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Spelling out the truth over Irish whiskey

By Matt MacPherson

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Whisky or whiskey... what's in a name?
Whisky or whiskey... what's in a name?

St Patrick’s Day was on Wednesday and having many Irish friends I can guarantee celebrations will be continuing into this weekend.

If I asked you to name one Irish whiskey, what would you say? If like me, you instantly say Jameson then congratulations, you are correct. It’s a global brand that summarises the Irish whiskey style, in their own words: “Triple distilled, remarkably smooth, and unmistakably Jameson”.

But what exactly differentiates it from Scotch whisky?

Let’s start with the most important, taste. Scotch whisky is made from 100 per cent malted barley and generally has a fuller, heavier taste than many other whiskies.

Irish whiskey, by contrast, is typically made using malted barley but includes other unmalted cereal grains as a “malt tax” used to exist in Ireland. Though the tax has long since been repealed, the recipe has stuck around. Irish whiskey is renowned for its smooth, delicate flavours and is frequently used in blends and mixed drinks.

That “smooth” flavour doesn’t just come from using different grains, it’s primarily due to the differences in distillation technique. In Scotland, whisky is double distilled using a copper pot still; Irish distilleries also use copper stills but the majority opt for triple distillation.

The first distillate produces a relatively weak ethanol content, typically around eight per cent ABV, which is known as “low wine”. Besides the low ABV, there are still substantial trace elements of various congeners that are harmful to humans and contain noxious odours/tastes.

The second distillation will get rid of harmful impurities and is one of the reasons why Scotch whisky must be at least double distilled, by law.

So why go for a third distillation? Well, the theory is an additional round will make the spirit “smoother”, that is, get rid of the “burn” and add more fruity flavours to the spirit. However, on the other side of the coin, successive distillations will strip some of the heavier flavours such as peat and reduce the mouthfeel that whisky drinkers often crave.

How did two countries so close to one another come to have such distinct, different types of whisky in the first place? Well, as my Irish friends tell me, the Irish whiskey came first.

It’s theorised that the first whiskey prototypes were distilled by monks and that the process evolved from there – first into a sort of pastime, and then eventually into a lucrative industry.

Scotch whisky was quick to catch up, though, and after Scotland’s introduction of the column still in the early 1800s, in my humble opinion, took the lead in the whisky market.

One last thing, the spelling.

Put simply, it’s a difference in translation that’s stuck around. The Irish added an extra letter and the Scottish left it out. Then, as whisky spread throughout the globe, different countries adopted the spelling they were first introduced to.

Since whiskey was primarily introduced to the United States by Irish immigrants in the 18th century, American “whiskey” kept the Irish “e”. Most other English-speaking countries followed the Scottish lead.

So they have more in common than they don’t but small production differences result in massive varieties in the end result. No two whiskies or distilleries will be the same but there are a few honest assumptions you can make based on your drink’s origin – you will probably be wrong but who cares? You’ve got a dram in front of you and that’s all that matters.

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