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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Irish Whiskey: 5 Things You Didn’t Know

Irish Whiskey


By Simon Majumdar


When people think about whisky, it is almost inevitable that their first thoughts will turn to the distilleries of Scotland, or perhaps the grain whiskys of the United States.

However, excellent whisky is now made in many countries throughout the world and Ireland can lay claim to one of the oldest traditions of whisky distilling with records dating back to the 1500s. There is evidence that Queen Elizabeth I was fond enough of Irish whiskey to have barrels brought to London on a regular basis and, at one point, it even outsold Scotch whisky.

Although now overshadowed by its Scottish counterpart, Ireland still produces some very fine whiskeys indeed.

1- It’s Irish “whiskey,” with an “e”

Irish whiskey differs from Scotch primarily in the fact that it is predominantly made using barley, which is dry malted without the use of peat. This results in a finished product that allows more of the natural flavors of the grain to appear on the palate as opposed to some of the slightly smoky elements that many people associate with Scotch whisky.

As well as single malt whiskeys, Ireland also has a tradition of making excellent blended whiskey. A blended Irish whiskey is one made from a blend of the spirit and other grains, like maize.

Irish distillers, like their U.S. counterparts, spell their finished product with an “e” whereas, Scotland, Canada and Japan spell the name as “whisky.” There is no definitive answer as to why this might be the case, but there are those who suggest that it dates back to the late 1800s when the distillers of Irish whiskey wanted to differentiate their high-quality product from poorer Scottish examples.

2- Ireland claims to have the oldest legal whiskey distillery in the world

The first commercial license to distill whiskey was granted by James I of England in 1608. It was granted in the town of Bushmills to local landowner, Sir Thomas Phillips and is still the site of fine Irish whiskey making today as the home of the Old Bushmills Distillery in Northern Ireland.

3- Most Irish Whiskey is triple distilled while double distillation is used in Scotland

Each distillation removes impurities from the spirit as it passes through the stills, arguably producing a lighter and smoother spirit with a crisp, clean finish on the palate. Although there are still a handful of Scottish whiskys that are tripled distilled, it is a process very much associated with the production of Irish Whiskey.

4- Monks brought whiskey to Ireland… and Scotland?

Irish whiskey can trace its roots to after the departure of the Romans and with the arrival of monastic missionaries who used the spirits for medicinal purposes. There is even evidence that the skill of distilling malted barley into spirit was taken by the missionaries from Ireland to Scotland. Given the proximity of the two countries, this is entirely feasible, if not something the Scots would ever like to acknowledge.

5- Water helps you taste the uniqueness of Irish whiskey

To carry the name “Irish whiskey” the spirit has to be made entirely from native grains and then stored in wooden casks for three years or more. Colum Egan, master distiller of Bushmills Irish Whiskey, recommends adding a drop of water to bring out the flavors and scents of whiskey (like his own Black Bush) to reveal the light, clean and fruity taste that is its signature. Further flavors come from the barrels in which the whiskey has been aged, like Oloroso Sherry casks, which add color and sweetness, and bourbon barrels, which add a note of vanilla.