Young Indians seem to have taken a real shine to Irish whiskey in the last few years, particularly Jameson. The Pernod Ricard brand, which was launched ten years ago, has single-handedly driven the burgeoning growth of this new segment of the whiskey market. Irish whiskey sales have been galloping at the rate of 58 per cent a year (albeit on a smaller base) as compared to 12 per cent for Scotch. Should the Scots be worried? Maybe.
One big reason for India’s newfound love for Irish whiskey could be that young drinkers want to try something different from the traditional Scotch that they have seen being consumed forever by everyone, including their fathers and uncles. But a more important factor is probably the taste and overall experience of drinking Irish whiskey. It is smoother and lighter on the palate as compared to the smoky and robust flavour of Scotch. There is no doubt that for a new drinker, an Irish whiskey is far easier to get used to than other whiskies. Jameson, for example, is my personal favourite because of its sweeter taste profile, and the consistency of its blend. The Irish and the Scots are both considered to be descendants of the ancient Celtic people, and only 12 miles separate the east coast of Northern Ireland from the closest western tip of Scotland. Yet, whiskey making has evolved in slightly different ways in both countries. While they spell the name differently (the Irish and Americans spell it as ‘whiskey’, while the Scots and the rest of the world spells it as ‘whisky’. For the sake of this article we have retained the Irish spelling), the more significant difference is in the manufacturing process.
While both use barley and other grains like maize and wheat, the Scots prefer malted grains, while most Irish whiskies use a mix of malted and unmalted grains. Malting is the starting process in making alcohol, where the grain is fermented by soaking it in water for a controlled period, and then drying with hot air. In Scotland, the drying is done mostly by burning local peat, which gives the whiskey its distinctive smoky taste. But the Irish rarely ever use peat. And finally, while Scotch is only distilled twice, the Irish whiskey is triple distilled, which results in a spirit that is light, smooth, soft, and mellow.
Like in the case of Scotch, Irish whiskies also have their own classification system. The Single Pot Still Irish whiskey is made by a single distillery using a mix of malted and unmalted barley distilled in a pot still. Example brands include Redbreast, Midleton, and Powers. The Single Grain Irish whiskies like Ballyhoo, Kilbeggan, and Glendalough are made using whole grains or cereals other than malted barley, and distilled at a single distillery. A Single Malt Irish whiskey uses 100 per cent malted barley double-distilled, as opposed to the traditional Irish triple distillation. Best examples include Bushmills, Connemara, and Teeling.
The most popular of the Irish styles, though, is the Blended Irish Whiskey. It uses a mix of single grain, single malt, and single pot still Irish Whiskies. The malted and unmalted barley are combined to make a lighter, more approachable whiskey. This formula for Irish blended whiskey was first used in 1878 by Dublin distillers to make Jameson. Besides Jameson, other brands include Tullamore Dew, Midleton, Teeling, and Walsh. The triple distillation results in a higher strength spirit that is light in aroma and sweet in taste. It is aged for a minimum three years in oak casks, which imparts its own characteristics to the whiskey. The finished whiskey is complex in aroma with a smooth, soft, and mellow taste, and flavours that range from fruity and honey, to floral and woody.