Like many other wines and spirits, we have clergy to thank for the creation of Irish whiskey. Legend has it that in the 6th century A.D., Irish monks observed perfume distillation while on a journey in the Middle East, and after returning to Ireland, they invented their own version of the distillation method they had seen. They came up with a giant copper kettle called a pot still, and began a tradition of a uniquely Irish spirit. Ireland’s clear, pure water from bubbling streams and fast-flowing rivers gave birth to this uisge beatha, which means “water of life” in Gaelic. And this native spirit spawned a breed of beverages popular to this day.
So how is Irish whiskey different than Scotch? Irish whiskey and Scotch whisky (spelled without an e) are both made from barley malt. The difference between the two that’s easily detected in the nose and in the taste is mostly a result of how the malt is dried. In Scotland, the malt is dried over open peat fires, which accounts for Scotch’s distinctive smokiness. In Ireland, the malt is dried in closed ovens, lending it the smooth flavor of golden barley without any smoky overtones.
Most Irish whiskies are distilled three times, while Scotch is generally distilled twice. Each stage of the distillation process increases purity and smoothness, resulting in a light spirit with delicate character. The maturing whiskey is stored for years in oak casks, some of which have been used previously for sherry. In fact, under Irish law, the spirit must be matured in wooden casks for no less than three years, and some is aged from four to seven years or more. While the whiskey matures, a complex interaction between the whiskey, wood and the air that “breathes” through the cask lends a mellow bouquet to the spirit.
Irish whiskey’s smooth, mellow flavors can range from buttery, grassy and nutty with notes of spice, to creamy vanilla or caramel. This “water of life” is most often enjoyed straight or on the rocks, but it also makes a delicious contribution to a cocktail.