Long before Guinness came along, whiskey was the standard alcoholic drink in Ireland, and the two could not be more different. Guinness, as almost everyone knows, is mostly served in pints, is black in colour and has a creamy white frothy topping. It’s a very robust, filling drink and if you don’t have it very often, your head will be spinning after just one or two pints.
Whiskey, however, is around ten times stronger than Guinness and so is naturally taken in much smaller quantities. This strong smelling brown liquid is usually mixed with water or soda as its taste is also ten times stronger than Guinness, and can take some getting used to! So although Guinness is often viewed as the ‘national’ drink of Ireland, we decided to take a look at the ‘original’ drink that came before it.
Origins of whiskey
Ancient societies had learned the practice of distillation as early as the Babylonians of Mesopotamia in 2000 BC, or certainly by the Greeks of Alexandria in the 1st century AD. However, they did not use these techniques to distil alcohol – instead, they made perfumes. The first historical record of distilling alcohol comes from 13th century Italy, where wine was used as the original product. Again, this was not used for the purpose of making a drink, but rather to produce experimental medicine for treating such diseases as colic and smallpox. Nonetheless, the practice spread and was soon being used in monasteries all over Western Europe. Having gained the Latin name ‘aqua vitae’, meaning ‘water of life’, somewhere along the way, when it reached Gaelic shores the words were translated into ‘uisce beatha’, which was then anglicised into simply ‘whiskey’.
In Ireland, the first historical mention of whiskey dates from 1405, where it is recorded in the Annals of Clonmacnoise that a prominent chieftain died from ‘taking a surfeit of aqua vitae’ at Christmas. At this time distillation techniques were still rather undeveloped and the taste would have been very raw and unpalatable compared with today, so that probably wasn’t too difficult! By the mid 16th century King Henry VIII had dissolved all monasteries, where the vast majority of whiskey production occurred, and it became common in a secular environment as monks found ways to occupy themselves in their new lives. Somewhere along the way, it became more common as a recreational drink than a medicine.
How whiskey is made
Centuries ago, whiskey was made in copper ‘stills’ (specially designed deep pots) from just a few simple ingredients; grain, water, and yeast. Any grain can be used, but barley is chosen most often, particularly in Ireland and Scotland. Modern experimental whiskey distillers are known to use rye, corn, wheat, oats or even quinoa, but the most well known traditional whiskeys, both long ago and these days, is made using barley.
The first step in making these ingredients into whiskey is drying out the grain in a process called malting. Essentially, the grain is toasted, and this is what gives the end product its distinctive, rich taste. Once dried, the grain is milled into a coarse substance called grist. Hot water is added and the mixture is heated to a specific temperature (nowadays this is done in a big vessel known as a mash tun). This process preserves the enzymes in the mixture and breaks down proteins and starches into amino acids and sugars. Once heated, the grist is filtered and given yet another name; worst. It is now a very sugary liquid that needs to be fermented. Yeast is added to speed up the fermentation, and during this stage the liquid becomes a kind of coarse beer known as wash. It is now fermented and ready for distillation. The process of distillation is fairly straightforward at base level; it simply involves separating liquids using heat. Since alcohol and water boil at different temperatures however (alcohol having the lower boiling point), more alcohol than water is evaporated when the wash is heated. An externally cooled pipe collects the vapour to avoid losing any of the collected alcohol, which at this stage is between a whopping 70 – 95% ABV!
Thankfully, this reduces once the collected vapour is distilled, water is added and it is poured into specially crafted oak casks to age. The finished whiskey will be aged for a minimum of 3 years before it is ready to be bottled, shipped and sold. During these 3 years it will take on its signature brown colour thanks to contact with the wood, and the longer it is aged for, the darker it will be. The cask will also lose 2% of the liquid inside each year due to evaporation - or as distillers like to say, because of the angels taking their share.
Types of whiskey
Although the basic process is the same for all kinds of whiskeys, there are so many variations that can be completed during distillation that make various different types of whiskey possible. The two basic types are malt whiskey (made from malted barley) and grain whiskey (made from any other type of grain). However, there are also various subcategories depending on the process used.
Single malt whiskey
This is whiskey made from only one kind of malted grain. This is the ‘standard’ type of most whiskeys, as it has contains whiskey from various casks and years in order to achieve a recognisable taste associated with that particular distiller.
Blended malt whiskey
This is a mixture of two or more single malt whiskeys, often from different distilleries. Like single malts, blended malts have their own unique taste that is incredibly difficult for anyone else to recreate.
Blended whiskey is a hybrid of different types of malt, grain, and whatever other weird and wonderful additives the distiller cares to experiment with. The majority of modern whiskeys are blended.
