3 Differences between Irish Whiskey and Scotch Whisky (and a little bit of history too!)

This is a very interesting topic for whisk(e)y drinkers and is a much-discussed and sometimes controversial subject in the big world of the internet and in bars all over the place so we thought we'd do a bit of research about it and share the interesting information that we found with you.

In the Beginning

First of all, here's a nutshell history of the wonderful drink, whiskey and how it came to be.

The name whiskey comes from the gaelic expression - Uisce (or Fuisce) Beatha which means the Water of Life. It is thought to be one of the oldest distilled drinks in the world and legend has it that it was Irish monks who brought it into being. These hardy lads were a well travelled bunch and spent a lot of time traversing Europe spreading the word of Christianity and establishing monasteries. A side effect of this was that they brought back many food and farming ideas from far-flung places back to Ireland. Just like nowadays, hospitality was a huge part of Irish culture and feasting is mentioned in many of our ancient annals, and our monks also partook in their fair share of feasting.

It is believed that Irish monks brought the technique of distilling  back to Ireland from their travels to the Mediterranean countries around 1000 AD.  The first reference to distilling in Ireland is in the Red Book of Ossory (c.1324) although it is often erroneously claimed that the earliest written record is not until 1405 in Irish Annals of Clonmacnoise where the death of a chieftain is attributed to “taking a surfeit of aqua vitae” at Christmas. The tract in the Red Book is basically a copy of an Italian manuscript on wine distilling by Taddeo Alderotti of Bologna)— the term aqua vitae gets used across european monasteries and medical schools to refer to alcoholic spirits, whatever their base ingredients, giving its name to a load of regional drinks like French Eau de Vie, Scandinavian Akvavit, and of course Uisce Beatha.This would have been very different to the whiskey that we know and love today - it wasn't aged and would have been flavoured with herbs.

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Artist's impression of an early Irish monastic settlement

Controversially, it is thought that the same Irish monks who were responsible for setting up monasteries in Scotland were also responsible for bringing whiskey making techniques there. I say "controversially" as it is an age-old controversy about who made whiskey first - the Irish or the Scots, but that's a discussion for another day!

So, lets get back to the modern day and look at some of the differences between the two whisk(e)y traditions.

 3 Key Differences

1. The Spelling - Whiskey vs. Whisky

Before you even open a bottle, be it Jameson or Glenmorangie, you will notice the first difference between these drinks - the spelling. Irish Whiskey has an 'e' that is not present in Scotch. A common misconception is that this is due to the subtle differences between Irish and Scots Gaelic. It is not as simple as that. Until the late 19th century, most of the world spelled whisky without an e. Even the major Irish distillers, then the biggest in the world, followed the practice, as did American distillers.  Fionnán O'Connor,  whiskey researcher and author of the book, A Glass Apart, a history of pot still whiskey production in Ireland, gave us some great help in getting the proper facts and tells us - "In truth, the word (like most spelling) before 1900 is highly inconsistent and it was spelled both ways both here and occasionally there (not to mention the US) from the 1700s to the 20th century. Paddy was actually “Cork Whisky” right up until the 70s".

The Irish distillers dominated the market for a very long time and the main players in the industry had a massive capacity of 5 million gallons of whisky a year by the late 1800s, which amounted to almost 70% of the world market. At this time, the largest Scottish rival, Glenlivet, was only able to produce around 200,000 gallons.

Then, came a turning point - the wily Scots worked out a cheaper way of producing whisky, blending single malts with much cheaper grain whiskeys. They also proved to be excellent marketers and started to make serious inroads on the whisky market. The Irish Distillers were outraged and kicked up a big fuss about this, which culminated in the argument being brought to the Royal Commission on Whisky and other Potable Spirits, who ultimately decided in allowing the Scottish innovation to still be called "Whisky".

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Common lore (and more than a bit of clever marketing) would tell us that In order to differentiate themselves from their Scottish cousins, the Irish distillers decided to put an 'e' in the name and hence the birth of the name 'Whiskey".  O'Connor disputes this, saying that "in their own anti-blending propaganda pamphlet Truths About Whisky, the Dubliners call their product Irish Whisky, whereas the official name for the Royal Commission actually uses the spelling “whiskey” throughout. It’s a less jazzy story to sell but the truth is that historically most people’s spelling wasn’t too hot to begin with, words varied, trends popped up and whisk(e)y stuck".

2. The Distillation Process

Put simply, Scotch whisky is distilled twice, while Irish whiskey undergoes triple distillation. What difference does this make? Quite a lot, according to experts. The Irish extra step in the distillation process claims to result in a lighter drink which typically has a smoother flavour. Not all experts agree on this and there are also some exceptions to this rule. For example, Connemara whiskey, made at the Cooley distillery is only distilled twice, while some Scottish single malts such as Auchentoshan use the triple distillation process. Another exception is the Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky, Bruichladdich X4 which is distilled 4 times!

There are 2 key ways of distillation - the pot still and the column still. Both involve making a "mash" is made of ground grain and hot water, and yeast. This mixture is allowed to ferment and, as the yeast breaks down the sugars in the wash, the alcohol content of the liquid increases until the yeast cells are killed off. The  liquid, now called “wash”, is ready to for distillation. In the case of a Pot Still, the “wash” is transferred into the still where the alcohol, which vaporises at a lower temperature than water -78ºC (or 173ºF), is separated from the water (which vaporises at 100ºC or 212ºF). The spirit vapour travels through water cooled copper pipes or ‘worms’ and is re-condensed. The Column (or Coffey) Still is also known as the continuous still and differs from the Pot Still in that it can be used continuously rather than in batches.  This makes them cheaper to operate, as they require less fuel, and they are, therefore, more efficient to run meaning they have a far higher strength output than pot stills. However, this advantage also comes with a downside- the increase of the alcohol concentration in the end product removes some of the other volatile components responsible for flavour. As a result, their use proved extremely controversial when first introduced. They took a long time to become popular and are now used by distillers to make the grain alcohol that they put in blended whiskey.

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 A Pot Still at Midleton Distillery in Co. Cork, Ireland

3. The Ingredients

Scotch whisky can come in three forms, generally — single malt, single grain, and blended scotch.

Single malt scotch is a distillate made in one distillery with a single malted barley mash in pot stills. A single grain scotch is often used to denote a whisky made with a single grain that’s not malted barley. However, in Scotland, malted barley is added to start the fermentation process.

A single grain whisky is mostly used for blended whisky. So, the use of “single” in this case, then, refers to the fact that booze was made at a single distillery.

Blended scotch accounts for 90 percent of the Scottish whisky market and most of us would be very familiar with the brands associated with this form such as Dewar's, J&B, Johnnie Walker and Bells. This is simply a blend of malt whisky and grain whisky wherein a master blender marries two or more barrels of whisky to achieve the flavour notes they are seeking. 

Irish Whiskey comes in single malt, single pot still, single grain, and blended forms. Three of those four we already know from the above descriptions of Scottish Whiskys but where Ireland goes out on her own is with the single pot still form.

The difference between single malt and single pot still is that, whereas single malts are made from 100% malted barley, single pot still whiskey is made with both malted and unmalted (green) barley. This makes a huge difference to the flavour and has been compared to the contrast between raw and cooked apples. An example of single pot still Irish Whiskey is Dingle Single Pot Still


Whatever your tipple of choice, we hope you enjoy it even more with the added ingredient of a little bit more knowledge about the history and provenance of the delicious elixir in your glass of Uisce Beatha, the water of life!

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