Scotch, Irish, Bourbon or Rye

Why Irish whiskey was the first and still the best! 

TEXt: Sean O`Callaghan (Not that he's biased or anything)
PHOTOS: saroyan humphrey

Feature | I had an idea for a story before our recent trip to Ireland. So I pitch Mike on the idea. It’s like a wannabe Irish American’s primer.

“So you think you're Irish?” article for dispelling the myths.

Mike, being the editor and possessing an uncanny ability to get to the point and cut the crap, immediately put his finger directly on the throbbing pulse of what would really play out in RUST land.

“Naw; that sucks,” he said.  “I want an article on the difference between Scotch and Irish whiskey!” To which I wholeheartedly agreed and off I went on holiday, finally with a true purpose: research!

The early Irish missionaries being the most traveled at the time brought back from the Middle East about 500 A.D. a little trick used for thousands of years to make perfume: distillation. So the story goes one day after attempting to make a batch of eau de barley, someone figured out if you quit trying to put it behind your ears and drank it instead, you had a truly magical gift of God.  And so it was thought for hundreds of years.  This became the Irish version of turning “water into wine” except they could do it by the barrel!  The monks brought distillation with them when they set up shop in Scotland a century or two later, and this is where the family tree branches for the first time.

The word “whiskey” is thought to have been coined by the soldiers of King Henry II who invaded Ireland in the 12th century and they anglicized the old Irish words ''uisce beathe'' (ish kuh baha) or “water of life”.

Irish and Scotch whiskeys are made from barley, water and yeast.  The first difference between Scotch and Irish is that generally Irish is a mix of malted and un-malted barley for a lighter taste and color, whereas Scotch is generally all malted barley. Malting barley is the process of soaking the barley in water to get it to germinate and sprout, thereby producing more starch to turn into sugar which then turns into alcohol.

Pure pot still Irish whiskey is distilled three times as compared to twice with scotch.

Now, whiskey fans, this is where the second and truly defining difference between Irish and Scotch is introduced.  When the malted barley comes out of the malting tanks, the germination must be stopped by drying the malt in the malt house.  A traditional Irish malt house is a two-story structure with the upper floor being ceramic tile with tiny holes in it and the ground floor housing kilns or furnaces.  Irish malt is fired indirectly with coal, allowing just the heat to filter up and dry the malt.  Scotch malt is directly fired with peat allowing the smoke to filter through the malt, imparting the traditional smoky flavor scotch is known for.

From the beginning and up until about 1830, all distilling was done in a traditional pot still.  This is basically the copper pot with the coil coming out of the top, which you see in any reference to moonshiners.  You take your malted barley, grind it into grist, put it in a tank with hot water, and agitate it with mechanical rakes. It is cooled and now called “the wort.” The wort is now put into very large wash tanks and yeast is added to begin fermentation. You home brewers will recognize at this stage we have basically raw ale.  The wort is now called wash and it is pumped into the first and largest still, the wash still.  Distilling is simply the fact that alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water. So the wash is heated to below boiling (about 175 degrees) and the first thing to come off is alcohol retaining the flavor of the grain. Pure pot still Irish whiskey is distilled three times as compared to twice with scotch. (Fourth big difference, ed.) The first-run spirits are called low wines and are too heavy and oily to make whiskey. The second distillate is known as feints and this may contain unwanted substances also. The third distillation extracts a spirit, which contains the minimum amount of volatile flavors and essential oils. The whiskey is put in casks to age and mature for a minimum of three years and up to twenty-five or thirty years if you can afford it!  All whiskey goes into the casks stronger than when it comes out due to the fact that alcohol evaporates through the cask at the rate of 2-3 percent a year until it is bottled. Eight to twelve years is just right, I’ve found!

Up until 1830 all whiskey was made using either the Irish or Scotch pot still method. Then along came an Irishman working for the British excise service. Aneas Coffey invented the Coffey or patent still in 1830 for the manufacture of industrial spirits. Unlike the pot still, which starts with a batch and ends up with less than that, the patent or continuous still produces a stream of grain-neutral spirit continuously without stopping for individual batches. Distillers found that this new spirit worked exceptionally well in the production of a new drink fast becoming the most popular drink in England: gin. It was also found that taking a little pot still whiskey and mixing it with patent still spirit produced a liquor that was lighter tasting and much less expensive to produce, and thus was born the blended whiskey industry.

