Flashback Friday: Learning About Whisky in Ireland and Scotland
Updated: Jan 30
Whisky, also known as whiskey, is a beloved spirit that has a rich history and culture in both Ireland and Scotland. Whether you're new to the world of whisky or simply looking to expand your knowledge, a trip to these countries will spark your enthusiasm. I am a whisky neophyte. Prior to travelling in Ireland and Scotland, I had no idea that whiskies had taste differences that even the least-discerning palate could recognize. I still don't truly appreciate it the way a true connoisseur does but I learned and tasted enough to be able to choose a favourite -- and to keep it stocked as an essential item in my home bar. On an epic campervan road trip through Ireland and the UK, we explored some of the most popular distilleries in Ireland and Scotland and tasted many different whiskies (just for research purposes, of course). In honour of Robbie Burns Day earlier this week, here's a bit of an introduction to the different regions and taste profiles that you can expect to find as you travel in Ireland and Scotland.
The traditional process of whiskey-making begins with the selection of high-quality grains, typically barley, rye, or corn. The grains are then malted, which involves soaking them in water and allowing them to germinate. This process converts the starches in the grains into sugars, which will later be fermented to produce alcohol. After malting, the grains are dried using peat smoke, which gives the whiskey its distinct smoky flavour.
Next, the grains are ground into a coarse meal and mixed with water to create a mash. Yeast is then added to the mash, which ferments the sugars and produces a liquid known as "wash." The wash is then distilled, which separates the alcohol from the water and other impurities. The resulting liquid, known as "low wine," is then distilled again to produce the final product, which is called "new make" or "white dog" whiskey. This liquid is then aged in barrels for a minimum of three years to develop its flavour and colour before being bottled and sold as whiskey.
All whiskies include the same basic ingredients; the different taste profiles come from the number of distillations, type of grain, length of peating, and local waters, The barrels are an important part of the recipe. Each offers a slightly different flavour note. I was surprised to learn that 12-year-old whiskey is not simply in the barrels twice as long as 6-year-old whiskey. There is also a completely different set of barrels.
The traditional process of whiskey making is a time-consuming and labour-intensive process. It's often seen as a craft and art form, where the master distillers use their skill and knowledge to create a unique and high-quality product. The process and the final product will vary depending on the type of whiskey being made and the region it's coming from. Irish whiskey is triple distilled and then placed in port or sherry barrels for aging. Scotch whisky typically uses oak barrels.
Jameson Distillery, Dublin, Ireland
First stop on my whisky journey was the Jameson Distillery in Dublin, Ireland. This distillery has been producing whisky since 1780. This is a great place to start for beginners as the smoothness of the whisky makes it easy to drink. The distillery offers tours and tastings, allowing visitors to learn about the history and production process of their whiskies.
This was the first time I had been given the opportunity to taste the differences between whiskies. Tour members were given samples of single-, double- and triple-distilled whiskies comparing single-distilled corn-mash bourbon to the triple-distilled sour grain-mash Irish whisky and double-distilled barley-mash Scotch. I found Irish whisky to be the smoothest but I preferred the taste of the Scotch. I will pass on Bourbon.
Old Bushmills Distillery: Bushmills, Northern Ireland
The next distillery visited was the Bushmills Distillery in Bushmills, Northern Ireland. This distillery has been in operation since 1608 and is known for its triple-distilled single-malt whiskies. Single malt means that the whisky is made by a single distillery rather than blends which use whisky from several distilleries.
The Bushmills Distillery is a great place to visit if you are looking for a slightly more complex taste profile. The distillery offers tours and tastings, and is a great place to wander around.
Scotland is known for its whisky, and for good reason. The country is home to some of the most famous and beloved distilleries in the world, each within a region with a unique flavour profile and production methods.