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Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Difference between Whiskey and Whisky

Extraordinary Dreams of an Ireland Traveler

welcomes back



Some more observant readers will notice "Irish whiskey" and "Scotch whisky." This was no typo. Irish and Americans distill whiskey, but the Scots distill whisky. Since both words come from the English translation of the Gaelic translation (uisce beatha in Irish and uisge beatha in Scots Gaelic) of the Latin for distilled drink (aqua vitae or water of life, because it was thought to be medicinal for everything from the common cold to smallpox), it's understandable that there might be a little confusion about spelling. But enough etymology, what about the booze?


Copper Pot Stills


 All whiskey (or whisky) in the British Isles is produced with basically the same process. First, barley is malted, i.e., it is soaked in water for a number of days and allowed to sprout. This allows it to produce the sugars necessary to make alcohol. Then the malted barley is dried in a kiln and ground into a grist. That grist is then put into a vat with water and heated to produce what's termed a "mash." The mash is filtered to give a sweet liquid that is called the wort. Then the wort goes into huge vats where it ferments in a beer-like liquid known as the "wash" with a low alcohol content (maybe 6-8 %). Finally, it is pumped into a still (normally copper pot stills that are large, bell-shaped vessels with a bend at the top) and the alcohol is boiled off and collected by cooling coils. This produces what is called "low wine," which is about 25%-35% alcohol. That is distilled again to produce whiskey. In Ireland, it normally undergoes one more distillation. This stuff, which is what early whiskey would have been like, is pretty raw and has plenty of bite. In Ireland, it was (and is) called poteen, which has a strong similarity and kinship to backwoods America's white lightening. Nowadays it's aged at least a few years and often blended with milder grain spirits in Irish whiskeys like Bushmills and Jameson, as well as Scotch Whiskys like Johnny Walker, Dewars and Cutty Sark, to name just a few. Any questions?


Jameson Whiskey

and Jameson 12 yr old


In honor of my heroine, the straight-shooting, hard-drinking female P.I. Morg Mahoney, I'll focus on the Irish bit-of-the-creature in this post. Morg's poison-of-choice is Jameson. Jameson has been made in Ireland since John Jameson founded the distillery in 1780. It is a blended whiskey, having a corn-based spirit added, but is the only one I know that makes it in the same copper stills as it uses for its malted barley wash. It is called a single pot still, which is more traditional than the continuous still normally used to make bourbon. It is incredibly smooth (or "Smooooth!" as Col. Potter used to say about his bourbon whiskey on the appropriately named show M.A.S.H.), yet has a great flavor. So why wouldn't Morg love it? Maybe a little too much. She does drink a lot more Jameson than I do all whiskey and whisky combined, but that's her character. I did do a tour of the Jameson distillery in Dublin. Unfortunately, it is more of a museum than a tour of a working distillery, but they do have a great gift shop. For great distillery tours, there are a few in Scotland I could recommend.

Bushmills and Tullamore Dew


Is Jameson the only Irish whiskey? Not by a long shot. Check it out online. Another famous one is Bushmills, made in Antrim, Northern Ireland. Since King James I of England (who was also King James VI of Scotland) granted to Sir Thomas Phillipps the right to distill whiskey in 1608, Bushmills claims to be the oldest distillery in all the world. Since the company Old Bushmills Distillery was not organized until 1784, that might be debated. Some Irish don't like it because it is not from the Republic of Ireland. I don't like it because I think it is too bitey. But then I don't like the peaty Islay Scotch whisky for the same reason and some people love it. I do like Tullamore Dew, but it tastes more like Jameson than Bushmills. In whiskey or whisky, it's all a matter of taste.

Originally, there would only have been one type of whiskey from any distillery and it would not have been a blended. To appeal to a wider customer pool, the stronger-flavored single malts gave way to blendeds in the last century. But tastes have changed and now people want "the good stuff." Hence, the rise in popularity of expensive single malts in Scotch as well as single malts and aged single-pot Irish whiskeys. Oak casks that once housed sherry, bourbon, cognac or Madeira infuse a slight nuance from their original usage into the whiskey or whisky. What's next? I have no idea, but I am sure distillers will come up with a new way to produce a more expensive, more elite bottle of booze. After all, a bottle of 64-year-old Macallan single-malt whisky in a Lalique Cire Perdue decanter sold in 2010 for $460,000.

Finally, good whiskey and whisky is to savored, not knocked back as shots. It is to sipped, not slurped. It is not to be mixed. Single malts and single pot still whiskeys can have a splash of water and blends are okay with ice. No mixers, including soda, improve a good Scotch whisky or Irish whiskey. If you want to drink to get drunk, find another choice. Cheap vodka or tequila, perhaps. Don't waste your whiskey.


R.L. Cherry


Thank you again for joining me to welcome our guest for stories of Ireland.

Please be sure to visit again and read Part 2 from Author Jon Magee next week.

Extraordinary Dreams
of an
Ireland Traveler

1 comment:

  1. While I understood very little about this post, it did validate what I've thought about Mr. Cherry all along, that he is a renaissance man and has a lot of knowledge about just everything. It's too bad more people don't exist like you:)