Uisce Beatha: An Introduction to Irish Whiskey

| April 27, 2016

Editor’s Note: The Whiskey Wash welcomes Tom Bentley as our new World Whiskey Editor at Large.

There’s no argument that the Irish take their whiskey seriously. The Irish Gaelic for “whiskey” is uisce beatha (also known as uisge beatha in Scottish Gaelic), which means “water of life”—that sums up the reverence (and the thirst) for the stuff. Speaking of reverence, some wisdom has it that traveling Irish monks around 1,000 A.D. derived their early distillation cues from seeing how Mediterranean perfumes were produced. Taking in the perfume of a good Irish whiskey today, you know the lessons were well learned.

The Middle Ages weren’t as dark as described—at least where distillation is concerned. By the 12th-century, making grains into potent potables was a fairly common pursuit, and in 1608 Bushmills built Northern Ireland’s first whiskey distillery. Dublin hosted so many distilleries in the 19th century that the River Liffey probably declined 40 feet from the water draw (but no thirsty souls complained). However, Prohibition and some other trade issues knocked the stuffing out of the industry in the early 20th century, and many distilleries closed their doors. Those were the real Dark Ages.

Teeling Distillery

Teeling’s new distillery in Dublin, Ireland (image via Teeling Whiskey Company)

But that was then. Irish whiskey sales have galloped ahead in recent years, so much so that some historic brands have been brought back to life and a number of smaller craft distilleries have been built, or have broken ground, though their efforts will have to age a bit before they meet the market.

A Scot and an Irishman Walk into a Bar

And one orders whisky and one orders whiskey. After a few wee drams, probably nobody cares. But we can’t mention Irish whiskey without mentioning Scotch whisky. No space here to explain the long-standing kerfuffle about the shifty “e,” but read this amusing New York Times piece if you’re interested.

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There are some general distinctions between Irish and Scotch, whisk—products, but alas, exceptions abound. One is that Scotch is distilled only twice, and Irish thrice, but then you have an Irish like Connemara, which is but twice-distilled, and smoky like a Scotch whisky. Speaking of that smoke, it’s common for Scotches (but not all) to have malted barley dried over peat smoke, which imbues it with that earthiness. That’s not often—but again, there are exceptions—found in kiln-dried Irish barley. And the widespread use of unmalted barley for an Irish brew can give the liquor a nice oily texture on the tongue.

You will find single-malt Irish (a typical Scottish approach) as well as the more typical malted/unmalted blends from the Emerald Isle. And many Irish distilleries favor the small-batch-oriented pot-still distilling method rather than the continuous process of most column stills. That said, Irish whiskeys are often fruitier and lighter than their Scotch cousins (but sometimes those cousins have the same freckles). You will find many Irish whiskeys have gathered their rest (and flavor notes) in American bourbon barrels or in sherry barrels for their mandated three-year—at least—term.

Indeed one of Irish whiskey’s hallowed pioneers, John Jameson, was a Scot who established one of the countries—no, the world’s—most successful whiskey distilleries in 1780.

Distilleries Whopping and Distilleries Wee

The mighty Jameson (out of Midleton distillery in the south) produces more than 60% of Irish imported into the U.S., and besides its named brand, makes others like the inviting Redbreast, Powers, Paddy, Green Spot and Yellow Spot. Bushmills is the big lad in the north. Cooley distillery, north of Dublin, makes that smoky Connemara, the single-malt Tyrconnell, and Greenore, a single-grain quaff. They also make the new Two Gingers whiskey.

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Teeling distillery in Dublin itself has a range of products—from small-batch to single-grain to single-malts—under its name. After roving around a bit over time, Tullamore Dew has moved its triple-distilled and sometime triple-blended whiskies back to Tullamore for the production of its various aged spirits. Kilbeggan used to be produced at Cooley, but it’s returned to its original 1757 distillery location west of Dublin.

There are a few other smaller whiskey houses in Ireland, but I must mention one: Walsh Distillery, who makes the poetically named Writer’s Tears whiskey because “It was said that when Irish Writers cried, they cried tears of whiskey.” No doubt.

As mentioned above, there are a number of brand new distilleries in the country that won’t release any of the good stuff for a few years to come, because it takes a few years to get the good stuff. Greg Slattery, Brand Ambassador at Jameson, sees lots of good in the Irish resurgence. “Whiskey makers work in a collaborative environment. With the recent growth of many new Irish whiskey distilleries, from just a few not so long ago, the collaborative spirit is alive and well. We believe we are seeing the Irish whiskey renaissance take place as the category grows.”

Pleasing the Palate

As indicated by the differences in distilling and grain use discussed above, there isn’t a single Irish whiskey flavor profile. Something like a pot-stilled Redbreast can be both spicy and fruity at the same time, with a lingering finish. A peated production like Connemara would have a distinct smoky richness.

But those generalities are made more focused by the spirit’s age: the honey notes of a 10-year old Bushmills single malt are just a small expression in the aromatic depth of their 21-year-old.

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And of course, for all of these distillations, their movement in and out of bourbon and sherry (and sometimes madeira) casks over differing aging times will put its own leprechaun’s gold into the mix. And occasionally, you’ll have a cask outlier: Midleton’s Dair Ghaelach is a pot-still Irish that’s resting in virgin Irish oak, said to give it more toasty wood, caramel and vanilla tones.

Established distilleries turn new tricks too: Slattery says, “Since 1780, Jameson Irish Whiskey has proudly been making whiskey the same way as John Jameson first did. Innovation will always be an important part of our portfolio though: Jameson Caskmates is our notoriously smooth Jameson whiskey which has been finished in stout beer barrels for about six months, giving new notes of cocoa and hops on the palate.”

And with all these wonderful Irish whiskies to drink neat or chilled, why in the world would you mix one with pickle juice? The Pickleback should crawl back into the grotto from which it came, and leave that whiskey neat. Or just unpickled.

The Whisky Exchange
The Whisky Exchange
The Whisky Exchange


Tom Bentley

Tom Bentley is a business writer and editor, an essayist, and a fiction writer. (He does not play banjo.) He’s had hundreds of freelance pieces published—ranging from first-person essays to travel pieces to more journalistic subjects—in newspapers, magazines, and online. His self-published book on finding and cultivating your writer’s voice,...