Whiskey is manufactured and drank all over the world, however, the very first whiskey distillery was launched in Ireland in 1608 and the Bushmills Distillery in Antrim still stands today.
The people of Ireland were for the most part farmers and grew grain to make bread and then use the mash from the excess grain to create whiskey. Depending on your preference, you could make an argument that the people of Scotland “refined” whiskey production. You might notice the spelling of the word is different in Scotland (whisky) than the Irish spelling (whiskey).
One of the primary differences is the number of times a Scotch Whisky is distilled (2 times) as opposed to that of Irish Whiskey (3 times). While this is not always true (some Scotch Whisky’s are distilled many more times than 3), it is a general rule of thumb and as such, allows Irish Whiskey to cultivate a lighter body and a “smoother” feel and finish.
The most marked difference between the two spirits is the use of peat (partially decayed vegetation harvested from water saturated bogs – really, I am not kidding), which is burned to produce a smoke that dries the malt used to create Scotch Whisky. This produces a distinct aroma found in Scotch Whisky that is very appealing to its multitude of advocates. It also produces, although to a lesser degree, some of the unique flavor characteristics of Scotch.
On the other hand, the grains used to produce Irish whiskey is dried in kilns, which are covered to maintain the natural
flavor of the barley – a noted quality of Irish Whiskey. And this difference in grain treatment leads us to the philosophical differences in the two spirits.
The Irish believe great whiskey begins with the selection of correct distillates (grains) and careful attention to the distilling process often referred to as “vatting”, while the Scottish believe great whiskey is made primarily by the skill of the master blender.
In Scotland, great whisky is produced by blending many different, finished whisky’s. This is why the term “blended” is so commonly used in conjunction with Scotch. But it is important to note that “single malt” whiskey is also blended unless it is “single cask”. A good single malt will usually be a blend of several different whisky’s, of different ages, although they will all be made from one single type of grain.
Aging is also a major difference. Whiskey does not age in the bottle like wine, but in the cask. This process is what turns the color of whiskey from clear to golden brown. Naturally, the flavors of the wooden cask are also absorbed by the whiskey, with Scotch Whiskey aging for a minimum of two years and Irish Whiskey aging for a minimum of three years.
What is most important is the age of the whiskey is a tool of the whiskey maker to produce a final vintage that is optimal. That is to say – a whiskey of 12 years is no better than one of 18 or even 30 years. It is merely the subjectivity of the maker that determined the best term for the whiskey at hand. Of course, the longer it is aged the more expensive it is. But it does not mean it is necessarily better. Only you can determine that.
Always remember that your own palate is the ultimate truth teller. If you don’t like what it is in your glass, it is not great whiskey. No matter how long it has been aged.