A Conversation about Irish Whiskey

March 13 2014 - 9:00 AM

With St. Patrick’s Day around the corner, it’s time for an Irish whiskey refresher. Check back tomorrow for some Chicago Foodie bottle recommendations, but first here’s a Q&A on the original uisce beatha.

Uisce What?
Uisce beatha! It’s Gaelic for water of life, the name given to the first spirits made in Northern Europe. Over time, the phrase morphed into usquebaugh, then our modern word, whiskey.

So this stuff’s old, huh?
Sometime in the late middle ages, the Irish made poitín, an un-aged spirit from grain that was the precursor to modern whiskey. Though the Irish and Scots are in a perennial fight over who invented the stuff, there is no denying the Irish version was beloved. Queen Elizabeth I, in fact, called Irish usquebaugh her “only Irish friend”. (Which, come to think of it, might say more about politics than whiskey.)

By the late 1800’s, Irish whiskey was THE whiskey category. Ireland had more than 90 licensed distilleries and as much as 60% of whiskey consumed in America came from the small nation. In Scotland, it outsold whisky made there three to one.

The Mash Tuns of Kilbeggan Distillery (source)

Wow! Where’d all those distilleries go?
In the first half of the 20th Century, a number of things happened to squash the Irish whiskey industry.  First, Ireland rebelled against England in their war of Independence and England, in retribution, raised tariffs, effectively ending Irish whiskey distribution to the British Empire. Then, America’s Prohibition closed off the spirit’s number one market, and finally, barley rationing during World War II ground production nearly to a halt.

By 1948 only six distilleries survived, and by 1972 the remaining brands united together under one company, Irish Distillers. At the lowest point in the early 1980’s, Ireland had just two distilleries – Bushmills in the North and Middleton in the South – and most Irish whiskey brands were not sold outside Ireland.

But there’s good news, right?
In the mid-1980’s, Irish Distillers was purchased and the new owners pushed Irish whiskey in America. Their plan?  Introduce Americans to a little brand called Jameson. (Every heard of it?)

At the same time, Cooley Distillery, the first new independent in 100 years, opened distilling traditionally-motivated, but new and innovative products that brought excitement back to the category. Since 2002 sales have increased 400% and almost a dozen distilleries now grace the island.

Let’s toast to their new success!
Sláinte! To your health and the renewed health of Irish whiskey! Whiskey with an ‘e’!

Irish True

Wait! What’s the deal with that ‘e’?
In a word, marketing.

In the 1800’s, the Irish saw the expanding Scotch category as diluting their good name with inferior products. In order to distinguish themselves, brands began using the spelling whiskey (from Irish Gaelic) instead of whisky (from Scottish Gaelic).

This duplicity doesn’t end at the North Channel separating the two countries. American made spirits follow the lead of the Irish and spell it whiskey while distilleries in former British territories like Canada prefer whisky.

The stills at the Old Jameson Distillery (source)

That’s clever! But if they’re so smart, why does all Irish whiskey taste the same?
It doesn’t! Irish whiskeys share some common features like a smooth finish, sweet fresh grain flavor and light body, but they can actually vary a lot.

The most popular bottles – Jameson, Powers and Bushmlls, for example, — are blends designed to be easy-drinking. They’re a good introduction, but Irish whiskey really comes in three flavors.

Super-light and clean grain whiskey is made from corn or unmalted barley in a column still. More earthy and complex single malt whiskey is made from malted barley in traditional pot stills and has a deeper, more robust flavor reminiscent of Scotch. And single pot still whiskey, – a uniquely Irish style – is a mix of both malted and unmalted barley distilled three times in a large pot still. Single pot still whiskey was what made Irish whiskey the world’s favorite: it boasts complex flavors but is overall light and smooth, and it ages well, providing an uncommon, but wickedly satisfying experience.

Sláinte indeed!

Do you have any questions about Irish whiskey? Post them in the comments and we’ll do our best to answer them!