What Is Irish Whiskey?

The Difference Between Irish Whiskey and Scotch

Irish Whiskey Barrels, Tyrconnell Irish Whiskey, Locke's Distillery Museum, Kilbeggan, County Westmeath, Ireland
Holger Leue / LOOK / Getty Images

Irish whiskey is one of the world's great styles of whiskey. It's most often triple-distilled from unmalted barley that is typically blended with grain whiskey, though there are single malts as well. Made entirely in Ireland, it's a favorite worldwide, especially in the U.K. and U.S., due to its exceptional smoothness. Irish whiskey sales are growing, as are the brands available, so it's a perfect time to pour a sipper or mix up an Irish whiskey cocktail.

Irish Whiskey vs. Scotch

Irish whiskey and Scotch whisky are the oldest styles of the dark distilled spirit. Which was created first is a matter of historical debate. The most obvious difference is that Irish whiskey is always spelled with an "e" in the word "whiskey"; scotch always uses the spelling "whisky."

In terms of production, the two styles have customary practices that generally characterize the style. However, there are whiskeys that borrow practices of the other, which can lead to confusion. Generally, both are fermented with barley—scotch is often malted and Irish whiskey largely unmalted—and the blended whiskey of either may include grain whiskey. Irish whiskey is typically triple-distilled while scotch is often distilled only twice. Both styles include blended and single malt whiskeys, though scotch is more famous for the latter. It's the peaty smokiness in scotch and the smoothness of Irish whiskey that typically distinguish the two. The catch is that there are peated and double-distilled Irish whiskeys as well as nonpeated and triple-distilled scotch whiskys.

Fast Facts

  • Ingredients: Unmalted or malted barley and cereal grains
  • Proof: 80–120
  • ABV: 40–60%
  • Calories in a shot: 65–69
  • Origin: Ireland
  • Taste: Smooth, light, rich oak, fruity, grainy
  • Aged: At least 3 years
  • Serve: Straight, on the rocks, mixed drinks, cocktails, shots

What Is Irish Whiskey Made From?

Irish whiskey is one of the most popular forms of whiskey in the world. Soley a product of Ireland, the rules for the production of Irish whiskey date back to 1880. There are two major components of the Irish Whiskey Act of 1950:

  • Irish whiskey needs to be distilled in the country of Ireland from a mash of malt and cereal grains.
  • Irish pot still whiskey can only be distilled in pot stills within Ireland from a mash of cereal grains that are ordinarily grown in Ireland.

Irish whiskey is typically distilled from unmalted barley, though some may include malted barley. Closed kilns are used to dry the malt so it is only exposed to hot air and not smoke. Fermentation can include additional enzymes to prepare the starches for conversion to alcohol. After that, it is distilled three times in copper pot stills—some, particularly grain whiskeys, use continuous column stills.

By Irish law, all whiskeys must be aged a minimum of three years in barrels. They can be new or previously used and often once housed sherry, bourbon, or rum. The majority are blended whiskeys that include grain whiskey after barreling. Single malt whiskeys are found in the premium range. Irish whiskeys are typically bottled at 40 percent alcohol by volume (ABV, 80 proof) or slightly higher; some reach 120 proof.

Many of today's Irish whiskeys are defying these production norms, introducing peat, various grains, and experimenting with different types of wood casks.

What Does Irish Whiskey Taste Like?

Irish whiskey has a distinct flavor profile that can generally be described as light and fruity with evident cereal grain notes. The aging also imparts that signature whiskey oakiness and caramel.

Types

  • Blended Irish Whiskey: Blends account for 90 percent of all Irish whiskey production, including the most famous brands like Jameson and Kilbeggan.
  • Single Malt Irish Whiskey: Made from 100 percent malted barley, this whiskey is produced by a single distillery in a pot still.
  • Single Pot Still Whiskey: Formerly called "pure pot still," this whiskey is a blend of both malted and unmalted barley distilled in a pot still. It's a style of whiskey that is unique to Ireland.
  • Grain Irish Whiskey: A particularly light style made from corn or wheat, grain whiskey is produced in column stills rather than Ireland's often preferred pot stills.
  • Single Grain Irish Whiskey: This style has the same characteristics of grain whiskey, except a single grain is used in the distillate. Greenore is a perfect example of this newer distinction.
  • Potcheen: Essentially Irish moonshine, the distilled spirit doesn't meet the age requirement to be labeled as Irish whiskey. Similar to American white dog, it's a new-make spirit that has seen little to no time in the barrel. Knockeen Hills and Bunratty are two popular brands.

How to Drink Irish Whiskey

Due to its smoothness and superior drinkability, Irish whiskey can be served however you like. Many people enjoy it straight or on the rocks and it's a good companion with food, especially traditional Irish recipes. It's a popular choice for shots and shooters, too. Yet, it's also versatile for nearly any style of cocktail, from fancy martinis to simple soda highballs—of course, it's brilliant with coffee. With a good bottle of Irish whiskey in your bar, the possibilities are endless.

Cocktail Recipes

The mixability of Irish whiskey offers many possible drink opportunities. There are many cocktail and shooter recipes that call for it specifically, but it can also hold its own in nearly any whiskey cocktail.

Popular Brands

Ireland once had a booming whiskey distillery. Starting in the late 1800s, a series of internal and international wars, U.S. Prohibition, and the Great Depression forced the majority to close down. For years, Ireland had only two working distilleries, Midleton in the south and Bushmills in the north. Cooley opened up in 1987 and the three were responsible for producing all the Irish whiskey from both their house brands as well as third party brands. Since the early 2000s, there has been a resurgence with new distilleries opening and a variety of new brands to explore.

  • Jameson (Midleton distillery)
  • Bushmills (blended and single malt whiskeys)
  • Connemara (peated whiskey from Cooley)
  • Green Spot (single pot still whiskey from Midleton)
  • Kilbeggan (Cooley's house-blended whiskey)
  • Redbreast (single pot still whiskey from Midleton)
  • Tullamore Dew (blended whiskey from Cooley)
  • Tyrconnell (single malt from Cooley)