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Irish Whiskey vs. Bourbon

In this era of globalization and outsourcing, it is some small comfort to know that some items are so much a part of their native country that they can be made nowhere else.

You can’t legally make Irish whiskey in the United States, nor bourbon in Ireland. And few in either country would want to. Not because the Irish don’t like the occasional bourbon, or because Americans don’t appreciate a good Irish whiskey, but because the very idea seems to be unpatriotic.

There’s more that set these liquors apart that geography, however. Irish Whiskey and bourbon are both created with different grains and distilled in different ways, making them distinctly unique drinking experiences. Each can be an exquisite drink, but before heading to the store to pick up a bottle of Jameson’s or Maker’s Mark it’s worth learning a bit more about what makes each so popular.

 

History of Irish Whiskey

How the Irish (Whiskey) Saved Civilization

Every spirit has a story, and Irish whiskey is no different. Some date it back to 1000 AD, and the Irish monks who began distilling liquor from barley or oats and used it for medicinal purposes. They called it uisce beatha, or “blessed water.” The phrase is the origin of the modern word “whiskey,” a good fact to throw out the next time you get ragged on for losing at bar trivia.

Another note: Whiskey was distilled in Ireland before Scotland. It shows up in the historical record in the 13th century, when Henry II of England is shown to have taxed it. Queen Elizabeth I had casks of it delivered to her court and helped make it fashionable in England; we can only guess whether it helped give her the courage to stand up to the Spanish Armada. Peter the Great of Russia called it the best spirit in the world, which isn’t something that would make him popular among modern vodka producers. Between the quality of its production, its mild flavor, and the fortuitous (for Ireland) disease that took out the French cognac industry briefly in the 1880s, it was the world’s most popular spirit at the turn of the century.

Then, the wheels of fate turned against it. Technological innovations allowed competitors to distill whiskey more cheaply and efficiently than the traditional Irish method allowed. The Ireland War of Independence kept the export business at a minimum while it was being fought from 1919-1921, and the success of the independence movement caused England to shut off access to its market, the top one in the world for Irish whiskey at the time. No. 2 was the United States... but that was shut off as well, thanks to Prohibition, from 1920-1933. World War II made it even worse, and at the end of the conflict Ireland had gone from approximately 180 distilleries in 1880 all the way down to seven.

In particular, Irish whiskey had a fairly negative image in the United States until recently. In part, that’s because in the pre-World War II era, the good stuff wasn’t getting here in enough quantity to meet demand, and bootleg whiskey passed off as the genuine article had a negative effect on its reputation. Instead, it was Scotch that got the high end of the market.

But Irish whiskey has been making a comeback in recent years, as the palates have grown more sophisticated and as Ireland’s modernizing economy left it with the knowledge and the capital to meet the increasing demand. As a result, folks who may not have considered that option a decade or two ago are now increasingly exposed to the Irish national spirit.

 

What makes a spirit Irish whiskey?

Jamerson Heritage Center

Jamerson Heritage Centre Middleton, Ireland

For something to be called Irish whiskey, it has to be made in Ireland. That’s the smart-aleck answer, but still important: to be Irish whiskey, it has to be distilled and aged in either the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland. It doesn’t just describe a particular mashbill or way of distilling alcohol, but has a geographical tie to the country in fact as well as name. Though not every liquor distilled in Ireland is Irish whiskey, nothing that isn’t distilled there can be called that.

Most Irish whiskeys start with malted barley dried in closed ovens. This is in contrast to how the Scots make their own signature spirit, where the malted barley is dried over peat fires and acquires that traditional flavoring, and it’s why a lot of people who don’t like Scotch like Irish whiskey or bourbon instead. Like all whiskeys, it’s then grinded into grist, mixed with water to make the wort, and augmented with yeast to start the fermentation process which converts the sugar in the wort to alcohol. It goes through a distillation process that steams off the excess water and concentrates the flavor.

Irish whiskey, it has to be aged three years or more in wooden casks and distilled to an alcohol by volume level of 94,8% or less. In addition, many Irish Whiskeys are made with “pot still” whiskey. That’s a mashbill that contains both malted and unmalted barley.

Finally, Irish whiskey is often triple-distilled. Most bourbons are distilled once, and Scotch twice. That triple distillation gives Irish whiskey a smooth texture, and avoids the smokey peatness of the Scotch. It produces a lighter and cleaner drink.

A pilgrimage to all the distilleries in Ireland isn’t the season-long trek it would be in neighboring Scotland. There are only four: New Midleton, Old Bushmills, Cooley and Kilbeggan. And really, since Kilbeggan just reopened again in 2007, it’s the other three that produce the beverages you’re likely to find in stores.
 

What makes a spirit a bourbon?

Much like Irish whiskey is the national spirit of Ireland, bourbon fills that role in the United States. Though it is the national liquor of the entire country, its tied most specifically to a much smaller area, and most of the best distilleries are found within driving distance of each other to anyone who wants to take a trip South to see it being made up close.

Bourbon has to be made in the USA, most commonly in Kentucky. The mashbill has to contain at least 51% corn and no more than 79% (if it gets above that, it becomes corn whiskey). Most use corn for about 70% of the mashbill, with the rest coming from rye or wheat augmented by malted barley. Bourbons are often classified as being “wheated” or “rye” based on that second grain, and when you find a bottle you particularly like he’s helpful to note which category they fall into. The two can have very different tastes, and some swear by one or the other.

