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Five Myths about Irish Whiskey

March 17, 2017


There’s many a proud Irishman living here in Canada. They helped build our country and still they make it strong, But ask anyone in the Irish diaspora what distinguishes Irish whiskey and you’ll get a lecture. With great authority, and maybe a little indignation that you even had to ask, they’ll rhyme off a list of all the things that make it special. But nine times out of ten, most of what they tell you will be wrong.

Unlike Scotch – they always compare Irish whiskey to Scotch because Scotch has become the standard. Ireland really was, at one time the great whisky-making nation and the Irish will never forgive the Scots for stealing the whisky industry out from under them. But anyway, unlike Scotch they will tell you, Irish whiskey is more refined, smoother – smoooother – because it is unpeated and triple distilled. The Irish invented distilling, they’ll remind you, and explain that they actually introduced it to Scotland (and Canada too). Then to set Irish whiskey apart from that coarse Scottish copycat stuff they decided to spell whiskey with an ‘e’ so no-one would ever be fooled. That’s the rhetoric. But let’s have a closer look at some of these dearly held truths.

Irish whiskey is not peated. For a very brief period this may well have been true, but peat (called turf on the Emerald Isle) has traditionally been used as fuel in Ireland, including fuel to dry malt. Michael Donovan in his 1830 book, Domestic Economy, talks about “the turf smoke with which these mountain distilleries abound.” The 1838 book Manufacture and Use of Inebriating Liquors refers to Innishowen Irish whiskey as having a smoky flavour. In more recent times, beginning in the 1960s to be exact, Cork Distillers made a peated blend and called it Hewitt’s. Irish Distillers bought the Hewitt’s brand but by 2004, they had stopped making the whisky. As Willie MacKay, manager of Bushmills during the 1970s and 80s, explained, “It is the drying stage that gives the whiskey its peaty flavour. The fire is fuelled by peat or turf which contains phenols, and the phenols in the smoke are absorbed by the moist grain.” Bushmills, according to MacKay, was still lightly peated when he was making it. And since 1987, Cooley distillery in County Louth has maintained the tradition of peated Irish whiskey. Try, for example, their heavily peated Connemara Turf Mór.

Irish whiskey is triple distilled. Again, for a brief period this may have been true, but for the most part Irish distillers, just like distillers everywhere else, have used both double and triple distillation. In fact some Irish whiskies are blends of double and triple distilled whiskies. As far back as 1866 when Alfred Barnard visited Ireland many distilleries were double-distilling. Bushmills boasts that it is triple distilled now, but when Barnard called on them, Bushmills was one of no fewer than eight Irish distilleries that were using double distillation. Among current distilleries, upstart Cooley has returned to traditional double distillation for its Connemara, Locke’s, and Tyrconnell whiskies. Nor is triple distillation restricted to Ireland. Among many other distilleries in several other countries, Auchentoshan in Scotland and Canadian Mist in Canada also triple distil.

The Irish invented distilling. Whether whisky was first produced in Scotland, Ireland, or somewhere else is still disputed, but long before the denizens of either country made the amber dew, distillation was practiced in Asia and the Middle East. Many historians believe it was Irish missionaries returning from the Far East who introduced distilling to Ireland.

Irish whiskey is spelled with an ‘e.’ True today, in practice though not in law, but traditionally both spellings were used for Irish whiskey right up until the 1970s. That’s when every Irish distillery but two had finally gone out of business. And those two remaining distilleries were owned by a single company which had also bought the rights to hundreds of different Irish whiskey brands. As a single entity, the company, Irish Distillers Limited, chose to standardize the spelling on all its labels as ‘whiskey’. When it took over production of Paddy’s Whisky in the 1970s, for example, the name on the label changed to Paddy’s Whiskey. But this was a decision by one single distiller, not an industry rule. It appeared as an industry wide-decision only because one sole company actually operated the entire industry in Ireland at the time. With the resurgence in popularity of Irish whiskey – the fastest growing whisky sector in the U.S. – there is no reason why a new Irish distiller or brand owner couldn’t set themselves apart by reverting to the other, and yes, quite traditional spelling.

The Irish brought whisky making to Canada. Yes, there were many tiny Irish home distillers and farm distilleries, but not even one of these ever grew to sufficient scale to influence the development of Canadian whisky. Canadian rye whisky is a unique product that has evolved from the early distillation practices of new Canadians who came to Canada from England and Western Europe. Irish immigrants on the other hand were just as likely to distil rum as whisky.

