Anatomy of a Style: Irish Whiskey
Over the past decade, whiskey has surged in popularity in the U.S and around the world. Once limited to the British Isles and North America, great whiskey is being produced in Japan, Taiwan and even India and that variety makes for a great time for any whiskey drinker.
With all of these options, however, it's easy to forget that whiskey originated in Ireland and that the this small country makes some of the finest and most diverse examples of the spirit in the world. Living in the shadow of their more famous neighbors, Irish whiskey hasn't been revered like Scotch whisky and often doesn't command as high as a premium. Dominated by the lighter bodied blends made popular by brands like Jameson and Tullamore Dew, Irish whiskey is viewed more as a "shooter" or an accompaniment to a beer and less as something to be slowly sipped and appreciated. We're here to dispel that myth and tell you about the vast and diverse world of Irish whiskey.
Like many things alcohol-related, the story of Irish whiskey is filled with many inconsistencies and has to be taken with a grain of salt. What we do know is that distillation began in Ireland sometime around the 12th century. Some say that this technology was brought back by Christian monks visiting the Iberian Peninsula or what we know of today as the countries of Portugal and Spain. It is believed that the Irish taught the Scots distillation sometime in the 13th century but the two styles went down clearly separate paths after that. Fast-forward to the early 20th century and you could find hundreds of distilleries in Ireland, however, after The Irish Civil War, Prohibition, The Great Depression and two World Wars, there were only two remaining by the 1980s, both owned by the same company!
Unlike their more famous brethren, Scotch, Irish Whiskey has fewer "rules" on how it is to be made. Continuous or column stills can be used and the Irish are famous for their massive pot stills that allow multiple distillations in the same pot, acting in a similar manner to a continuous still. In addition to using different distillation methods, the Irish also use almost any kind of grain including corn, oats, rye and wheat, not too dissimilar from bourbon. The grains can be malted or unmalted or even peated like with Scotch lending to a spirit that can take on many different personalities. The whiskies are usually aged in used bourbon casks so the presence of oak is less pronounced, often yielding a lighter spirit although there are many exceptions to this rule.
When you think of Irish Whiskey, usually one brand comes to mind, Jameson and rightfully so. As one of the top selling whiskies in the world, Jameson is an indelible figure in the whisky world, however, it represents only one style of Irish Whiskey. Below are the official styles from which the spirit can represent.
These are made from 100% malted barley in a pot still at one distillery.
Commercial Examples: Teeling Single Malt, Connemara Peated, Bushmills 21yr Old
Made in a column or continuous still from either wheat or corn
Commercial Examples: Kilbeggan 8 Year Old Single Grain, Middleton Method and Madness Single Grain, Glendalough Double Barrel Irish Whiskey
Pure Pot Still
Made from both malted and unmalted barley in a pot still
Commercial Examples: Redbreast 12yr, Green Spot Single Pot Still, Powers Signature Release
These are blends of grain, single-malt and/or pot still whiskies.
Commercial Examples: Jameson Caskmates, Paddy Irish Whiskey, The Pogues Whiskey
As St. Patrick's day comes near and you pretend to be Irish for a day, take a moment to enjoy one of the country's most famous exports in all of its forms. It is a spirit that accurately and properly reflects a rich history and culture that's too often bastardized in the U.S. and abroad. Whether you're shooting a blended version or enjoying a single-malt on the rocks, raise a glass and say "slàinte!" to one of the world's greatest spirits