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Scotland and Ireland are two of the most well known Whisky/Whiskey producers in the world. And despite the fact that they’re neighbours, there are some pretty fundamental differences to how they do things.
So is it Whisky of Whiskey?
The first obvious difference between the two is the spelling of Whisky. Scotch Whisky is always spelt without the E, whereas Irish Whiskey is always spelt with an E.
Whisky is the anglicised form of the Gaelic word uisge beatha (pronounced “oosh-kie bah”). Gaelic is native to both Ireland and Scotland, so it's hard to say where the E came from, but clearly it meant more to the Irish than the Scottish.
As well as spelling, there are some big differences in how Whisky is produced in Ireland and Scotland.
Of course there is a lot of variation in how malt is produced in both countries, but let’s talk generally to begin.
Scotch is typically made from malted barley, and other grains, in a copper pot still and matured for a minimum of three years.
Irish Whiskey is typically made from unmalted barley, and other grains, in a copper pot still and matured for a minimum of three years.
So far, so good. They are fairly similar at a basic level, but once you get into it, they change quite a bit.
Distillation and Malting
Scotch is usually distilled twice and made completely from malted barley. Single malt dominates the market but blends are also popular and made from a mixture of malted grains, always with some percentage of barley.
Irish on the other hand, is mostly triple distilled, which makes it renowned for its smoothness. It is also more likely to be made up of a combination of grains, not just barley.
The extra distillation probably has the biggest effect on the difference between the flavours of Scotch and Irish Whiskey. It gives Irish Whiskey a lighter flavour, and as mentioned before, makes the mouth feel smoother.
Of course there are exceptions to these rules, with distilleries such as Auchentoshan in Scotland using triple distillation and Kilbeggan in Ireland using double distillation.
It also has an extra category of malt, Single Pot Still, which means it is made from both malted and unmalted barley. This grew out of a tradition of using unmalted barley, as malted barley was taxed.
Some of the brands you must know from this category are Method & Madness - such a great example of the style, Green Spot of course is an absolute classic and Redbreast is probably the iconic Single Pot Still character.
The use of oak wood is always going to have a big effect on the flavour of the liquid, roughly 70% of the end flavour in fact, and both Ireland and Scotland must use oak casks.
Further to this, they are also both very likely to use ex-Bourbon or Sherry casks.
This will of course give the two malts similar flavours, with Bourbon casks imparting a sweeter flavour and Sherry casks encouraging fruity and spicy notes.
If you’re looking to try Whiskies that might have you questioning if they are Scotch Whisky or Irish Whiskey, then you should try Auchentoshan Scotch which is similar to the Irish Whiskey character as it is triple distilled and often very soft and smooth with a vanilla character too.
Some of the Teeling single casks are similar to Scotch due to their depth of flavour, their experimental maturation and finishing processes. They often have a less-smooth flavour profile than you’d expect from Irish Whiskey. Dingle Irish Whiskey is proving to be quite a great Whiskey as it has lots of character, not unlike some of the fruitier Scotches.
Greg is a brand strategy consultant, writer, speaker, host and judge specialising in premium spirits. His mission is to experience, share and inspire with everything great about Whisky, Whiskey, Gin, Beer and fine dining through his website, GreatDrams.com, writing, brand building and whisky tastings.