Irish whiskey is an alcoholic beverage which is distilled from grain. By tradition, whiskey made in the Irish style is spelled as “whiskey,” while Scotch products are known as “whisky.” There are several fundamental differences between the Scotch and Irish versions of this popular beverage, and many consumers have acquired a specific taste for one or the other. Many large markets and beverage stores sell Irish whiskey, usually with several brands and styles on offer.
A true Irish whiskey will be produced with grains grown in Ireland, although people may use the term more generally to a refer to a specific style of whiskey making. Barley is the traditional base, although oats, rye, wheat, or even corn may be used. Once malted, the grain is dried in sealed ovens before being fermented and distilled to create the final product. Irish whiskey is distilled three times, so it has a smooth, rich flavor which is very distinctive.
After distillation, Irish whiskey is aged in oak casks. By tradition, these casks are old, and they have previously been used to age alcohols like rum or bourbon. Since the oak is old, it imparts a more mellow, subtle flavor to the finished product, with undertones of the alcohol which was previously fermented in that cask. This can lead to subtle differences between whiskeys from the same distillery. Typically, Irish whiskey is aged for seven to eight years, although whiskeys as young as four can sometimes be found for sale.
The history of whiskey making in Ireland is quite lengthy. It is believed that the Irish first started fermenting grains around the 8th century, with many monks producing whiskey for medicinal purposes. The Irish refined the recipe, and the Scottish probably picked up the technique from Ireland. By the 1500s, Ireland was becoming well known for its whiskey; Elizabeth I is said to have greatly enjoyed whiskey from Ireland during her reign. After a series of distillery closures in the 20th century, the Irish whiskey industry ultimately recovered, and several companies now make traditional Irish whiskey.
In Ireland, whiskey used to be known as uisce beatha, or “water of life,” after the Latin aqua vitae, with the same meaning. The original Gaelic was probably corrupted into the modern word “whiskey.” Scotch whisky is generally only distilled twice, so it may have a more harsh flavor. In addition, the grain is dried over open peat fires. This gives Scotch whisky a smoky, earthy taste which is very distinctive.