The fighting Irish spirit
Jameson Irish Whiskey brand ambassador Kieran Crowe takes us through a crash course in Irish whiskey’s checkered past, its recent resurgence, and why it differs from Scotch. By John Lim
There’s more to Irish whiskey than being spelt with an ‘e’. While Irish whiskey and Scotch share a similar history, each has evolved to develop its own characteristics. For starters, Irish distillers don’t use peat to malt the barley – ‘We tend use our peat for more important things, like keeping our houses warm,’ said Kieran – resulting in an all-round pleasing whiskey. Scotch, particularly those from the Islay and Campbeltown, take pride in their peatsmoked aroma and flavour that hit you the second the drink is poured. Irish whiskeys are distilled differently from Scotch. Popular Irish whiskeys like Jameson use a combination of malted and unmalted barley, as opposed to the Scottish malt whiskies, which is made from 100 percent malted barley. ‘The reason for this is not about taste, but surprise, surprise, taxes,’ said Kieran. ‘When Ireland was a British colony, they put a tax on malted barley, so to pay less tax, we use a portion of unmalted barley.’ As an unintended result, most Irish whiskeys have a bright, spicy freshness contributed by the unmalted barley. Irish whiskeys are also triple-distilled – as opposed Scotches, which are commonly twice-distilled – resulting in what the Irish say is a smoother dram.
Geography has little influence over taste.
Unlike Scotch, the whiskeys produced across the Irish provinces of Ulster, Munster and Leinster don’t carry a distinctive taste attached to a particular place. ‘In Ireland, each distillery will make three to four types of whiskey that are radically different. The only regional variation can be found in the west, in Connemara, which produces peat,’ said Kieran. Irish distilleries almost disappeared. Until the 20th century, it was Irish whiskey that reigned supreme, not Scotch. When the 21st century rolled around, that perception flipped because of several reasons. First, Ireland was banned from selling its goods to the Commonwealth nations when it gained independence in 1921. Second, the Prohibition came about soon after, and America (then the biggest market for Irish whiskey) had stopped importing the spirit, turning instead to Scotch that was smuggled from Canada. Combined with a rising demand for Scotch after World War II, Irish whiskey reached its nadir during the mid20th century when there were only three working distilleries in 1963, down from a high of 1,200 distilleries during the 1780s. But the good times are back. ‘ Worldwide interest in whiskey is growing, and interest in non-traditional whiskey from countries like Japan, Taiwan and Ireland is rapidly rising. People want to branch out into new whiskeys,’ said Kieran. That sentiment bears out in the numbers: In 2015, the Irish whiskey export industry was valued at €300m, up 220 percent since 2003, and Irish Food Board Bord Bia estimated that Irish whiskey exports will double in volume terms by 2020 compared to 2015. There’s more to Irish whiskey than Jameson. Although Jameson is the most well-known Irish whiskey, there are several underrated Irish whiskeys worth trying out. The Redbreast is a pot still whiskey (ie, made with 100 percent barley) that’s rich, warm and sweet, while Paddy leans on the lighter side, with plenty of bright floral and cereal notes. And if you’re planning on making an authentic Irish coffee, Powers Whiskey is the traditionalist’s favourite as its spice and caramel character combine well with coffee.
Worldwide interest in whiskey is growing