An Introduction to Irish Whiskey

Irish Whiskey. The Water of Life. Sunshine held together by water. In gaelic, “uisce beatha” (WEE-sak BAH-ha.) Though it may have much in common with Scotch & Bourbon, this whiskey is quite uniquely Irish.

The legal distinction is simple: It must be distilled from malted cereal grains at or above 94.8%, and barrel aged in Ireland in wooden casks for not less than three years.

Beyond the legal definition, the jargon used to describe whiskey in general is a confusing tangle of historical definitions and colloquial references. Phrases such as “pot still” and “single malt” are commonly used and may lead to confusion, even among Scotch and Bourbon lovers. A thorough discussion of such vocabulary is probably beyond the scope of this essay.

pot stillIrish whiskey is fermented and distilled from a combination of one of more grains, most typically barley. The shape of the still resembles a pot, thus its name. That’s probably because calling it a Hershey’s Kiss Still doesn’t have the same ring to it.

When only one type of grain is used in the pot (typically malted barley) the result is a Single Malt. When a combination of malted and un-malted barley is used, the result is known as a Pure Pot Still. If the distillates from one or more pots are combined, the resultant liquor is a Blend. Red Breast is a noteworthy Pure Pot Still Whiskey, Tyrconnell a favorite Single Malt, and Jameson, Powers and Paddy are some of my favorite “every day” blends.

Irish whiskey differs from its cousins in some relatively basic ways. Besides the spelling, the barley used in Scotch whisky is malted over a peat fire, and Bourbon is required to be made from at least 51% corn.

The nosing and tasting differences between these three basic types of whiskey ought to be evident to even the most casual drinker. Bourbon could be described as having sweet, oaky notes, and Scotch as having that unmistakable smokey, even peppery flavor.

Irish falls somewhere in between: not too sweet, not too smokey. Most often I notice the distinct alcohol vapor upon the nose at first. On the palette I’ll recognize that smooth barley flavor followed by a lightly sweet taste or subtle hint of honey at the finish.

Single malts are sometimes thought to be superior. Truly, much of that may be marketing, however the effort involved in producing a consistently identifiable flavor requires great skill and ought to be enjoyed seriously. Consider a good starting point to take it neat in your favorite D.O.F. glass. I find some single malts to be too dense or chewy, and adding a little water is a good way to open up the flavor profile. The key is to go easy. Pinching an ice cube between your fingers and letting a few drops fall into the glass not only brightens up the tastes, it also demonstrates enough affectation to convince your fellows that you know what you’re doing.

Blends are more easily mixed or diluted. Consider a “Jamie & Ginger,” or my personal favorite quick pick-me-up: the “Paddy And A Handful Of Ice.”

Though Irish doesn’t usually lend itself to craft cocktail-making, my favorite Ukranian barman has mixed me a wonderful cocktail made of Powers, bitters, plus sweeet and dry vermouth. Serve it up with a cherry and you have what they call (me), a Perfect Irish Man(hattan).

So whether you take it neat, blended, or at cask-strength, get to know some soon.

Slainte

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