Who invented whisky, the Scots or the Irish, is a debate as old as time, but one thing is for sure, the old Bushmills distillery in Northern Ireland is the world’s oldest official whiskey distillery, going back to 1603. The word whiskey itself is derived from the Gaelic word uisce (or uisge in Scotland), meaning “water”.
Simply put, Irish whiskey is whiskey that is distilled and aged in Ireland, regardless of whether it’s the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland. It is distilled from a yeast-fermented mash of cereal grains (ranging from malted barley, corn, wheat, rye and so on), and aged at least three years in wooden casks. Unsurprisingly, this is quite close to how scotch is made as well.
However, while Irish whiskey and scotch whisky may share some similarities in terms of production methods and terminology, there are some key differences.
While Scotch is usually distilled only twice (though there are exceptions), Irish whiskey is typically triple distilled.
The Irish also usually don’t use peat to dry out their barley, unlike the Scots. “The difference in the production process leads to differences in the liquid and the flavour,” said Martin Lynch, Asia-Pacific commercial manager for Teeling Irish Whiskey. “Also, Irish whiskey aged in the Irish climate is different from scotch aged in their climate.”
Irish whiskey currently is on the rise. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal put the growth of Irish whiskey worldwide at an impressive 131% over the past decade. In contrast, scotch’s growth has been a modest 13% over the same period.
“Irish whiskey is the fastest growing spirit category in the world right now,” said Lynch.
“In Asia, however, Irish whiskey hasn’t had the level of interest or history as it has in other parts of the world.”
He does reckon that the flavour profile of Irish whiskey would suit Asian palates.
“The Irish whiskey style hasn’t penetrated into Asia too much, but when we are doing tastings around Asia, the response to the softer, lighter, sweeter style of Irish whiskey has been really good,” he said.
“People who have never tried Irish whiskies before are usually surprised at how soft and approachable the style is, while maintaining the complexity and flavour that they might be familiar with from some of the other whisky styles.”
It also helps that non-scotch whiskies in general have been enjoying a higher profile these days, what with the immense popularity of Japanese whisky, the rising influence of American whiskies, and also a growing appreciation of whiskies from Ireland, Australia, Taiwan, and India.
“There’s a raised awareness of whiskies that aren’t from Scotland these days, and with that, an openness to Irish whiskey that wasn’t there five or 10 years ago,” said Lynch, who was in Kuala Lumpur earlier this week to promote the brand.
While Teeling Whiskey is a relatively new brand, the Teeling family is well-known in the Irish whiskey industry, having been producing whiskey since 1782, when its founder Walter Teeling set up a craft distillery in Dublin.
During that time, there were over 37 distilleries in the capital of Ireland alone – to put that into perspective, there are currently only 12 Irish whiskey distilleries in operation today, though the number is rising rapidly.
At one point during the early 20th Century, Irish whiskey was the most consumed spirit in the world. But the category experienced a steep decline in the 1970s and 1980s, which resulted in the last Dublin distillery shutting its doors in 1976.
In 2015, the latest generation of Teelings, brothers Jack and Stephen, whose father John founded the famous Cooleys Irish whiskey brand in the 80s, decided to revive whiskey-making in Dublin by setting up the Teeling Distillery right in the heart of the city.
Using Teeling’s core range of whiskey expressions as an example, Lynch ran through some of the key categories of Irish whiskey.
Single Pot Still
This is a whiskey style that is uniquely Irish. Single pot still whiskey is basically a style of whiskey that is made in a pot still at a single distillery, from a mash that contains both malted barley AND fresh unmalted barley, as opposed to single malt, which only uses malted barley.
“Single pot still is a style of Irish whiskey for which we were particularly famous for in the Golden Age of Irish whiskey. It tends to have grassier, gingery spice notes,” Lynch said, adding that while Teeling doesn’t have a single pot still bottling yet, there are plans to release one in the future.
“During that Golden Age, it was Dublin single pot still whiskey that was the most famous, and we really want to bring that back.”
Blended Irish whiskey
Most of the biggest brands of Irish whiskies out there are blended whiskies, which, like in scotch terminology, also means a blend of malt whiskies and grain whiskies.
“This is a style of Irish whiskey that people might be more familiar with if they’d tasted some of the big Irish whiskey brands,” said Lynch, adding that Teeling’s flagship whisky, the Teeling Small Batch, is a blended whisky that consists of hand selected casks which are further matured in ex-rum barrels and bottled at 46% ABV with no chill filtration.
“The sweet molasses from the rum complements the apple and pear fruity flavours of Irish whiskey quite well,” he said.
Like its Scotch counterpart, Irish single grain is whiskey that is made with cereals other than malted barley, such as corn, wheat, and rye. One of Teeling’s most popular products is its Single Grain, which is made from corn, and matured in Californian red wine barrels.
“This is quite a soft, elegant sweet whiskey, and it’s got complexity and spice in there as well. It’s been the most unusual one for Asian consumers, especially since it’s a single grain,” he said.
“It really comes back to the barrels we use. This is aged in barrels that previously contained Californian cabernet sauvignon red wine, which we get from the Napa Valley,” he said. “It’s made in a column still and is a very light spirit when it comes off the still. So the red wine cask really infuses a lot of flavour into it.”
The term “single malt” in Irish whiskey is pretty much the same in scotch, meaning the whiskey is made in one single distillery and with malted barley alone.
“It’s a style of Irish whiskey that we haven’t been that famous for in recent times. There haven’t been that many Irish single malts around; most people are more familiar with blends or single pot still,” Lynch said.
“With our single malt we wanted one that could really stand out not only among Irish single malts, but also international ones as well.”
Teeling’s Single Malt consists of a vatting of Irish malt whiskeys that have been finished in five different wine casks (sherry, port, madeira, white burgundy, and cabernet sauvignon).
“The idea behind that was to get a really flavourful, layered Irish whiskey that is rich and interesting,” he said.
Michael Cheang is hoping that there will be more Irish whiskies available in Malaysia soon. Drop him a note at the Tipsy-Turvy Facebook page (www.facebook.com/mytipsyturvy) or follow him on Instagram (@mytipsyturvy).