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.
The Islands region of Scotland is not as well-known as other regions but is known to produce many of the whiskies chosen by discerning drinkers. The region also includes the smaller whiskey regions of Islay and Campbelltown. Distilleries such as Talisker, Jura, and Highland Park are located in this region. These whiskies are perfect for those who enjoy a unique and complex flavour profile.
Islay whiskies are made on the island of Islay, located off the west coast of Scotland. These whiskies are known for their strong peaty and smoky flavours, which are a result of the malt being dried for long periods of time over smoky peat fires. This gives Islay whiskies a unique, earthy character that sets them apart from other Scotch whiskies.
Islay whiskies are generally considered to be some of the most intense and full-bodied Scotch whiskies available. They are often aged for a minimum of eight years, which helps to deepen and develop the flavours. Some of the most popular Islay whisky brands include Laphroaig, Ardbeg, and Lagavulin.
The advice given to those developing a whisky palate is to start with a more mild-flavoured option and work your way up to the more intense varieties. Bruichladdich, a milder Islay whisky with a more delicate flavour profile, might be a good entry-level island whisky. I was told that as I became comfortable with the peaty flavour I would better appreciate the more intense options like Laphroaig or Ardbeg.
It hasn't happened for me, yet. I'm truly not a fan. For me, a peaty whisky seems like licking a burnt stick from a campfire.
Oban Distillery: Oban, Scotland
One of the most popular regions for whisky is the Scottish Highlands, home to the Oban Distillery, amongst many others. This distillery produces a rich, full-bodied whisky with a smoky and peaty flavour. The peat is less strong in the Highland whiskies when compared to Island whiskies but it is a prominent taste.
The peat flavour comes during the part of the traditional process when the malt is toasted from peat fires beneath the roasting floor. Longer roasting times result in a peatier taste. Many whisky fans value deep peaty whisky.
During our tour, we were treated to a wee taste of cask whisky (13 years and 53%!) And then a dram of their 14-year-old whisky which was smooth and slightly citrus. I did really enjoy the tour in the original distillery building and was grateful to know that I should probably avoid the peatier whiskies
Dalwhinnie Distillery: Dalwhinnie, Scotland
The highest of the Highlands distilleries is the Dalwhinnie Distillery. This distillery produces a smooth, light, and floral whisky that is known for its delicate flavour profile. Dalwhinnie is a more subtle and delicate whisky, as the light and floral notes make it easy to drink.
A visit to the distillery includes a tour of the facilities and tastings guided by an expert. You'll learn about the impact of different cask types, the maturation process, and the subtle differences between different whiskies. This is a great opportunity to try different whiskies, learn about the production process and develop your palate.
Dalwhinnie has become my whisky of choice. The showroom includes limited amounts of special small-batch distillations only available at the distillery. I purchased one and have since lamented that it is not available locally.
Lowland whiskies are known for their light and delicate flavours. They are produced in the southern regions of Scotland, including the Lowlands and the Borders. Lowland whiskies are typically made from barley and are distilled using double-pot stills. They are also known for being triple distilled which gives them a smooth and light taste that is easy to drink.
Lowland whiskies are a great choice for new whisky drinkers as they are less peaty and smoky than other Scottish whiskies. They have a more subtle and floral flavour profile, making them more approachable for those new to the world of whisky. Some popular Lowland whiskies include Auchentoshan, Glenkinchie, and Bladnoch.
When trying a Lowland whisky, it's recommended to try it neat (without any water or ice) first to get the full taste. From there, you can experiment with different ways to enjoy it, such as adding a drop of water or ice to see how it changes the flavour. Additionally, Lowland whiskies are also great for mixing in cocktails for a unique and refreshing taste.
Lastly, is Speyside region, which is home to many of the most famous Scotch whisky distilleries, such as Glenfiddich, Macallan, and Balvenie. These distilleries are known for their rich, fruity, and floral whiskies that are characterized by their smooth and complex flavour profiles.
This region is a great place to visit if you are looking for a more complex and diverse taste, as there are many different distilleries and each one has its own unique flavour profile. Rather than visit a distillery, I ordered testing flights at local pubs... where the bartenders and locals all chimed in with their lively advice and recommendations. I recommend finding a small local pub where you can mingle with a chatty bartender.
Scottish Whiskey Experience: Edinburgh, Scotland
If you find yourself in Edinburgh, a fabulous whisky immersion can be had at the Scottish Whiskey Experience. The experience includes a tour of the historic Royal Mile and a visit to the Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre, where visitors can learn about the history and production of Scotland's national drink. The tour also includes a visit to the World of Whiskies, where visitors can sample some of Scotland's finest whiskies and purchase bottles to take home. It is a rather pricey option, so budget travellers may choose to head straight to the World of Whiskies.
In addition to the tour and tastings, the Scottish Whisky Experience also offers a variety of educational classes and workshops for those looking to deepen their understanding of whisky.
A trip to Ireland and Scotland is a great way to learn about whisky and discover new and exciting flavours while developing your palate. The different regions and distilleries offer a wide variety of taste profiles, making it easy to find a whisky that you will love. Whether you prefer the smooth and creamy taste of Irish whisky or the rich, full-bodied flavour of Scottish whisky, you are sure to find a spirit that you will enjoy.
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