What's the Difference Between Irish Whiskey and Scotch Whisky?
It's nearly St. Patrick's Day, which means you're likely browsing the liquor store in search of something other than Jameson to set out on the bar. You see an unfamiliar brand that looks appealing, then you note that the bottle says "whisky," so it should be a fine alternative, right? Probably not. There's a whole world of whisk(e)y out there. It's not interchangeable, and it may not even all come from the same country of origin.
Probably the most well-known types of the spirit are Irish whiskey and Scotch whisky or scotch, also known as Scottish whisky. Each has its own unique attributes, from story of origin to flavor profiles. We're here to break down the main differences between these brown spirits, as well as how they are alike. Spoiler alert: They're definitely more different than you may think.
Rob Caldwell, global ambassador for Teeling Whiskey, explains that Irish whiskey as we know it today has a long and storied past. "Whiskey itself is the Anglicanisation of uisce beatha in Irish Gaelic or uisge beatha in Scottish Gaelic, meaning water of life not unlike aqua vite or eau de vie," he says. Whiskey is having a moment now as consumers are rediscovering its depth of flavor and it's stunning, robust texture, whether sipped straight, on the rocks, or in cocktails. Caldwell notes that Irish whiskey has mostly been known for orchard-fruit forward whiskeys, with notes of apples, peaches, pears. But as the distilling industry hits an all-time high in Ireland, distillers are trying out new techniques and adding new flavor profiles to the mix.
"The important thing to note is that although Irish whiskey has been dominated by 'triple distilled, twice as smooth' blends and the absence of a large variety of peated single malts for many years, we're seeing rapid growth in the category—so, it isn't as clear cut as it once was," says Caldwell. "That's part of the fun, trying different whiskeys and finding the ones that you enjoy."
Scotch whisky has been on the books since the late 1400s, says says Gareth Howells, single malts ambassador for Bacardi North American, who represents Aberfeldy and Craigellachie. Howells explains that the earliest record of distillation in Scotland is found in the "Exchequer Rolls of Scotland" dated 1494, although he says Scots were distilling spirits for many years prior to that. In the records, it seems that 'eight bolls' of malt were delivered to Friar John Cor to make "aqua vitae," the phrase for the distilled spirit at that time. "The story goes that King James had been campaigning on the island of Islay (in Scotland) the previous year, and at some time or another, developed a taste for spirit made there," says Howells.
Scotch whisky is made from water, grains (most often malted barley), and yeast, but that's pretty much where the simplicity of the spirit ends, Howells says. "Single malt scotch whisky must be made from 100 percent malted barley, distilled a minimum of two times in a copper pot still, mashed, fermented, and distilled at the distillery, distilled to less than 94.8 percent ABV and aged for a minimum of three years in oak barrels," he explains. Also important is where the whisky is made. There are five traditionally recognized whisky producing regions within Scotland: Lowlands, Campbelltown, Highlands, Speyside, and Islay. However, says Howells, a sixth region—Islands—is distilling Scotch whisky but is not officially recognized by the Scotch Whisky Association.
Howells explains that each producing region gives the scotch whisky a sense of place in the glass, expressing its unique terroir. "If you were to look at Aberfeldy—located in the Highland region of Scotland—you will find notes of rich honey, vanilla, citrus, and a hint of spice which are truly indicative of the traditional style of Highland whisky. When compared to Ardbeg from Islay, you will find a dram full of vanilla, citrus and the phenolic hit of peat (smoke), a true indicator of an Islay dram," he says.
Some may believe the most obvious difference between Scottish whisky and Irish whiskey is the spelling. Howells and Caldwell explain that the differences run a bit deeper. "Irish whisky is generally distilled three times and can be made from any combination of cereal grain whereas Scottish whisky is made from 100 percent malted barley and distilled twice in copper pot stills," Howells says.
Caldwell notes that another big difference between the two is the categories of whisky. Grain whisky in Scotland is predominantly wheat lead, whereas most grain whiskeys in Ireland are made from corn. "Irish Single Malts tend to veer more towards the Speyside or Lowlands styles of Scottish single malts. Irish whiskey has its own uniquely Irish style of whiskey known as single pot still—which doesn't exist in Scotch whisky. We used to say that the easiest answer to this question would be the use of peat or 'smokey' whiskey but even this is changing rapidly with more and more amazing peated single malts coming out of Ireland," he says.
And, because the distilling process is not the same, neither are the flavor profiles. Howells says that Scottish whisky will have a fuller, heavier taste with layers of complexity depending on the marque and the distillery from which the whisky hails, while Irish whisky has a reputation for producing a smooth dram with a lighter style when compared to single malt scotch.
While both of these spirits are a bit similar, there are striking differences. However, notes Howells, there are a few things they have in common. "Both liquids are a distilled beverage made from a fermented grain [and] aged for a minimum of three years in oak," he says. And, the most important thing? "They're equally delicious," Howells says. That seems a tough point to argue with—so we won't.