Five Myths about Irish Whiskey

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There's many a proud Irishman living here in Canada. They helped build our country and still they make it strong, But ask anyone in the Irish diaspora what distinguishes Irish whiskey and you’ll get a lecture. With great authority, and maybe a little indignation that you even had to ask, they’ll rhyme off a list of all the things that make it special. But nine times out of ten, most of what they tell you will be wrong.Unlike Scotch – they always compare Irish whiskey to Scotch because Scotch has become the standard. Ireland really was, at one time the great whisky-making nation and the Irish will never forgive the Scots for stealing the whisky industry out from under them. But anyway, unlike Scotch they will tell you, Irish whiskey is more refined, smoother – smoooother – because it is unpeated and triple distilled. The Irish invented distilling, they’ll remind you, and explain that they actually introduced it to Scotland (and Canada too). Then to set Irish whiskey apart from that coarse Scottish copycat stuff they decided to spell whiskey with an ‘e’ so no-one would ever be fooled. That’s the rhetoric. But let’s have a closer look at some of these dearly held truths.Irish whiskey is not peated. For a very brief period this may well have been true, but peat (called turf on the Emerald Isle) has traditionally been used as fuel in Ireland, including fuel to dry malt. Michael Donovan in his 1830 book, Domestic Economy, talks about "the turf smoke with which these mountain distilleries abound." The 1838 book Manufacture and Use of Inebriating Liquors refers to Innishowen Irish whiskey as having a smoky flavour. In more recent times, beginning in the 1960s to be exact, Cork Distillers made a peated blend and called it Hewitt’s. Irish Distillers bought the Hewitt’s brand but by 2004, they had stopped making the whisky. As Willie MacKay, manager of Bushmills during the 1970s and 80s, explained, "It is the drying stage that gives the whiskey its peaty flavour. The fire is fuelled by peat or turf which contains phenols, and the phenols in the smoke are absorbed by the moist grain.” Bushmills, according to MacKay, was still lightly peated when he was making it. And since 1987, Cooley distillery in County Louth has maintained the tradition of peated Irish whiskey. Try, for example, their heavily peated Connemara Turf Mór.Irish whiskey is triple distilled. Again, for a brief period this may have been true, but for the most part Irish distillers, just like distillers everywhere else, have used both double and triple distillation. In fact some Irish whiskies are blends of double and triple distilled whiskies. As far back as 1866 when Alfred Barnard visited Ireland many distilleries were double-distilling. Bushmills boasts that it is triple distilled now, but when Barnard called on them, Bushmills was one of no fewer than eight Irish distilleries that were using double distillation. Among current distilleries, upstart Cooley has returned to traditional double distillation for its Connemara, Locke’s, and Tyrconnell whiskies. Nor is triple distillation restricted to Ireland. Among many other distilleries in several other countries, Auchentoshan in Scotland and Canadian Mist in Canada also triple distil.The Irish invented distilling. Whether whisky was first produced in Scotland, Ireland, or somewhere else is still disputed, but long before the denizens of either country made the amber dew, distillation was practiced in Asia and the Middle East. Many historians believe it was Irish missionaries returning from the Far East who introduced distilling to Ireland.Irish whiskey is spelled with an ‘e.’ True today, in practice though not in law, but traditionally both spellings were used for Irish whiskey right up until the 1970s. That’s when every Irish distillery but two had finally gone out of business. And those two remaining distilleries were owned by a single company which had also bought the rights to hundreds of different Irish whiskey brands. As a single entity, the company, Irish Distillers Limited, chose to standardize the spelling on all its labels as ‘whiskey’. When it took over production of Paddy’s Whisky in the 1970s, for example, the name on the label changed to Paddy’s Whiskey. But this was a decision by one single distiller, not an industry rule. It appeared as an industry wide-decision only because one sole company actually operated the entire industry in Ireland at the time. With the resurgence in popularity of Irish whiskey – the fastest growing whisky sector in the U.S. – there is no reason why a new Irish distiller or brand owner couldn’t set themselves apart by reverting to the other, and yes, quite traditional spelling.The Irish brought whisky making to Canada. Yes, there were many tiny Irish home distillers and farm distilleries, but not even one of these ever grew to sufficient scale to influence the development of Canadian whisky. Canadian rye whisky is a unique product that has evolved from the early distillation practices of new Canadians who came to Canada from England and Western Europe. Irish immigrants on the other hand were just as likely to distil rum as whisky.So there you have it. The Irish have accomplished many things in the history of western civilization but inventing distilling is not one of them. Neither did they make much of a contribution to Canadian whisky making. Just like any other whisky, Irish whisky may be peated or unpeated, double distilled or triple distilled, spelled with an ‘e,’ or spelled without one. So next time someone berates you for not knowing the whats and wherefores of Irish whiskey, simply smile and order them … a Guinness. Tell them if they love the flavour of Irish barley so, Guinness is now the only place they are guaranteed to find it. That’s right, it’s mashed and distilled in Ireland alright, but the barley for Irish whiskey may come from somewhere else. Guinness now buys every grain of Irish barley they can lay their hands on and turns it not into whisky, but into beer.Old Bushmills Distillery photoWith a tip of the hat and an Old Comber raised to John Marrinan who verified or provided the specifics and saved me writer's tears.For more information about Irish whiskey visit The Irish Whiskey Society.