Irish single malt, it’s tripled distilled.
Single pot still used to be known as “pure pot still,” until the American Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau kicked up a fuss about the use of the word “pure” in the drink’s marketing in 2010. Since then, it’s been universally referred to as “single pot still.”
Changing the strength at which the cut is taken during each stage of distillation produces different styles of pot still. As Master of Malt notes:
“Lighter pot still is more delicate, fruity and even slightly herbal whilst heavier pot still is much more robust and can be more leathery. The final expressions are made from a combination of these different pot still whiskeys, which will have also taken on further characteristics during maturation in different casks.”
As far as notable still pots go, Redbreast is fruity and tangy, with spiciness and deep, desert-like flavors. Similarly sweet, Green Spot is dominated by toffee maltiness, but leaner and cleaner thanks to a cut of apple and pear.
Finally, we come onto Irish Blended whiskies. Of course, with the addition of Pot Still whiskies into the mix, Irish whisky blenders have more to play with than their Scottish counterparts. Some Ireland’s most famous blends include varieties from Jameson, Bushmills Original and Tullamore Dew – a trio of smooth, fruity and vanilla hinted tipples.
That’s it for this edition. So, until our globetrotting whisky adventure continues next time, kick back with your chosen Irish Whisky and savor the taste.