What is Irish Whisky? The ultimate guide.

Updated: 21/06/2021
8 mins read
What is Irish Whisky? The ultimate guide.

Irish whiskey is one of the world’s great whiskey styles and is beloved by people worldwide. Usually, Irish whiskey is triple-distilled using unmalted barley that is typically blended with grain whiskey. There are single malt versions of Irish whiskey out there as well. 

Irish whiskey is only ever made entirely in Ireland. Still, it is famous all over the world, particularly in the UK and the USA. It’s so popular thanks to its exceptional smoothness. Sales of Irish whiskey are always growing, as is the range of different brands to choose from. Now is the perfect time to enjoy a dram or mix a cocktail using Irish whiskey. 

Irish Whiskey vs. Scotch

Irish whiskey and Scotch Whisky are the oldest styles of this dark, distilled spirit.

Which came first?

Nobody knows for sure. The subject has long been debated throughout history, with both countries claiming theirs is the original and superior drink. The most apparent difference between the two is that the Irish version is always spelled as whiskey, with an ‘e,.’ In contrast, Scotch is whisky, without the ‘e.’ 

In terms of how whiskey and whisky are produced, the two styles both have customary practices that typically characterize the style.

However, there are whiskeys on the market that have borrowed practices from the other, sometimes leading to confusion.

Both are fermented with barley, and Scotch is often malted and Irish whiskey is usually unmalted. Blended whiskies of either may include grain whiskey. 

Irish whiskey is typically triple-distilled, which Scotch is often distilled only twice. 

Both styles include blended and single malt styles, although Scotch is best known for single malt. 

The other main distinguishing feature of the two options is the finish. Scotch is known for its peaty smokiness, whereas Irish whiskey is very smooth. However, there are peated and double-distilled Irish whiskeys, as well as non-peated and triple-distilled Scotch whiskies. The only difference you can rely on to tell the difference is where the spirit was made. 

Irish Whiskey

Fast Irish Whiskey Facts

  • Ingredients: Unmalted or malted barley and cereal grains
  • Proof: 80 - 120
  • ABV: 40 - 60%
  • Origin: Ireland
  • Taste: Typically smooth, light, rich oak, fruity, grainy
  • Aged: At least three years
  • Serve: Straight, on the rocks, mixed drinks, in cocktails, shots. However, you like it.

What Is Irish Whiskey Made From?

Irish Whiskey is one of the most popular forms of whiskey in the world. It is only a product of Ireland, and the rules for the production of this spirit can be dated back to 1880. There are two primary components of the Irish Whiskey Act of 1950:

  • Irish whiskey needs to be distilled in Ireland from a mash of malt and cereal grains.
  • Irish pot still whiskey can only be distilled in pot stills in Ireland from a mash of cereal grains that are usually grown in Ireland. 

Typically, Irish whiskey is distilled from unmalted barley, though some include malted barley. The malt is dried in closed kilns, so it is only exposed to hot air and never smoke. The fermentation process can consist of some additional enzymes to prepare the starches for being converted into alcohol. After this process, the whiskey is distilled three times in copper pot stills. Some, usually grain whiskeys, use continuous column stills. 

According to Irish law, all whiskeys need to be aged for a minimum of three years in barrels. These barrels can be new or can have been used previously. The barrels used were often once used to house sherry, bourbon, or rum. 

The majority are blended whiskeys that include grain whiskey after barreling. In the premium range, you will find single malt whiskeys. Irish whiskey is usually bottled at about 40 percent alcohol by volume (ABV, 80 proof) or a little higher. Some even reach 120 proof. 

Many of the Irish whiskeys made today are stepping outside of these production norms, introducing peat, different grains, and experimenting with different kinds of wood casks. 

whiskey tasted by man

What Does Irish Whiskey Taste Like?

Irish whiskey has a very distinct flavor profile that most people would describe as light and fruity, with clear cereal grain notes. The way that the whiskey is aged also imparts the signature whiskey flavor of oak and caramel. 

Types Of Irish Whiskey

There are a few main kinds of Irish whiskey that you can explore. 

  • Blended Irish Whiskey: blends make up about 90 percent of all whiskey produced in Ireland.
  • Single Malt Irish Whiskey: Made from 100 percent malted barley, this whiskey is made by a single distillery in a pot still. 
  • Single Pot Still Whiskey: This used to be called a pure pot still. This whiskey is a blend of both malted and unmalted distilled in a pot still. It’s a whiskey style that is only made in Ireland, making it unique to the country. 
  • Grain Irish Whiskey: A light style made from corn or wheat. Grain whiskey is made in column stills rather than the more commonly used pot stills. 
  • Single Grain Irish Whiskey: This style has the same characteristics of grain whiskey, except a single grain is used in the distillate. 
  • Potcheen: This is also sometimes known as poitin or poteen. It is basically Irish moonshine. The distilled spirit doesn’t meet the legal age requirement to be called or labeled a proper Irish whiskey. Much like the American white dog, it is a new-make spirit that doesn’t see much time in the barrel. 

How To Drink Irish Whiskey

Many people have strong feelings about the correct way to drink a whiskey, and some people may try to tell you that there is a right or wrong way to enjoy your Irish whiskey. This is, in fact, not true.

Some serves may be more traditional than others, but there are no real rules. The right way to drink Irish whiskey is the way you enjoy it most, and the wrong way to drink it is a way you don’t care for. That’s it. 

