They say neighbours can be friends or enemies, depending on what’s at stake. For neighbouring countries Ireland and Scotland, it is their pride and dignity in producing some of the world’s best whiskies, and that goes all the way down to how they spell the water of life. The Irish spell whiskey with the infamous ‘e’ while the Scots abstain from it, and friends, that’s the first distinguishable difference between an Irish whiskey and a bottle of scotch.
For those who are new to whisky, Irish whiskey is made in Ireland, and the other comes from Scotland. That’s just how whiskies are often labelled—according to the country they’re made in.
Geography aside, the two whisky nations also have their differences in history, process, and taste. True, they both make whiskies from water, yeast, and grain, and they both mature their whiskies in wood for a minimum of three years, but upon closer inspection, you’ll find that they’re quite different despite having Celtic roots.
So, are they friends? Probably not, as far as whisky is concerned. But for the sake of whisky aficionados, we bring them together in a momentary truce for a quick study on what makes scotch and Irish whisky same-same, but different.
Which came first—Irish whiskey or scotch?
The chicken or the egg? Irish whiskey or scotch? Unlike the former, the latter finally has an answer. Are you ready for it?
The answer to this age-old dispute is… Irish whiskey. Ba dum tss!
Ireland won in two ways. Many historians agreed that it was a group of travelling Irish Christian monks who first distilled the heavenly spirit. They were in the Middle East when they discovered the secrets of distilling perfumes back in the 11th century.
What has perfume got to do with whiskey? Well, they both tickle our noses with lovely aromas, so maybe the monks figured they could use the same distillation technique to make a new type of liquor. Who knows? We’re just glad that the outcome of their experiment was the world’s first whiskey. For those with curious minds, the first whiskey may not taste as pleasant as the Irish whiskey of today. It is generally unaged and likely to carry some fruity and spicy flavours. And before they were rivals, Ireland and Scotland were friends, so the Irish shared their newfound whiskey knowledge with the Scots, and that’s how we got scotch whisky.
That’s not all. Irish whiskey was first recorded in 1405—90 years before the record of the first scotch. Ireland is also the proud home of the Bushmills— the world’s oldest licensed distillery, believed to be established in 1609. Scotland, on the other hand, has the Glenturret, which was only founded 165 years after the Bushmills.
Sorry, Scotland fans. It looks like we have a clear winner. But fret not. Fast forward to today, and you’ll find Scotland winning by a huge margin in terms of whisky production. They produce nine times more whisky than Ireland—that’s billions versus millions. God dram, Scotland!
Are there differences in making scotch and Irish whiskey?
Yes, there are! We’ll take a look at the differences one by one, starting with the mash.
One cannot make scotch without malted barley—this is required by Scottish law. It’s either pure malted barley (malt scotch), malted barley and malted or unmalted cereals (grain scotch), or a mix of both whiskies from multiple distilleries (blended scotch).
The Irish law is less nit-picky. It only requires whiskey to be made from a mash of cereals—whatever they may be, malted or unmalted. In 1682, however, the freedom that Irish distillers enjoyed was crippled. Ireland was under British rule, and the British government imposed a malt tax with the intention of generating higher revenues for themselves.
Oppression of any kind is expected to spark a revolution, and in this case, Irish whiskey was the fuel. To circumvent the malt tax, Irish distillers began using raw, unmalted barley to make a distinctive style of Irish whiskey called the Pot Still. Its unique taste comes from a mix of malted and unmalted barley, and has since become an Irish tradition to use unmalted grains, with no one else doing it elsewhere, but those living in the Emerald Isle.
Another difference between scotch and Irish whiskey is the use of peat. Can you guess who uses it? If you say the Scots, then you’re right! Scotland has bogs and bogs of peat, especially in the Islay region. Some of the famous distilleries from Islay include Ardbeg, Bowmore, and Lagavulin. Irish whiskey, meanwhile, is mostly devoid of peat. Of course, there are exceptions like the Connemara Single Malt—a rare Irish whiskey that’s said to be peaty, yet smooth and sweet.
Don’t know what peat is? Read our detailed write up in Peated Whisky–Is It True That You Either Love It Or Hate It?.
