Though sharing a common Celtic heritage in the art of whiskey (note the Irish spelling) making, pronounced differences in taste and style distinguish Irish Whiskeys from their Scottish counterparts. We”ll never know who invented the “water of life ” but what is known is that Ireland and Scotland each developed their own interpretations of the art of distilling long before the first Roman ever trod on British soil.
Irish whiskey differs from Scotch whisky from its very inceptionthe malting stage. The barley used for Scotch whisky is dried over open peat fires. The process allows the smoke to penetrate the barley malt and gives Scotch its distinctive smoky flavor.
The malt in Irish whiskey is dried in sealed ovens, keeping only the pure malt flavor. Irish whiskey is then distilled three times (as opposed to twice for Scottish whisky), which further adds to the smoothness of its taste. To be called Irish, the whiskey has to be distilled from native grains in Ireland and stored in wooden casks for at least three years. Distillers avoid using new oak casks because they believe the wood imparts a rough taste to the whiskey. Instead, many distillers select used barrels that once held the contents of another type of liquor, such as bourbon or rum. This practice accounts for subtle differences in whiskies that may originate from the same distillery.
The rise of Irish whiskey occurred during the 16th century. Elizabeth I was said to be very fond of it, although she never took the opportunity to turn a profit on it. In fact it wasn”t until Christmas Day 1661 that a tax was first levied on the brew and by 1815, this tithe had increased to a crippling six shillings per gallon of whiskey. Ironically, this was also the zenith of Irish whiskey making with over 2000 stills believed to be in existence at the time. Many of these, however, produced “Poitien ” or poteen as it was known; just as fiery as the Irish spirit itself, but illegal, since no tax was paid to the crown.
What led to the decline of Irish whiskey making? Like its true origins, this, too, is a mystery. The economic policies of the new independent republic, the unhappy history of civil unrest, and social complacency have resulted in the survival of only three active distilleries in Ireland with three others open only as museum. However, the industry is growing again with two more distilleries projected to open soon.