So there you have it. The Irish have accomplished many things in the history of western civilization but inventing distilling is not one of them. Neither did they make much of a contribution to Canadian whisky making. Just like any other whisky, Irish whisky may be peated or unpeated, double distilled or triple distilled, spelled with an ‘e,’ or spelled without one. So next time someone berates you for not knowing the whats and wherefores of Irish whiskey, simply smile and order them … a Guinness. Tell them if they love the flavour of Irish barley so, Guinness is now the only place they are guaranteed to find it. That’s right, it’s mashed and distilled in Ireland alright, but the barley for Irish whiskey may come from somewhere else. Guinness now buys every grain of Irish barley they can lay their hands on and turns it not into whisky, but into beer.

Old Bushmills Distillery photo

With a tip of the hat and an Old Comber raised to John Marrinan who verified or provided the specifics and saved me writer’s tears.
For more information about Irish whiskey visit The Irish Whiskey Society.


41 Responses to “Five Myths about Irish Whiskey”

  1. sku:

    Great post! What were they distilling in Asia at that time? Wine?

    • Davin:

      Hi sku,
      Thanks for your comment. I’m flattered that you read my site. I hope my readers will follow your link, at least on Wednesdays when you do your Whisky Wednesdays.

  2. Very good piece Davin. But what about those “new Canadians” who came from Scotland? There is a large Scottish diaspora in Canada and there must have been a Scottish influence in your rye.
    The Irish industry has now more competition than it has had in the past 60 years, with Bushmills owned by Diageo, Tullamore Dew by Wm Grant, Cooley’s opened and (it seems) now profitable and a potential new distillery due to start building this year on the Dingle peninsula out west.
    A new dawn for the Irish?

    • Davin:

      Hi John,

      Well, I am most humbled that someone with your long-standing stature as a whisky writer reads

      The so-called history of Canadian whisky has been strongly influenced by false assumptions, one of which is that the huge influx of immigrants from Scotland or Ireland influenced early distilling in Canada. There is a large and proud Scottish diaspora in Canada and again they made and continue to make many contributions to our country and our society. Many had tiny stills but I have done the research and not one of them made any lasting impact on Canadian distilling. These were strictly home distillers. Many of them distilled apple jack or rum, not whisky and those who did make whisky never got into the trade. Their outputs were miniscule. John MacLaren took a shot at it, but he stuck with malt whisky and lost out to rye. Almost everyone at the time was distilling wheat – and not very good wheat either.

      Much credit is given to the United Empire Loyalists for introducing whisky making to Canada, but again they were micro-distillers and had little impact on commercial distilling or recipes. As well, the UEL was made up of people who remained loyal to the Crown, so many people have assumed this means of Scottish/Irish/English descent. I have reviewed lists of people who came to Canada as United Empire Loyalists and names from the British Isles were a minority. In fact there were many Germans and Dutch among the Loyalists. These people may indeed have been the western Europeans who influenced Canadian whisky in suggesting that distillers beef up the flavour with the judicious use of rye grain. I’d have to check my notes to confirm this.

      If you have a copy of Dave Broom’s book, The World Atlas of Whisky, handy I just touched on this in the Canada chapter. They only gave me a few hundred words for the history section, but it does speak briefly to some of the myths.

      Again, thank you for following the site, and also for your comments.


  3. Good article David. Tis very true. Half of my time is spent educating and introducing people to whiskies that they would normally stay away from because of mis-information and because of the mad marketing teams of the big whiskey companies.

  4. Piers:

    Good read! Cheers, and Happy St. Pats!

  5. Happy St. Patrick’s Davin!

    • Davin:

      Thanks a lot Chip, same to you. I saw your Jameson’s 18 piece on The Rum Howler blog today. Nice whisky, isn’t it?

      • Absolutely gorgeous whiskey Davin. I was (as you can tell from the review) smitten with the Jameson 18. Thanks for the metion about it here, I appreciate the support.

  6. Tim N.:

    I’m looking fwd to some Bushmills single cask tonight!

    • Davin:

      Single cask Bushmills – sounds great. How was it? I had a dram of Redbreast 12. Excellent.

      • Tim N:

        I had the sherry cask which is high alc% – nicely dry, and some wood-sulfur in it but in a pleasant way.

