The Irish spell it “whiskey,” the Scots spell it “whisky.” That’s just the beginning of this longstanding dispute. Naturally, they can’t agree on which variety is superior, either. However, all can raise a toast to and concur regarding the origins of the word; it is from the Gaelic uisce beatha, translated as “The Water of Life.” Scotch whisky or Irish whiskey – each can boast devotees who exhibit near-religious reverence for their favorite brand of the potent amber liquid.
So what are the actual differences between the two? Irish is said to be the smoother choice, while Scotch is said to have a more smoky flavor. The flavor difference between the two varieties originates with the different ways in which each is made.
Both spirits start out the same way: barley is malted by soaking it in water, laying it out flat, and leaving it until sprouting occurs. Since Scotch distillers then dry the damp malt over a peat-fueled fire, it acquires a characteristic smokiness. By contrast, Irish distillers dry the malt in a smoke-free kiln.
Subsequent steps in the production process, mashing and fermentation, are nearly identical. The mash is milled into grist. Boiling water is applied, which induces the transformation of starch into sugars. With exposure to yeast, the sugary wort liquid converts to crude alcohol.
The alcoholic “wash” is heated in large copper pot stills to cull the alcohol from the water, and the distillation process begins. To give you a basis for comparison, bourbon is distilled once; Scotch, two times; but Irish whiskey is distilled three times. Following distillation, the whiskey resides in oak casks, where it is aged from five to 25 years. The last process consists of mixing the contents of many casks together, eliminating variances among casks and ensuring consistency of flavor. Tragically, for every year the whiskey sits in the cask maturing, a portion of it evaporates heavenward and is lost forever. Distillers call the evaporated portion "the angels’ share.”
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For Further Reading
The following recommended books on whiskey can be purchased through AnIrishChristmas.com.
Murray's Whiskey Bible 2005
A world-renowned expert on whiskey, Murray ranks more than 2,500 whiskeys on a scale from 0 to 100, evaluating each in terms of nose, taste, finish and balance. This is a book bursting with entertaining stories, tips and lore.
Scotland and Its Whiskies: The Great Whiskies and Their Landscapes
by Michael Jackson
Famed master Michael Jackson devotes a chapter to each of Scotland's ten premier distilleries, explaining the influence of environment and geography on the finished product. Lavishly illustrated with the gorgeous photography of Harry Cory Wright.
The Whiskeys of Ireland
by Peter Mulryan
There is a wealth of lore – historical, economic, and cultural – surrounding the fastest-growing export coming out of Ireland. Learn the details of how whiskey is made, and about the differences between varieties of whiskeys; in addition, Mulryan includes tasting notes on 60 renowned Irish brands.
The following link offers whiskey related items through AnIrishChristmas.com.