Still, here are some ideas for how to drink it.

jameson irish whiskey on glass

Straight Or Neat

The next time you decide you fancy a glass of whiskey, don’t automatically add some cubes of ice to it. A lot of whiskey is enhanced by the addition of age, but not all. You should at least try the whiskey neat, with no extras, first. 

You might be pleasantly surprised. Due to its smoothness, Irish whiskey is very drinkable as a neat drink. 

If you find that neat whiskey isn’t for you, that’s fine. If you’re not used to it, the high alcohol content and bold flavor can make a neat whiskey a bit much for some people. If you prefer a more warming experience, you can add a little water. 

Add Water

If you’re new to whiskey, adding water might sound like a strange thing to do. Can a drop of water really make a difference? 

A drop of water releases the water repellent elements in the glass. This lets you detect more aromatics on the nose and lowers the alcohol content, allowing you to taste more flavors on your palate. 

Some bars will provide pipettes for adding drops of water, but the easiest way to do this at home is with a glass of water and a straw. Add a small drop of water with the straw, swirl the whiskey, and taste. Repeat this process until you find the most pleasing flavor for you. 

The more water you add, the more diluted the whiskey will become, giving the effect of ice without chilling the drink. 

On The Rocks

Ordering a whiskey on the rocks is popular, but it might not actually be what you want. Ice will numb your palate, which can dull the flavors of what you’re drinking. If you’ve bought an expensive whiskey, you probably don’t want to do this. But sometimes, you might want a cold glass of whiskey. If this is what you want, go for it.

If you want ice, you’re better off with a large ice cube or ice cube of about 1.5 to 2 inches. 

Smaller cubes or chunks of ice will melt into your whiskey faster than a large piece, which will dilute the spirit a lot more quickly. 

If you want the chill without the dilution, you can use chilled whiskey stones instead. These are stones that you keep in the freezer until you need them, so they can cool your drink without melting and adding water. 

jameson irish whiskey with lemon and ice

Whiskey Cocktails

If you can’t get to like the taste of whiskey alone, or if you want to try your whiskey in more ways, you can try adding it to a classic cocktail. Irish whiskey works well with cocktails, but Rye whiskey is the best as it has assertive flavors that will hold their own in a mix. 

You can drink whiskey with a mixer, like lemonade, ginger ale, or club soda. Try adding honey or a lemon twist. 

There are dozens of classic whiskey cocktails, including the Manhatten, the Old Fashioned, the Whiskey Sour, the Mint Julep, and of course, the Irish Coffee. Whiskey has many different varieties, making it an excellent ingredient for getting an experimental. You can try using whiskey in various cocktails or even try coming up with your own. 

An Irish Coffee is a great way to enjoy an Irish Whiskey. This warming drink is perfect on cold evenings or to round off a meal. All you need to make is good coffee, brown sugar, Irish whiskey, and whipped cream. Spike your coffee with the whiskey, stir in the sugar, and top with a dollop of whipped cream. 

The Old-Fashioned is an excellent way to dress up your whiskey. All that’s added is sugar, an orange slice, and bitters, although you can also add a splash of soda if you want. The simpleness makes it very easy to experiment with different styles of whiskey and the cocktail itself. 

Many bars have begun to create different versions of this classic cocktail. They are doing all kinds of interesting and exciting things. Ask the bartender at your favorite cocktail bar if they do any twists on the Old Fashioned, or look for recipes to try yourself at home. 

If you like something a bit unusual, try a new favorite. The pickleback has recently become something of a sensation and has become more well-known after becoming famous in Brooklyn. All a Pickleback is is a shot of whiskey with pickle juice. It might sound like a strange combination, but it can be surprisingly easy to drink if you like various sweet and sour flavors. It’s even better if you follow with it a beer chaser. 

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What grain is Irish Whiskey made from?

Usually, Irish whiskey is made from barley and malt. 

What does Irish Whiskey taste like?

Irish whiskey is known for its smooth taste, with notes of vanilla. 

How many calories in Irish whiskey?

There are between 65 and 70 calories in a shot. 

Does Irish whiskey need the "e"?

Yes. Whiskey is made in Ireland. Whisky is made in Scotland. 

What makes Irish Whiskey unique?

Irish whiskey is made with a blend of malted and unmalted barley in the pot still phase, whereas Scotch only uses malted barley. 

What’s the difference between Irish whiskey and American whiskey?

American whisky is usually made with corn, wheat, or rye instead of barley. These ingredients are the main difference. 

Which Irish whiskeys are Catholic, and which ones are Protestant?

This divide is a myth. Irish whiskey dates back centuries but is now made by people of all faiths and enjoyed by both Catholics and Protestants. 

Did the Irish Invent whiskey?

Nobody knows for sure. Irish whiskey has been around for centuries, but so has Scottish whisky. Both countries have a strong claim to be the inventors of the spirit. 

Is Irish whiskey smoother than bourbon?

Yes. Irish whiskey is very smooth, but it is less sweet than bourbon. 

Ashleigh Cain

Ashleigh is a key part of the editorial team at Whiskey Rocks. You'll often find her either writing educational articles or reviewing the latest artisan whiskeys. Her favorite drink? Ashleigh loves smokey scotches like Laphroaig, but you'll also often find her with an old fashioned in hand.

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