In our new Ask the Expert series, Paste readers chime in with some of their most pressing booze concerns, and we do our best to help you make sense of it all. Resident expert Jake Emen has spent years on the road traveling to distilleries across the country and around the world, and he’s here to help. Want your own question answered? Send a Tweet to him @ManTalkFood using #AskTheExpert.
What’s the difference between Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey? Well, the two most obvious places to start are where they’re from, and the pesky spelling difference in whisky and whiskey.
Scotch is from Scotland, and Irish whiskey is from Ireland. That’s easy, right? For the latter, it’s the whole island, including both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
As for the spelling of the word, let’s be clear—it doesn’t really matter. Scotland, Canada, Japan and other emerging world producers default to whisky, with America and Ireland defaulting to whiskey. That said, you’ll find particular brands in those places using the opposite spelling, so it truly doesn’t mean a thing. You can spell it how ya like, while acknowledging that those are the general fault lines of the debate.
Moving onto the stuff that actually matters, let’s look at how Scotch is different from Irish whiskey in terms of production.
In Scotland, whisky made from 100% malted barley is typically double distilled in copper pot stills. When that product comes from a single distillery, it’s known as a single malt. Different varieties of blends may include two or more single malts, or some combination of single malts with single grains.
Scotch grain whisky, then, is whisky produced with any grain in addition to malted barley, and is column distilled. The category sees most action in terms of filling out popular blended whiskies, but there are single grains, as well as blended grains, available for purchase and consumption.
Irish malt whiskey is more commonly triple distilled—but rules are meant to be broken. The Irish distillery Cooley double distills, and several Scotch distilleries such as Auchentoshan triple distill.
In any event, both malt whisky from pot stills and grain whisky from column stills are used in Irish blends, and blended Irish whiskey holds the lion’s share of the market.
Irish whiskey though also has an added category, what’s known as single pot still whiskey. It’s a confusing name, because the category defines the grains used in its production more than anything else. An Irish single pot still whiskey is made from a combination of malted and unmalted barley. The use of unmalted barley in Irish whiskey originally began centuries ago as a cheaper solution to malted barley which was taxed by the British.
Technically speaking, even though “pot still” is in the name, producers are allowed to use a component of column distilled whiskey in the final product. It’s easy to see how things get muddied up, so just remember that single pot still is a combination of malted and unmalted barley.
Finally, Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey does agree on one point: the minimum age for both is three years.
Jake Emen is a freelance spirits, food, and travel writer working diligently to explore the world’s finest offerings so he can teach you about them—how selfless of him. He currently resides outside of Washington, D.C. when he’s not on the road. Keep up with his latest adventures at his own site, ManTalkFood.com, or follow him on Twitter @ManTalkFood.