When it comes to whiskey, you may think that if you’ve had one, you’ve pretty much had them all. But, you couldn’t be further from the truth. Whiskey is distilled and consumed all over the world, and there are definitely different varieties, each with its own characteristics, and understanding these differences is what separates the casual whiskey drinker from the true whiskey aficionado.
When it comes to Scotch vs. Irish Whiskey, there are distinct differences, and similarities, between the two. If you’re looking to learn more about these two liquors, whether it be to up your drinking game, or to impress your buds, this article is definitely for you.
Let’s Start With Some Basics
Before we delve into the bigger differences and similarities, let’s start with the easy stuff:
- Irish whiskey is made in Ireland. (Duh)
- Scotch whisky is made in Scotland (Double Duh), and the people who make Scotch won’t use an “E” in their spelling of whisky. For the purposes of this article, I will spell whiskey with the “e” for both types, but know that I’m probably breaking the rules and hopefully Scotland won’t stop allowing me to drink their delicious scotch!
- Both are made with water, yeast, and grains and will be aged in wood.
- Both have very specific laws regarding what can be called whiskey, however distillers have not been shy with experimenting with their spirits.
These are really just the beginning in the world of Scotch vs. Irish whiskey. Keep reading to find out more!
Which Came First, the Scotch or the Irish?
No, that isn’t a dirty joke. It’s a legitimate question regarding whiskey.
Booze historians believe that the first whiskey was created by Irish monks in the Middle Ages. That doesn’t mean it was the smooth and delicious drink that we’re now used to, but instead would be flavored with fruits and spices and wasn’t aged as whiskey is now; whiskey back then was likely only kept in wood casks for a short time for transportation or storage.
These same monks quickly started sharing their knowledge when they crossed the Irish sea into Scotland. Thanks for sharing guys!
By the 1800s, Scottish distilleries like Dalmore, Bowmore, McCallan, and the Glen’s- (Glenlivet, Glenmorangie, Glenfiddich, and Glenkinchie) were rolling out Scotch for mainly their own people, while the Irish were distilling and distributing more whiskey than anyone else in the world.
The Irish were distilling their whiskey in pots while the Scottish leaned towards continuous column stills. This slow distillation process by the Irish, trade restrictions, WW2, and Prohibition in the U.S., meant that their whiskies almost disappeared. And, by 1972, Ireland had only two distilleries left–Bushmills in the North and the makers of Jameson, called Midleton, in the South.
Jameson was and continues to be, incredibly popular. This spurred an Irish whiskey growth spurt and two distilleries became four by 2010, and according to the Irish Whiskey Association, there were 32 whiskey distilleries by 2019, with more planned in the future.
While Ireland worked on rebuilding its whiskey suppliers, Scotland hummed along. Many of the distilleries in Scotland are over 200 years old and continue to put out delicious whiskey. In the past three years, over 16 distilleries have opened as well. Scotland continues to sell approximately 9 times the whiskey of Ireland.
How Are Scotch and Irish Whiskey Made?
So, it can be impossible to get the recipes for any whiskies if not most. Distillers are very protective of what they use to make their whiskey the golden nectar it is. And, each and every distiller will have its own recipe, methods, and techniques. However, there are strict laws that each maker must follow.
For scotch, Scottish distillers must abide by the following rules from the UK’s Scotch Whiskey Regulations 2009, which include:
- Scotch must be fermented, distilled, aged, and bottled completely in Scotland
- Scotch must be made from barley and water–although other grains are permitted
- Yeast can only be added to start the fermentation process
- When it is distilled, Scotch cannot have an ABV (alcohol by volume) of no more than 98.4%
- When bottled, Scotch can only have water and plain caramel coloring added and can only have an ABV no lower than 40%
- Must be aged at least three years in oak casks
For Irish whiskey, the rules as determined by the Irish Whiskey Act 1980 include:
- Irish whiskey must be fermented, distilled, and aged in either the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland
- Irish whiskey may be fermented from any mash of cereals
- Yeast must be used
- Must be aged at least three years in any type of wooden cask
- When bottled, Irish whiskey can only have water and plain caramel coloring added
- Similar to Scotch, Irish whiskey cannot have an ABV of more than 98.4% when distilled and an ABV of no lower than 50% when bottled
These rules are quite strict but do allow for some wiggle room. For example:
- Some whiskies (both Scotch and Irish whiskey) will “peat” their whiskey–meaning that the peat (decomposed bog material) is burned to dry out the malt after germination
- Some Irish distillers will triple distill their whiskey, which is described as a traditional method
- Technically, distillers can use a brand new cask for their whiskey aging, however many in the whiskey world will age in wood barrels that had previously contained something else–often American bourbon