Oak is the common wood for both, but Scotland is persistent on the use of oak casks, while Ireland is more flexible on the type of wood used for ageing. This includes maple, hickory, chestnut, and more recently, acacia and wild cherry. The novelty of using cherry wood is catching on fast.
In 2019, the Midleton Distillery released their Method & Madness range featuring wild cherry wood and acacia wood finish. Just earlier this year, in February, Teeling Distillery announced their release of a 15-year-old Irish Single Malt dubbed as the ‘Whiskey Wonders of Wood Cherry Wood Cask.’ We can’t deny that there’s something magical and alluring about using wood other than oak. So, if you’re looking for variety, Irish whiskey might be the way to .
Maybe can add a few example of other wood used besides oak?
Done! I've added some information that I thought would be interesting. Let me know if this is good.
With all that’s been said about how rigid Scotland is as compared to Ireland, distillation is where the reverse happens—Ireland turns stubborn, and Scotland goes wild.
It all started with the introduction of column stills, which allows for continuous distillation and more whisky in shorter periods. The Scots used it to their advantage and became even more prolific in producing scotch whisky. The Irish? They stuck to pot still distillation, which explains the lag in the amount of Irish whiskey produced.
The choice of apparatus isn’t the only reason why Ireland is behind Scotland in whisky production. While the Scots practise double distillation, the Irish almost traditionally distil their whiskey three times, which delays the process, but results in whiskey that’s lighter, smoother, and easier to drink.
Does Irish whiskey taste better than scotch?
We wouldn’t dare be the judge of that, but we can offer our knowledge on some typical flavours found in each type of whisky. The best way to know is to do a side by side comparison—bottle to bottle, dram to dram, and discover for yourself which of the two is more to your liking.
Scotch taste profile
We’ll start with scotch—the feistier spirit. Most scotches are full-bodied and slightly on the heavy side. Their thick consistency coats the mouth generously, like eating honey straight from the jar. As scotches must be made from malted barley, the general taste profile is therefore malty.
What sets scotches apart from other whiskies is their punchy, smoky flavour. Those made in Islay—a Scottish island known for its peated whiskies—are often nicknamed as the peated beasts. Imagine dragons with their menacing looks and curls of smoke rising from their nostrils. Using peat to dry the malt gives more than just smoke. The “smoke” is usually accompanied by earthy, grassy, and medicinal aromas and flavours. If the profile sounds too heavy for you, try a blended scotch—it’s more approachable and well-balanced, cleaner, and lighter than the pure expression.
To get you started, here are some trendy scotches to try: Macallan 12 Year Old, Macallan 18 Year Old, Glenfiddich 12 Year Old, Lagavulin 16 Year Old, and Chivas Regal 12 Year Old.
Irish whiskey taste profile
Unlike its Scottish counterpart, Irish whiskey is exceptionally smooth and soft—all thanks to the triple distillation technique. It usually has none of the pungent peat, and is warm in character. Sipping a dram of Irish whiskey is like receiving a warm, loving hug.
Some classic flavours include vanilla and honey. If unmalted, raw barley is used, the whiskey tends to develop a richer texture and carries a somewhat spicy profile, which gives the Irish whiskey a bit more edge to its regular plain jane.
Seeing how easy it is to savour, it is not surprising for Irish whiskey to be a top pick amongst rookies and enthusiasts alike. Some popular Irish whiskey brands include Jameson, Middleton, Bushmills, Tullamore, Waterford, and Redbreast.
And the Irish whiskey vs scotch winner is…
Completely up to you! Especially when it comes down to the nose and palate. Sure, the Scots are producing higher volumes of whiskey per year than the Irish, but the Irish have won bragging rights as the first group of people to discover whiskey and in keeping to their heritage of using pot stills.
For those who enjoy a bold and smoky profile, the scotch is a clear winner. If a refreshing, light dram is more your thing, then Irish whiskey comes out on top as the champion of this great debate.
The battle between the two great whisky nations may be one of the most talked-about topics in Europe, but if they are not careful, several Asian dark horses may overtake their rule in the whisky world.
We wrote an article on the Asian whiskies that are making big splashes in recent years. Give it a read, and who knows, you might discover that Asian whiskies deserve the winning title just as much as their European cousins. See you on the other side!