Irish whiskey’s distillation derives from an eleventh century practice – Irish monks, returning from the Mediterranean, brought with them the technique of distilling perfumes. This was modified over the course of the twelfth century to produce Irish whiskey.
With some notable exceptions, distillation of Irish pot still whiskey is a three-stage process whereas most types of Scotch whisky are double-distilled. Similarly, whilst Scottish producers commonly use peat during malting, this is rarely done in Ireland. As a result, whilst Scotch whisky has a predominantly earthy and smoky taste, Irish whiskey offers a markedly smoother finish. Exceptionally, an Irish malt from the Cooley Distillery is both peated and twice-distilled.
The distillation process of Irish whiskey can produce a variety of spirits. While these differ in character and taste, they are all bound by the parameters of the legal definition of Irish whiskey. This means that both the distillation and aging process must take place in Ireland. This definition also outlines key ingredients and a maximum alcohol by volume level for Irish whiskey. In addition to these requirements, Irish whiskey must be aged in wooden casks for a minimum of three years.
The existence of the Bushmills Distillery, active since 1608, is clear evidence of a strong demand for the product. However, having risen to become the world’s favourite spirit, Ireland’s whiskey production went into severe decline towards the latter part of the 19th century. Though bolstered by early 20th-century demand from the US, American prohibition and the Irish War of Independence later accelerated the decline.
In modern times, Irish whiskey has experienced a renaissance led by traditional producers like the Bushmills Distillery, Midleton Distillery and Cooley Distillery. Strong market growth, often led by brands such as Jameson’s from Midleton Distillery, is driving increased capacities and the building of several new distilleries.