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Your Guide to Irish Whiskey: The Water of Life

Your Guide to Irish Whiskey: The Water of Life

Inspired by my trip to Dublin, I think it’d be a good idea to properly educate myself on Irish whiskey. Because what else makes you feel more warm and fuzzy inside than whiskey?

First a little history to get us started.

The word whiskey comes from the Gaelic phrase “uisce betha” which means “water of life.” (It’s no wonder they used to drink so much of this stuff.) The Gaelic phrase is a translation of the Latin term “aqua vitae”, which was in fact commonly used to describe distilled spirits in the Middle Ages.

The production of Irish whiskey dates back centuries to an unknown period, but most historians seem to believe that missionary monks learned the distillation technique about 800-1000 years ago. The technique was then modified by the Irish to get a drinkable spirit, though quite unlike what we are used to calling whiskey today. The spirit produced in this era would have unlikely been aged, and was often flavored with aromatic herbs such as thyme or mint.

The start of licensed distillation began in the early 17th century as the King granted a license to Sir Thomas Philips, a landowner in Bushmills. In the 18th century, the demand for whiskey began to grow dramatically due to population growth and displacing the demand for imported spirits. Through a series of regulations and reforms over the 18th and 19th century the whiskey industry in Dublin peaked. By the early 20th century Irish whiskey was the leading spirit in Great Britain and Jameson was a top-selling whiskey in the United States.

However, today just four distilleries remain. The Easter Rising (Ireland’s proclamation of independence form Great Britain) took a toll a major toll on Irish whiskey production as England closed it markets to Irish whiskey. The American market was a glimmer of hope for some time, however just five days before the Irish Republic declared independence from Great Britain, America ratified the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, causing whiskey sales to plummet as Prohibition took full effect. It seems that Irish distilleries are still catching up from a rocky past.

Next, a few vocabulary terms to help get you through the next few sections.

  • mash – a soupy mass of fermenting grains from which spirits are distilled
  • malt/malting – a germinated cereal grain that have been dried in a process called malting, where raw grains are turned into malt.
  • still – the container in which the liquid from fermented food is distilled
  • column/Coffee still – also known as a continuous still or patent still is a type of still consisting of two columns which allows the still to sustain a constant process if distillation
  • distill/distillate – to purify a liquid by vaporizing it, then condensing it by cooling the vapor, and collecting the resulting liquid (distillate)
  • saccharification – the process of breaking down starches into sugars
  • diastase – an enzyme that breaks down the starches in the sccharification process
  • But what about “peat”? – Also referred to as turf, is an accumulation of partially decayed vegetation or organic matter that is unique to natural areas called peatlands, bogs, mires, or moors. You’ll hear this term often when people speak about whiskey, but it is rarely used in the malting process in Irish whiskey, and more common in Scottish whiskey.

So how is whiskey made?

If you want to get technical, check out this piece written by The Whisky Advocate who knows a thousand times more than I do about whiskey distillation. But here’s the gist.

  1. All whiskey starts as raw grain and goes though something called a malting process.
  2. The sugars in the grain are then extracted before fermenting through the process of mashing.
  3. The mash is combined with yeast and is fermented in giant vats.
  4. The liquid is then distilled to increase the alcohol content of the liquid.
  5. The distilled liquid is then matured or aged in wooden containers for a period of time.
  6. Once matured, the whiskey is bottled, distributed, and lands in the hands of a whiskey connoisseur. 

What makes Irish whiskey, well, Irish?

In order to be considered “Irish Whiskey” a spirit must conform to a strict set of regulations that date back to the 1800s as follows:

The spirits have been distilled in the State of or in Northern Ireland from a mash of cereals which has been…

  • Scarified by the diastase of malt contained therein, with or without other natural diastases,
  • fermented by the action of yeast, and
  • distilled at an alcoholic strength of less that 94.8% by volume in such a way that the distillate has an aroma and flavor derived from the materials used.


The spirits shall have been matured in wooden casks…

  • in a warehouse in the State for a period of time not less that three years, or
  • in a warehouse in Northern Ireland for such a period, or
  • in a warehouse in the Stat and in Northern Ireland for periods the aggregate of which is not less than three years.

In short, the production and aging of the sprit must take place in Ireland or Nothern Ireland, and the cereal’s starches can be broken down by diastase, either with or without added enzymes. Whiskey connoisseur, Michael Dietsch, helps break down these regulations into something more palatable in his piece for Serious Eats.

What are the types of Irish Whiskey?

Rather than feel intimidated, after reading this post I hope you can make sense of that beautiful amber colored wall in behind the bar.

  • Irish Single Malt whiskey comes from 100% malted barley by a single distillery in a pot still.
    • Bushmills, Connermara Peated Malt, Locke’s Single Malt
  • Single Pot Still whiskey is a combination of both malted and unmalted barley distilled in a pot still. This type of whiskey is unique to Ireland.
    • Green Spot, Redbreast, Yellow Spot
  • Grain Irish whiskey is made from corn or wheat and is produced by continuous distillation in a column or Coffey still. It is lighter and more neutral in taste, often used in blended whiskey.
    • Rarely found on its own
  • Single Grain Irish whiskey has the same characteristics of grain whiskey, only as the name suggests, a single grain is used in the distillate.
    • Kilbeggan Single Grain
  • Blended Irish whiskey is a mixture of the styles mentioned above by combining grain whiskey with either single malt or single pot still whiskey, or both.
    • Jameson, Black Bush, Middleton Very Rare

 Finally, for the cozy part…Check out my piece on how to enjoy whiskey here.  

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