What is Irish Whiskey?

Since we’ve already talked about Bourbon and Rye, we now move onto Irish whiskey.  Unlike Bourbon and Rye, the rules for what makes Irish whiskey a distinct type of whiskey are a little more vague.  For instance, you’ll commonly hear people say that Irish whiskey is single pot-still whiskey.  Others might even say that it’s single-malt whiskey.  In most cases, neither of these are true statements.  But to see why, let’s define some terms.

  • Single malt whiskey:  Whiskey that is made at a single distillery from only malted barley
  • Single pot-still whiskey: Whiskey that is made at a single distillery, from a single grain.  The grain in this case is once again barley but the the mash bill includes a mix of malted and unmalted barley.   Single pot whiskey is only legally made in Ireland.

Ok – so there’s part of our definition.  Single malt whiskey could technically be made anywhere in the world.  So single malt is not explicitly made in Ireland.  So then is single pot still whiskey Irish whiskey?  Yeah.  It can be, but many time the Irish whiskey buy is a blend of single pot-still whisley and grain whiskey.  Confused?

The real definition or Irish whiskey is that it’s made in Ireland.  From what I can tell the official law that defines Irish Whiskey calls out 5 things…

  • Must be distilled  and matured in Ireland
  • The starch is converted to sugars naturally.  That is, the malted barley provides the enzymes for doing this.  Nothing extra is added
  • The fermentation process uses yeast
  • Distilled to a percentage of alcohol less than 94.8%
  • The flavor and color must be achieved naturally

So if those are the rules, we really have a lot of options don’t we?  One of the other common misconceptions about Irish Whiskey is that it is distilled 3 times.  While it’s true that many of them are, that’s not a rule.  Some are only distilled 2 times.  The other thing to take into account is that most Irish whiskey you’re heard of such as Jameson and Bushmills is blended whiskey.  That is, it’s a mix of cheaper to produce grain whiskey and single pot-still whiskey.  Bushmills does make a single malt Irish whiskey but it’s when you get up into the aged (10 years +) varieties.

So to summarize – I think most Irish whiskey we’ll encounter is going to be a blend of grain whiskey and single pot-still whiskey.  The single pot-still whiskey distillation process is worth describing as it differs significantly from what we saw with Bourbon (and Rye which is very similar to bourbon).

The first part of making Irish whiskey (or any whiskey for that matter is milling the grain.  In the case of single-pot Irish whiskey that would be both malted and unmalted barley.  The ratio varies but it seems to be around 60 (unmalted):40(malted).  The grains are kept separate during milling and milled in a wet mill.

Next the mash is brewed.  Slowly at first and then upto a temperature of about 160 degrees.

Lautering is the process by which you separate the mash into clear liquid (wort) and the residual grains.  This is done in large lautering tanks.

The wort is then fermented by adding yeast to the mixture.  The fermentation process can take anywhere from almost 3 days to 6 days.

Next comes the famous triple distillation of Irish whiskey.  This is done in separate pot stills with the result of the previous still being used in the next still.

Lastly – the alcohol is put in the barrel.  There is no restriction about what type of barrel.  Jameson Irish whiskey actually uses old bourbon barrels and even some wine barrels from Europe.  The aging typically lasts at least 3 years.

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