Instant expert: Irish whiskey

Instant expert: Irish whiskey

Whether it’s the luck of the Irish or some other kind of fortune, the Irish know how to make good whiskey. In fact, the word “whiskey” comes from the Irish phrase uisce beatha, meaning “water of life.” If you haven’t tried Irish whiskey beyond Jameson and Bushmills, pull up a seat and prepare to be wowed. Here’s our instant expert take on Irish whiskey.

Irish whiskey basics

Irish whiskey has been around for nearly a thousand years, and lore has it that a group of traveling monks were the first to make this beloved drink. While traveling through southern Europe, these monks learned to distill perfume. Upon returning home to Ireland, it’s said that they used the same distilling process to create a drinkable spirit. And Irish whiskey was born. Its popularity took off quickly and, by the 19th century, it was the most popular whiskey in the world. But, by the time American prohibition and the Irish War of Independence rolled around, the Irish whiskey industry began to struggle. By the 1970s, the country had gone from about 80 operating distilleries to merely two. Flash-forward 50+ years and the industry has made a comeback. More than 40 distilleries operate in Ireland today and the resurgence of new distilleries is only gaining more traction. Though not quite as popular as Scotch whisky, Irish whiskey is still one of the most popular whiskeys today, enjoyed all around the world for its exceptionally smooth taste.  

Fun facts on Irish whiskey:

  • Ingredients: unmalted barley, malted barley, and other cereal grains
  • Proof: 40% - 94.8% ABV
  • Color: pale gold to dark amber
  • Region: Ireland 
  • Taste: crisp, sharp, smooth, notes of vanilla
  • Aged: 3+ years
  • Popular Irish whiskey cocktail recipes: Irish coffee, Irish slammer, Irish tea party

Difference between Irish whiskey and American whiskey

First things first, Irish whiskey is only made in Ireland. But, the main difference between Irish and American whiskeys lies in their ingredients. Irish whiskey is made primarily with unmalted and malted barley, while American whiskey is made with corn, rye, or wheat. The length of production also varies between both whiskeys – Irish whiskey must age for a minimum of three years and American whiskeys age for a minimum of two years.

Some argue that Irish whiskey offers a more traditional flavor, while American whiskeys offer more variety when it comes to taste. Irish whiskey makes for especially easy drinking due to its crisp, smooth taste, so it's no wonder the Irish call it the water of life. Meanwhile, less regulation in the American whiskey industry means more variability when it comes to flavor. 

How is Irish whiskey made?

Irish whiskey comes in several forms. Among the forms, you’ll find single malt whiskey, single pot still whiskey, grain whiskey, and blended whiskey. Surprisingly, each uses a different set of ingredients and different distillation processes. Most Irish whiskeys are bottled at 40 percent alcohol by volume (ABV, 80 proof) or slightly higher, though some reach 120 proof.

Traditionally, Irish whiskey was primarily made with unmalted and malted barley. Arguably the purest form of Irish whiskey, single malt Irish whiskey is only produced from malted barley and is distilled on copper pot stills. Distillers across Ireland started introducing other grains into the mix after taxes started targeting malted barley. Ever since that pivotal moment, grain whiskey – which includes grains such as corn, wheat, and rye – has maintained its popularity. In fact, the majority of Irish whiskeys on the market today are blended with grain whiskey after barreling. Unlike other kinds of whiskey, grain whiskey is usually distilled on column stills, which offer a cheaper and continuous production making this popular drink all the easier to make.

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