One of the best-known classifications (and one of the most contentious debates among whisky lovers) is that of Scotch Whisky vs. Irish Whiskey. But what exactly differentiates these types of whisky? Let’s take a look:
Scotch Whisky is made from malted barley and generally has a fuller, heavier taste than many other whiskies. Irish whiskey, by contrast, uses a combination of malted and unmalted barley, and is renowned for its smooth flavour and hints of vanilla. It tends to show up in blends a lot more frequently due to this easy taste.
The materials used in the process of making whiskeys is also integral to the final flavours. Both Scotland and Ireland use oak casks. These have a great effect on a whiskey’s flavour, which can vary based on the conditions and type of the cask used. Ex-Bourbon casks, for example, create a sweeter flavour, while Sherry casks result in a fruitier or spicier taste.
Ageing and Distillation
In Scotland, the whisky is usually double distilled and a wide variety of copper pot stills are their tool of choice. Irish distilleries also use copper stills, though they tend to boast less variety. Triple distillation is much more common with Irish whiskey, and it’s this discrepancy in distillation methods that account for the biggest differences in taste between the two types of whiskey.
There is some variation in this definition, however, as different distilleries having their own quirks and preferences. Not all Irish distilleries stop at double distillation, for example. In the end, whiskey from one distillery will never taste exactly the same as whisky from another -- and that is one of the reasons why whisky tasting can be such a rewarding hobby.
Both Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey are usually matured for at least three years. The ageing process is essential to create a good flavour, as the harsh alcohol profile mellows out over time, whilst the cask imparts delightful woody, spicy and fruity notes.
How did two countries so close to one another come to have such distinct, different types of whisky in the first place? Well, as any Irish whiskey lover will tell you, 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, it took the lead in the whisky market.
Irish whiskey’s common use of unmalted barley also comes with historical significance, as a “malt tax” used to exist in Ireland. This led to whiskey recipes adopting unmalted barley as their main ingredient and even though the tax has long since been repealed, the new recipe has stuck around. This style of whiskey is now known as "Irish Single Pot Still".
Why the two different spellings of the same word? 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 and kept the "e" out.
That being said, the spelling is not a binding contract. There are some Irish and American distilleries that use the Scottish spelling and vice versa. So don’t think you can immediately classify a whiskey just by the letters in its name!
Scotch Whisky and Irish Whiskey have more in common than they don’t. But with whisky production, the smallest differences can account for huge varieties in the final product. It’s safe to say that no two whiskeys are alike, but there are definitely a few safe assumptions you can make based on your drink’s distillery of origin.
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