Cask strength Whiskey
With these words printed on the bottle is rare and exceptionally strong as it has been bottled straight from the cask without any dilution or flavouring. Drinkers are encouraged to personally dilute each glass to their liking.
Single cask whiskey is similar to single malt in that it is made from one kind of malted grain, however it is not mixed with any other previously produced whiskeys. Each bottle carries specific information about the cask from which it came.
Bourbon whiskey is an American creation, made from a minimum of 51% corn maize. It must be distilled to have an absolute maximum of 80% ABV and must be aged for a minimum of 2 years.
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Whiskey distilleries in Ireland
There are just ten whiskey distilleries on the island of Ireland, and the majority of them have only been established in the last few decades. This is because Irish whiskey, once the most popular spirit in the world, went into rapid decline in the early 20th century. This was largely due to prohibition laws in the United States between 1920 and 1923, which forced many distilleries out of business. The Irish War of Independence and civil war immediately afterwards also made exporting difficult, and political and economic turmoil over the next few decades further devastated the industry.
Things were so bad, in fact, that the handful of remaining industries pooled their resources into one association – Irish Distillers – but even so, by the mid 1970s there were only two distilleries left in the whole country. These were Bushmills in county Antrim (the oldest licensed distillery in the world, founded in 1608) and the Old Midleton distillery in county Cork, who produced the world’s most famous whiskey brand; Jameson. Thankfully, in 1988 Pernod Ricard took over Irish Distillers and pumped time, resources and money back into the Irish whiskey industry. Since the early 1990s Irish whiskey has been well on its way to reclaiming its title, and is currently the fastest growing spirit in the world.
Apart from Bushmills and Midleton, the other five distilleries in Ireland are Cooley Distillery in county Louth, which produces the Connemara, Michael Collins and Tyrconnell brands and was established in 1987; Kilbeggan Distillery in county Offaly, which currently only produces its namesake brand, established in 2007 and owned by the same company as Cooley (Beam Suntory); Tullamore Distillery, also in county Offaly, which produced Tullamore Dew and other brands, officially opened in 2014; the West Cork and Dingle distilleries in Munster, and three distilleries so new they haven’t even had time to age their whiskey yet – Echiniville and Teeling, the first distilleries to be granted licences in Ireland in over 125 years, and the Alltech Craft Distillery in county Carlow.
If this momentum keeps going, Irish whiskey is on course to regain its old status as the world’s most popular drink. Some of the well known brands produced by these distilleries (apart from Jameson and Bushmills) include Locke’s Single Malt, Redbreast, Clontarf, Paddy, Powers, and Greenore.
Whiskey, Whisky, Scotch – what’s the difference?
Some whiskey purists will admonish you for adding or omitting the ‘e’, depending on where they’re from and how they feel about the situation! For some it is merely a matter of regional spelling just like ‘colour’ and ‘color’, but for others it depends on the particular drink and how it is made. While they are both essentially the same drink, the troublesome ‘e’ was added by Irish whiskey makers in the 19th century when they began exporting their produce to America (which is also why Americans still favour the added ‘e’ in the name), in order to distinguish it from their Scottish competitors.
Scotland and most other whiskey producing countries still go with ‘whisky’, but at the time Irish whiskey makers were more advanced than their cousins across the sea, and Scottish whisky – or ‘Scotch’, as it became known - was viewed as inferior. Leaving spelling aside, there are also a few distinct differences between Irish, American and Scottish whisk(e)y. Scottish whiskey is normally distilled twice and uses peat fires to dry out the grain, leading to a recognisable smoky flavour in the finished product. Scotland is probably the most prolific whiskey producing country in the world with so many distilleries that they have been divided into four main regions; highland, lowland, islay and speyside (with Campbell likely to be added as a fifth).
There is much variation between each region, so Scotch makes for a very changeable and interesting drink. Irish whiskey, on the other hand, is distilled three times, so has a much smoother taste than other types that is equally distinctive. Irish whiskey has had a reputation as the best, most prestigious kind of whiskey mostly due to the biggest whiskey brand in the world, Jameson, hailing from county Cork.
Finally, American whiskey (often referred to as Bourbon although this may not apply to all brands depending on the distilling process) is similar to Scotch in that it is distilled twice. Many types use grains other than barley, usually corn or rye. Many types are also filtered through sugar-maple charcoal after distillation – the most notable example being Tennessee whiskeys such as Jack Daniels. The name ‘bourbon’ originates from Bourbon County in Kentucky, famous for being a whiskey making area.
If you likes this post, you may find other interesting articles of Irish Interest on our blog.