Irish whiskey until this time enjoyed a worldwide reputation as the accepted gold standard of fine whiskey. As time and the successive invasions and subjugation of Ireland by the British took hold, the Irish domestic production of fine pot still whiskey decreased. This was due in large part to increased taxes by the British on production.  Aneas Coffey’s job was to measure the production and quality of whiskey in Ireland.  The better the batch the higher the tax!  It is no wonder that the man in charge of collecting the taxes invented a way of producing spirit in a continuous stream. This resulted in a much lower production cost and created a neutral-grain spirit that is taxed at a much lower level.  Throughout this entire period and for over 150 years, there was an endless series of bills in the British Parliament to define exactly what is Irish whiskey.  A lot of this was fueled by the fact that several prominent members of parliament were also owners of large distilleries at the time.

When World War I broke out, exports and production fell to the point that the great majority of distillerys went out of business.

Due to the increase in taxation and the constantly changing definition of what was Irish whiskey, the quality of the product suffered as more and more importers around the world and especially in England blended smaller and smaller amounts of pure whiskey with neutral spirits to produce a product that they could still call Irish whiskey.  Remember that all of this time whiskey was shipped from the distillery in the very barrels that it was aged in and was bottled by the distributors locally and even by individual pubs! Other factors contributing to Irish whiskey's partial loss of reputation over the years were three little things that occurred in the first half of the 20th century.  When World War I broke out, exports and production fell to the point that the great majority of distilleries went out of business. Then just like a one-two punch, Ireland's largest market — America — passed Prohibition. This was almost the end for a viable whiskey industry in Ireland.

At the same time an enterprising guy by the name of Joe Kennedy (yes, the father of those Kennedys) ran inferior Canadian whiskey labeled as Irish into America to quench the thirst of a whole lot of Americans willing to pay top dollar for an illegal drink.  This reminds me of my grandfather Jimmie O`Callaghan, who when we were growing up in New Hampshire in the '60s always drank Seagram’s in his highballs, saying that when he was young, Irish was crap, and he lost his taste for it.  After Prohibition was repealed the lack of aged reserves in Ireland led to a loss of market share when they could not keep up with the newly increased demand, and Scotch began to gain ground as a more available product.

When WWII started exports once again virtually stopped.  Ireland became independent in 1922 and remained neutral during the war.  The perceived dominance of Scotch whiskey was also furthered at this time due to the fact that during the war Ireland kept its whiskey production at home for domestic consumption and the English, having the protection of the British and U.S. navies, exported as much as possible to make money for the war effort.  G.I.s stationed in England and Europe drank a lot of Scotch and brought home a taste for it that remains to this day.

The result of these meetings was the formation of the Irish Distillers Group.

Throughout these years the Irish whiskey industry survived mainly due to the overwhelming dominance of the home market. But in 1966 the major distillers got together to discuss how to regain market share around the world. The result of these meetings was the formation of the Irish Distillers Group. IDG merged the major brands of Jameson, John Powers and Sons and Paddy to form the largest liquor conglomerate in Ireland. IDG built the first new distillery in over 100 years at Midleton in County Cork and produces the majority of true Irish whiskey for the entire world. Midleton is the last stop on the Irish Whiskey heritage trail that began for me two years ago at Bushmills in Northern Ireland and was completed this trip by stopping at the old Jameson distillery in Dublin (now the corporate headquarters for IDG) and ending at Midleton where I received my second diploma as an expert whiskey taster. Now, that was a fun course!

With IDG posting sales increases of over 17 percent a year since 1978, Irish whiskey is well on its way back to being recognized as the original and pre-eminent whiskey in the world today.  To facilitate the tasting and to have a proper place to drink it, I built a pub in my attic last year, which was named “The Hurley” by Rustmaster Mike, and if you would like to have a taste just get a hold of Mike and come by sometime. In the meantime I’ll leave you with the recipe for The Hurley’s house drink, the Irish Highball. Cheers, or as they say in Ireland , Slainte`  (pronounced slawncha,) which means health, thus “the water of life.”


The Irish Highball

Fill one pint glass full of ice.

Pour over ice 1 ½ oz. Jameson Irish Whiskey

Fill with Canada Dry Ginger Ale (Jimmie O`Callaghan’s favorite!)

Quench thirst

Repeat process several times, cheers!