Irish whiskey: what makes it different from Scotch, and why it’s less likely to give you a hangover
Whether single malt, blended or single pot still, and made with malted or unmalted grains or a mix of both, whiskey from Ireland tends not to be peaty and is triple distilled to remove impurities, reducing the chance of a hangover
The spelling of Whiskey with an “e” is not the only thing that differentiates the Irish spirit from its Scottish counterpart. Irish whiskeys are distilled three times compared to twice for whisky, and peat is very rarely used. The extra distillation removes most of the congeners. That’s all the stuff in spirits that you don’t want – the esters, tannins, acetone, aldehydes – scientists think are the contributors to a hangover.
The production rules for Irish whiskey are rather simple: a minimum of three years in barrels before bottling, distillation must happen in Ireland and it must be made from a mash of malt and/or cereals.
Another big difference? In Scotland, it seems almost every hamlet has a distillery. But in Ireland, until recently, there have been only three working distilleries, each of which produces a wide range of whiskeys in different styles. (There are now 16 distilleries and 14 more under construction.)
Bushmills is made in County Antrim in Northern Ireland. In addition to the namesake, they also produce Black Bush.
Cooley is produced in the Cooley Mountains in County Louth in the Republic of Ireland. They also make Kilbeggan, Connemara and Tyrconnell.
Midleton, in County Cork, produces Jameson, Powers, Paddy, Green Spot and Tullamore Dew.
Single malt is the most expensive Irish whiskey, as it is made from malted barley by a single distillery in a copper pot still. Best example? Tyrconnell (made at Cooley Distillery), which is named after a famous racehorse (it won a race at odds of 100 to 1) in 1876. The horse was owned by the Watt family, and his speediness on the track no doubt funded the establishment of the family distillery. They finish their whiskeys in barrels that previously heldport, madeira or sherry, all of which leave their influence on the whiskey in various ways.
Single pot still (or pure pot still) whiskey is a style unique to the Irish. It’s a blend of malted and unmalted barley made in a copper pot still. The best example of this style would be Green Spot Single Pot Still (made at Midleton distillery). The unmalted barley gives the whiskey a fresh liveliness that has delicious flavours of spice and applewood,along with hints of bourbon, no doubt from the bourbon barrels it was aged in. Although there is no age mentioned on the bottles, aficionadosthink it’s been aged for about eight years.
Grain Irish whiskey can be made from wheat or corn (both malted and unmalted) in column stills. This is a lighter style of whiskey that is very reasonable priced. Best example that is readily available in Hong Kong is Bushmills Original which is matured for five years in American Oak barrels and there’s even a bit of their reserve single malt blended in before bottling to give it extra mellowness.
Single grain Irish is similar in style to grain Irish, but only one type of grain (wheat or corn) is used. Teeling makes an excellent version that is distilled in a continuous Coffey still, which is said to give it a sweeter very smooth and approachable taste. I think it contains corn due to its flavours of sweet butter, vanilla and honey with some lovely cinnamon spice and apple, slightly grapey fruit notes. It’s aged in American oak barrels that were previously used for cabernet sauvignon rather than bourbon, which give the resulting whiskey a slightly reddish hue.
Single pot still (or pure pot still) whiskey is a blend of malted and unmalted barley, all of which is Irish grown. Redbreast (made at Midleton) is a great example, and they designate the age on their bottles. This is a Irish whiskey lover’s whiskey with its generous spice notes (cinnamon, white pepper), warm toasty flavours with hints of creamy oloroso sherry – a definite influence of the sherry barrels that it was aged in.
Blended Irish makes up the bulk of the country’s whiskey production, and Jameson is the most commercial available example.
Poitín, also spelled pocheen or poteen, spends little or no time in a barrel and thus is not a true Irish whiskey. It’s almost colourless, and packs a huge punch – a wee sip goes a long way. This was the stuff made at home to avoid the taxman, produced from grain or potatoesand distilled quickly through a copper pipe still. Teeling has revived this style (but paying the taxman of course), and their poitín has a bold nose of alcoholic fruit, but once you go beyond that, it has a surprisingly creamy mouthfeel and a wicked burn if you swallow it too quickly.
The most unusual Irish whiskey that I’ve enjoyed is Connemara double-distilled peated Irish single malt aged in bourbon casks. It was incredibly smooth with a generous dollop of peatand a lovely warm spiciness with hints of caramel. It was created by Dr John Teeling in the 1990s.
And if you want bragging rights, the most expensive Irish whiskey is Midleton Very Rare. It’s made in the pot still style, and aged in gently used bourbon and sherry barrels. It has lovely spiced apple and pear fruit sweetness, with some creamy barley notes. My guess is that this is aged for at least 20 years before it is bottled as it is, by far, the smoothest Irish whiskey I’ve ever tasted.
The next time you’re thinking of having an Irish coffee after dinner – don’t. Instead, have a sip of Irish whiskey,and savour it neat, or with one or two ice cubes or a splash of water. You’ll find it incredibly smooth, approachable and easy to sip. And because it’s been triple distilled, you’ll have a better chance of waking up the next day without a hangover.