It is March, and even here in my Kentucky stomping grounds, that means as many people are talking about Irish whiskey as they are about bourbon. Whiskey from Hibernia (the original Latin name for Ireland) has been booming in recent years, a boom best illustrated in two numbers: two decades ago, there were just three distilleries making whiskey on the entire island; now there are more than 30.
Unfortunately, that boom has done next to nothing to dispel the numerous myths and misconceptions surrounding Irish whiskey. Even if you limit your Saint Patrick’s Day 2021 festivities to a small gathering at home, you are liable to hear one. Here are the real stories behind the five Irish whiskey myths I hear most often.
Irish whiskey is triple distilled, while Scottish whisky is double distilled, and that is what makes the two different.
Triple distillation, usually done with a triple set of copper pot stills, is a traditional fixture of Irish whiskey-making. Yet this practice is not dictated by Irish whiskey law and is neither universal in Ireland nor exclusive to their style. In the modern context, the Cooley Distillery — which makes Tyrconnell, Connemara, and at one time supplied whiskey to numerous sourced brands – uses double distillation and is among the most well-established distilleries in Ireland. Meanwhile over in Scotland, Auchentoshan and Springbank both use triple distillation.
Jameson is Catholic and Bushmills is Protestant.
This myth is pervasive enough to find repetition on TV and in movies, as well as Irish pubs. This sectarian notion has its roots in the Bushmills Distillery’s location in Northern Ireland, in County Antrim, which is famously Protestant. Jameson is made at the New Midleton Distillery, located far to the south in County Cork, in a separate and staunchly Catholic country.
The first thing to understand is that until recent years, the Emerald Isle had only three working distilleries: Bushmills, New Midleton and Cooley. Although the trio do not like to advertise it, they frequently traded whiskey stock back in the day and sold it to independent bottlers. So, a given bottle of Jameson might have a little Bushmills in it, and vice versa, while that third sourced brand down the shelf might have equal measures of both plus some Cooley.
Also, people from both religions work at New Midleton and Bushmills, so it is impossible to label either by creed. This is best highlighted by the fact that Bushmills’ Master Distiller since 2002, Colum Egan, is a Catholic, and the distillery is currently owned by Jose Cuervo, the tequila giant from Catholic Mexico. Insofar as New Midleton is concerned, let’s keep in mind brand founder John Jameson was a Scot and almost certainly a Presbyterian.
Irish whiskey is always spelled with an “e.”
In America, where a distiller can spell the word “whiskey” or “whisky” and not care the slightest bit about the spelling one way or the other, we usually attribute this obsession with the letter “e” to Scotch snobs. Ireland used to be the same way until the late 1800s. At that time, in response to the growing competition from Scottish blended whiskies (such as Johnnie Walker and Dewars), they banded together and agreed to spell the name of their products as “whiskey” to make them more distinctive.
As with triple distillation, this spelling is not required by Irish law, and Irish distillers are starting to take advantage of that. Waterford Distillery spells it “whisky,” and one can be sure at least a few others will follow in the years to come.
Irish whiskey is just for shooting.
Frankly, I have never understood this one. I know it comes from how so many folks got their first exposure to whiskey drinking Jameson boilermakers in college, but seriously, Jameson is a perfectly sip-worthy whiskey. Ditto for Tullamore Dew and Powers. These days, with Ireland’s unique pot still whiskey, a rich and spicy style, making a major revival, and the Irish distilling scene growing more diverse and vibrant with each passing year, it is simply ridiculous to dismiss Irish whiskey as something cheap or secondary. Yet people still do, even on Saint Patrick’s Day. Go figure.
Irish whiskey is smooth, light and sweet but never smoky.
First off, Irish whiskey does not always have a sweet, light character; go find a dram of single pot still whiskey and you will instantly lose that misconception. Insofar as never being smoky is concerned, Ireland is just as peaty a place as Scotland, and Connemara has built its whole brand identity around peated whiskey. Granted it was the only peated Irish whiskey for a long time, but lately other brands, like Teeling, have been stepping into peated territory.