Uisce Beatha - The connoisseur’s guide to Irish whiskey

Ireland is a small island with a big whiskey industry. Irish whiskey has enjoyed a storied history of ups and downs, and is rapidly becoming the most popularly drunk spirit. A raft of new distilleries have opened in recent years with many more planned or under construction. This guide will explain what Irish whiskey is all about, and what goes into making a good one.

What is Irish whiskey?

The word whiskey comes from the Gaelic uisce beatha, meaning “water of life”. Whiskey (or “whisky” as the Scots say) is produced by distilling a mash of cereals to an eye-watering alcohol level and maturing the resulting liquid in wooden casks. Irish whiskey must be distilled and matured on the island of Ireland, with at least three years ageing time.

Conventional wisdom characterises Irish whiskey as milder than Scotch, attributable to things like triple distillation and a tendency not to use peat-smoked malt. These are generalisations, and are increasingly less relevant as more and more new distilleries open for business in Ireland. This new wave of whiskey production means that old practices are being questioned and challenged, and the whiskey itself is becoming more innovative, exciting and less homogenous.

What makes a good Irish whiskey?

The Irish are proud of their whiskey, and rightly so. No master distiller sets out to make a bad whiskey, of course, but Irish whiskey comes in a number of distinct styles. Knowing how to identify one from another is a matter of simply knowing what to look for on the label. Arm yourself with this information and you’ll make the right choice every time.

  • Blended Irish whiskey is produced from a blend of malt whiskey, grain whiskey and pot still whiskey. This is the most widely produced and widely available of all Irish whiskeys. Due to the costs of production, it is also the most affordable.

  • Single malt is produced exclusively from malted barley, in one distillery. This is a considerable step up from blended whiskey, into the premium end of things.

  • Single grain differs from single malt because it is produced from a grain other than malted barley, though again in a single distillery. Such grains could be corn, rye or wheat.

  • Single pot still is produced using a pot still, from both malted and unmalted barley. This unusual combination makes a unique whiskey that is among the rarest and most expensive.

Beyond the points above, a very important consideration in choosing a whiskey is its ageing.

  • How long the whiskey has been aged will have a significant impact on how it tastes. Broadly, the older the better - and more expensive! Aged whiskies are beautifully mellow and smooth; the ageing process gradually removes the inherently harsh alcoholic flavours, as well as imparting additional flavour.

  • The type of cask in which the whiskey has been aged (or finished) will also impart a unique flavour profile. Used oak barrels from the wine and spirits industry are becoming more and more popular in Irish whiskey. Adventurous producers are using old Bordeaux, Burgundy, Californian, Port, Sherry and Madeira barrels to finish limited runs of their aged whiskies.

There is no better way to discover your own palate and preferences than by tasting. Challenge yourself to try a dram of each style and figure out your favourite. Sláinte!

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