What is Irish whiskey, really?
Other than the fact that it is distilled in Ireland and aged for a minimum of three years in oak barrels, what is Irish whiskey?
Most of the time when you read in general media how Irish whiskey is defined, they will say that Irish whiskey is different from Scotch whisky in that it’s not smoky like Scotch whisky. And, they’ll say that Irish whiskey is distilled three times, while Scotch whisky is only distilled twice. (Many times they will continue this train of thought with the comment that, because Irish whiskey is distilled three times, it’s smoother than Scotch whisky.)
If I had a dollar for every time I read these generalizations, I could afford to buy a couple bottles of Redbreast 12 year old.
But, as most of you know, these generalizations are not completely accurate. Most Scotch whisky is not smoky, and there are triple distilled whiskies in Scotland (e.g., Auchentoshan).
In Ireland, whiskeys distilled at Cooley are only distilled twice, and they make smoky whiskeys there too (Connemara). In fact, I have heard of the Cooley distillery referred to as “a Scotch distillery that just happens to be located in Ireland.”
Plus, I have enjoyed smooth Scotch whiskies, and tasted some harsh Irish whiskeys over the years. So, the whole “Irish whiskey is smoother than Scotch whisky because it’s distilled three times” statement isn’t exactly accurate either.
Some enthusiasts more “in the know” will point out that what differentiates Irish whiskey from Scotch whisky is that Irish whiskey is made (at least in part) with “pot still” whiskey (i.e. from a mash containing both malted AND unmalted barley), rather than Scotch whisky which uses a 100% malted barley mash bill in its pot stills. Some Irish whiskeys (e.g., Redbreast, Green Spot) are 100% pure pot still whiskeys.
It’s true, if you look at the Irish whiskeys made at the Midleton distillery in County Cork (Jameson, Powers, Paddy, Tullamore Dew, Redbreast, Green Spot, etc.), there is a pot still component in these whiskeys. But, you won’t find “pot still” whiskey in Bushmills or the whiskeys produced at Cooley.
So, what is Irish whiskey, really?