Britain is divided — to say the least. From fiercely fought football derbies and petty pronunciation problems to the wince-inducing tumult of Westminster, our country is at odds, in conflict — on bad terms with itself. But one spirited squabble is perhaps more potent than all others, and you can find it being fought behind bars across the British Isles.
It’s Scotch versus Irish. Whisky versus whiskey. One nation’s proudest and most patriotic drink pitted against another’s. Both countries have their own take on these malty bottlings, but — although Scotch exports outnumber those of the Irish considerably — we’re here to make the case for whiskey from the Emerald Isle.
Irish Whiskey is distilled three times, and Scotch only twice
“Generally, Scotch whiskies are distilled twice, whereas Irish whiskey is distilled three times,” reveals Colum Egan, Master Distiller at Bushmills. “And we distil our whiskey in 10 copper pot stills, which are relatively small with tall, slender necks to produce a much smoother spirit.”
So there we are. The first pro in the Irish column comes thanks to the production process. In Scotch production, there is a focus on blending, whereas Irish whiskey places more weight on the distillation process — which gives the Irish spirit a marked lightness over Scotch. And, if you’re of the opinion that bigger is better, Irish whiskey is ‘vatted’ in pot stills three times the size of normal copper whisky stills.
“Also, when it comes to ageing,” adds Egan, “Irish whiskey must be matured for at least three years, compared to just two years for Scotch whisky. As a result, Irish whiskey tends to have a more mellow style than Scotch. And the use of unpeated malted barley frees Irish whiskey from the smoky flavour sometimes found in Scotch.”
Scotch may have strict rules, but Irish whiskey regulations focus on quality and variety
“Irish whiskey was formalised by The Irish Whiskey Act of 1980,” explains Ronan Collins, brand ambassador for Jameson. “Put simply, it needs to be distilled to no higher than 94.8% ABV, aged in wood for a minimum of three years and bottled at no less than 40% ABV.”
It sounds strict. Sure, it may not have the countless controls and caveats imposed by the Scotch Whisky Association, but not any old distiller can create the Irish spirit. However, where Scotch is creatively suppressed by the rules — Irish whiskey’s dictums stand to enforce quality and encourage experimentation.
Bushmills Black Bush
Jameson Caskmates Fourpure Brewing Edition
“With Irish whiskey, the ageing process in wood is not limited to oak,” says Collins. “Unlike Scotch, this really opens up a world of playful experimentation. As such, Irish whiskey is hugely exciting because it lends itself to more subtle and sophisticated flavours — it can really add that unique feel to a cocktail.”
Irish whiskey is experiencing an exciting surge in popularity
“Irish whiskey was never really a category represented to the extent of Scotch and American whiskey,” says Ciarán Ó Dubhthaigh, who reopened Bethnal Green-based Irish whiskey bar The Sun Tavern in 2014. “Along with the renaissance happening in Ireland, it all felt very current and something to shout about. The Irish are getting back to what we are decent at — making the world’s number one drink!”
There is indeed a buzz around the bottles. And the innovation in the Irish spirit runs to a level that would have most Scotch devotees quaking in their ghillie brogues. Jameson’s Caskmates series sees its spirit aged in IPA and stout casks. Bushmills has a honey-infused whiskey. And brands from Teeling to Tullamore Dew are ageing their spirits in Madeira, Burgundy and bourbon barrels.
“Irish whiskey is different from any other spirit because it was the initial spirit to become whiskey as we know it today,” reveals Ó Dubhthaigh. “But, at the same time, it is very diverse and approachable. It’s the people’s drink, and they find it very approachable — the range and the stories. There is an Irish whiskey for everyone — you just need to discover it!”
Irish whisky is the fastest growing spirit in the world
Since 1990, Irish whiskey has been the fastest growing spirit in the world. In 2018, global sales rose by an intoxicating 10.6%, and the Irish Whiskey Association expects 12 million cases to be exported from the Emerald Isle in 2020.
“It resonates with consumers,” says Colum Egan of Bushmills. “And diversity and innovation in the industry is making it more popular than ever. Whether it’s new products from established brands or new producers hitting the market, diversity will only make the Irish whiskey category more accessible around the world and that’s something to be celebrated.”
“And who doesn’t love the Irish?” adds Jameson’s Ronan Collins. “At the heart of Irish culture is its people, who are internationally known for being welcoming, warm and funny — even if I do say so myself. And, once tasted, Irish whiskey is the same!”
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