Sorry, did I say whiskey in the headline? I meant whisky. Actually, both. However you choose to spell it, whisk(e)y is a lovely, refined beverage. To the regular imbiber, it makes little difference how it is written, but to purists that single letter denotes history and a covertly snobbish, untold hierarchy.
The Scots have traditionally disregarded any whisky with the letter ‘e’ in it. For them, this excludes Ireland and America, primarily. Countries such as Japan, Australia, Canada, Italy, France and even India are on the Christmas-invite list, even though India has no more than two true malt-origin whisky brands.
While the Scots might have a point when it comes to other countries that are relative new comers to whisky (at least the one made from barley), their problem with Ireland is more of a business rivalry – the Irish are as much creators of this elixir as the Scots. The tradition began with them and continues forth: travelling Irish monks possibly encountered the technique of distillation in ancient Arabia, brought it back to their Emerald Isle and began making spirits that, over time, were honed into what we recognise as whiskey today.
The Scots have a similar story to tell about the origin of their whisky, and while no one has so far been able to settle the provenance issue successfully, there are a few differences between Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey.
Irish whiskey is distilled thrice as against twice for Scotch. Some say it dilutes flavours whereas others say it concentrates smoothness.
Scotch whisky is made from malted barley, or barley that has been allowed to sprout. Irish whiskey is typically made from a mix of raw barley and malted barley, a legacy from the time when the Irish government levied a tax on malt.
Finally, the Scots dry their malted barley over peat fires, peat being very common in Scotland. This is what gives Scotch its prominent smoky, or peaty, flavour. Irish whiskey is dried inside closed ovens, and since no smoke touches the malted barley, the whisky is relatively smoother.
Scotch whisky also had luck in its favour, something that Irish whiskey has had a shortage of through most of its contemporary history. When Irishmen began migrating to the USA in the 19th century the community took its taste for whiskey from their mother country with them. Thus Irish whiskey was the drink of choice in the United States long before Scotch left the shores of Scotland; prohibition, however, dried up that market.
A few years earlier, Ireland’s bloody fight for independence from Britain had cut off its biggest market: the British Commonwealth. This, combined with the two world wars, pretty much destroyed the Irish whiskey business. Scotch whisky gained ground, thanks to its secret passage into the US via Canada and also due to the Phylloxera epidemic in France, which had decimated vineyards, thereby nearly wiping out Cognac production. Cognac got replaced in the royal houses of London, and the English aristocracy became the biggest proponents of a stiff Scotch. The Irish didn’t have any such marketing luck.
It is only recently that Irish whiskeys are seeing a surge in demand. An improved financial standing is helping the nation back this national treasue, and a new distillery opened in Dublin only recently, over two centuries after it was shut. The two big brands to reckon with, however, remain Jameson and Bushmills. Jameson, the most popular Irish whiskey, has been triple-distilled since 1780 and Bushmills, established in 1608, is the oldest licensed distillery in the world.
Does all this mean Scotch will no longer enjoy its comfortable position of monopoly? Given that there are only 10 working distilleries in all of Ireland, there just isn’t that much Irish whiskey sloshing about in the world. That said, Irish whiskey really isn’t trying to establish world domination; rather, it wishes to create a market presence and following based on its unique properties. E or no e, there will always be enough of us imbibers thronging distilleries to enjoy some of this delectable drink. In the meantime, next time you are out on the town, order a round of Irish – out of curiosity, out of respect, or just for the sake of annoying your picky friends.