        Redbreast 12 is a definite preference for me – I’d really like to get my hands on RB15 but am yet to see it on the shelf. In Alberta RB12 is only a few dollars more than Blackbush… such value for a high end product!

        Did you ever have the chance to try peated Bushmills?


  7. [...] you end up deciding to stick with straight Irish whiskey, you might want to learn a few things about it before starting your session. [Canadian [...]

  8. Great read Davin, and very insightful facts. Happy St. Paddy’s.

    • Davin:

      Happy St. Paddy’s to you as well, Marc.

  9. Brilliant post. I won’t expose the depth of my ignorance on this subject. But this was really helpful.

    • Davin:

      Thanks Chris, much appreciated.

  10. Sarah:

    Great synopsis for us uneducated! Just saw the Bushmills single malt too. Maybe I’ll try it, and the Redbreast 12 as a treat and change from my usual Blackbush.

  11. Greg:

    Another great read Davin. I just recently picked up a Bushmills 21 year and the 2010 release of Midleton Very Rare. Both are excellent and nice additions to my limited but growing Irish collection.

  12. Bob:

    Those are some great facts! Alot of things i did not know. I will have to quote you to some of my buddies that appear to be confused.

    • Davin:

      Yes, there is a lot of misinformation out there and it’s no wonder people sometimes get confused.

  13. Igor Kossov:

    As allways,so interesting and informative.
    Can’t wait for Your book.You are brilliant writer!

    • Davin:

      Hi Igor,
      Many thanks. I’m blushing.

  14. Grest post Davin. Good work again.

    I still have problem to find Irish Whiskies who really impressed me, even after a thousand malt (from all around the world) tasted. At one point, i think i just don’t really appreciate the style (mean, in a global way).

    I had a couple hearthbreaking discoveries such as the new Jameson Rarest Vintage (but at 400$ a bottle…), Connemara Peated Cask Strength is simply WOW and Connemara Turf Mor is outstanding. Greenore Single Grain was very enjoyable as for Jameson 18 and Redbrest 12 and 15…

    Thanx for the instructive post once again. Great to read you. See you at Spirit of Toronto in May.

    • Davin:

      Lookng forward to it!

  15. The history relating to the etymology of the word whisk(e)y was fascinating (as was the rest). Thank you for sharing!

  16. tim n:

    Had an irish whisky flight last night: bushmills blackbush – 16 – 21 – sherry single cask; redbreast 12; connemera peated cask. All of these are very high quality releases although I strongly recommend finding a blackbush release prior to the recent bottle design change that Diageo made – the newer bottling just doesn’t have that incredible ripe current presence…

  17. [...] on Partager:Plus 15 mars 2013 Laisser une [...]

  18. Lovely post there Davin. Insightful and educational.
    Well done, again!


    • Davin:

      Thanks Gal. I enjoyed the whole flash mob thing today. Just some wonderful posts. Who ever said whisky bloggers were all the same?

  19. Love this post! You’ve got mail! :-)

    • Davin:

      Thanks Femke – and thanks for your contribution to the flash mob.

  20. Great post, Davin! I’d no idea about the origins of Irish whiskey’s e. Fascinating! And thanks for including my blog in your master list. ; )

    • Davin:

      Thanks Susannah, and you’re welcome.

  21. Thanks for this great article Davin. Didn’t know that they added the e to whiskey in the 70′s. Do you know when the Americans (or most of them) started writing whiskey with an e?

    • Davin:

      I think they have been spelling it both ways all along

      • Okay. I was wondering because I read that the Irish immigrants wrote it with an e and Makers Mark for example don’t because they have were founded by Scottish immigrants. But this argument is invalid if the Irish added the e in the 1970s. Think I have to do some research on this topic. Thank you for helping

        • moretears:

          The Irish didn’t add the “e” in the 1970′s, and David didn’t write that. He said the 1970′s were when there ceased being any Irish distillers using the other spelling.

          • moretears:

            “Davin,” I meant, not “David.”

  22. Coleen:

    I love Bushmills and Jameson
    But tell me this,
    Is Jameson a rye whiskey, as my drinking buddy insists?
    I don’t think so – or am I wrong?
    Please give me a reason
    Irish Coleen, which is actually the Scottish spelling, which means I tend to go for Scotch

    • Davin:

      Jameson is Irish whisky (or whiskey as some insist), and it is not rye. Either way, I enjoy it.

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