Scotch, single malts, bourbon, single pot stills, whisky and whiskey… There are so many buzz words surrounding this spirit, you’d be forgiven for feeling a little dizzy before even walking into the bar! Let’s begin by exploring the misunderstood ‘e’.
Both titles ‘whisky’ and ‘whiskey’ originate from a Gaelic term meaning ‘water of life’. Both describe a spirit made from the mash of fermented grains. Various grains (which may or may not be malted) such as barley, corn, rye and wheat are used for different styles.
As a rule, the United States and Ireland prefer the title ‘whiskey’ whilst the rest of the world, including Scotland, Canada, South Africa and Japan prefer to use the title ‘whisky’. If that’s tricky to remember, here’s a simple rule of thumb: countries with an ‘e’ in their name (such as Ireland and the United States) tend to use the title ‘whiskey’, while those without an ‘e’ (such as Scotland, Canada, Japan and South Africa) prefer to use ‘whisky’.
Now onto the more substantiative differences…
Legend has it that during the 1800’s most Scottish whisky was considered to be of a low quality. Irish and American distillers began adding the ‘e’ in order to show a point of distinction, with the emphasis that their whiskey was of a higher quality.
Today, there are exceptional examples of every variation of whisky and whiskey. In general, Irish and American whiskies are made using short, fat pot stills in the distillation process - producing a softer, more rounded spirit than most Scottish whiskies which tend to use a wider variety of shapes and sizes in their distillation to impart more diverse range of flavours.
Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enoughMark Twain
Most Scottish distilleries also use peat to dry their malted barley. This gives the spirit a fullness and distinctive smokiness that has become synonymous with their whisky. And while the Scots only use malted barley, the Irish often include other grains too. Our own homegrown Bain’s Cape Distillery uses local maize. Adding to this diversity, the first American whiskey distillers also used different raw materials altogether, creating a tipple distinct to its Irish and Scottish cousins. To add yet another curveball to the mix, Sottish and American whiskies are usually distilled twice, whilst Irish ones are distilled three times (producing a lighter, smoother spirit).
Still feeling a little light headed? Me too! To sum up, the world of whiskies is as complex and nuanced as each spirit it produces. To truly appreciate this, you’ll need to set aside the reading and raise your glass. In the words of Mark Twain, “Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.”
St Patrick's Day is on March 17.
To celebrate St Patrick’s Day, here are my top picks of Irish Whiskies…
Tullamore D.E.W Original:
Early fresh fruit leads to a definite light spike, followed by some toasted wood that evolves into a delicious vanilla sweetness.
Red Breast 21 YO:
Notes of tropical fruit, menthol and a touch of leather lead to a mouth-filling goodness that lingers long after the last sip.
Yellow Spot 12 YO:
Fleshy stone fruit on the nose, especially peach and apricot. The palate is equally fruity with a substantial body and a velvety texture that ends with a long and sweet finish.