Once the mashbill is made and fermented, a process similar to what Irish whiskey goes through across the pond, the bourbon is then aged in new, charred oak barrels, which is what gives it the rich golden color. That’s a tradition that dates back to the Colonial America, with the best explanation given that one of the earliest distillers had his barrels partially burned in a fire and was too frugal to buy new ones. It must be distilled to no more than 160 proof but bottled at 80 proof or higher, so bourbon is at least 40% alcohol. If you want it weaker, drink it on the rocks or cut it with water.

Unlike Irish whiskey, there are no aging requirements for something to be called bourbon (though there are requirements for certain types; a straight bourbon, for example, must be aged for at least two years). Most bourbons are aged for longer, and will tell you so proudly on the label. Note that in both beverages, the maturation ceases once its taken out of the cask and bottled, so taking that six-month aged bottle of the cheap stuff and stashing it in your basement for 20 years doesn’t result in something awesome.

Like Irish whiskey, bourbon has undergone a growth period over the past couple of decades. The increased emphasis on craftsmanship and small batch bourbons leaves a lot more options for its aficionados to consider, and has helped interject some freshness into the industry.

While the trip to Ireland to visit whiskey distilleries is the more romantic travel option, don’t sell the Kentucky Bourbon Trail short. Plenty of people find that making the trip to Kentucky to visit distilleries, conduct tastings, enjoy activities like dipping your own wax seal on a bottle of Makers Mark, and perhaps sobering up long enough to play a little golf is a great way to spend a week off of work. So one thing the two liquors have in common is that many find they are worth planning a vacation around.

 

If you like one, will you like the other?

Most people can appreciate a good Irish whiskey and a good bourbon. There’s nothing in either spirit that is likely to turn someone away. But the two are distinct enough that most develop a preference for one over the other.

Most Irish whiskey is a smoother, lighter beverage than other drinks in that class. Because of the lightness, someone who’s a fan of Irish whiskey isn’t likely going to think much of the more robust bourbons, particularly when they’re drinking it neat.

That goes the other way as well – if you like a wheated bourbon, for example, an Irish whiskey isn’t going to be a perfect substitute. And if you like the relative sweetness of the corn, the difference between that and the malted barley base of the Irish whiskey is going to be noticeable to you as well.

 

As a mixer

If you’re a real aficionado of either Irish whiskey or bourbon, you’ll say they’re best consumed neat or on the rocks. That’s hard to argue, and it’s the purest way of enjoying either drink. But for those who like their liquor mixed with something else, both offer options – some traditional, and some decidedly more modern.

First, there’s the traditional mixer of soda. Both of these work fine in these recipes, but don’t waste a premium brand – the soda is designed to mask the flavor of the liquor. On the other hand, if you’re at a tailgate party or something similar, that’s a great way to break out the hard stuff in a festive environment.

Irish Coffee

Irish Coffee

There are other, better options, however. Irish coffee, for example, is made with two parts Irish Whiskey, four parts hot coffee, 1 parts heavy cream and one teaspoon of brown sugar. Note that to make it properly, you’re supposed to heat the whiskey as well as the coffee. And don’t forget the sugar, since that’s key to getting the heavy cream to float on top and you drink the coffee through that layer of cream.

In a more, well, festive spirit, there’s also the Irish car bomb. A staple of fraternity parties and raucous office happy hours, it floats a half-shot of Irish Whiskey over a half-shot of Bailey’s Irish Cream, then drops the shot into a half-pint or more of Guinness. Some enterprising bars even set the liquor on fire, though I can tell you from personal experience that this is a really dumb thing to do on your own if you’ve already had one or two of them, unless you want to set your kitchen counter on fire. You have to drink it fast once the shot is dropped, or the whole thing curdles.

If you think that makes this mainly an excuse for people looking to get drunk, you’re right. But at least it’s an entertaining way of doing so. If you think the name of the drink might offend, you’re equally right, which is probably why this is something you’d never order in Ireland. It’s an American drink.

Bourbon’s signature cocktails read like a list of classic Americana. The Manhattan, the Old Fashioned, the Sazerac, the Whiskey Sour … all are traditionally made with bourbon as the signature spirit. Unless you’re a fan of rye whiskey, in which case you’ll argue that the real traditional version of each of these is a rye beverage.

Today, however, the cocktail most associate with bourbon is probably the mint julep. It’s mint, sugar and bourbon, and if you ever go to the Kentucky Derby that’s what you’ll drink.

That’s a shame. The fact that bourbon is so strongly associated with the mint julep does it no favors, because the mint and sugar do nothing to bring out the quality of the drink. Don’t waste the good stuff if you wind up having to prepare it, because you’re just turning great liquor into something that’s cloyingly sweet and slightly minty. Do not ever order one in a bar and expect people to be impressed that you’re ordering a bourbon.

But if you like the chaos of the Irish car bomb, you’ll also be interested in trying a specific preparation of a boilermaker. Traditionally, a boilermaker is a shot of bourbon with a beer, served either alongside or mixed together. But for a change, try dropping it into the beer directly (called a “depth charge”) and drink up. There’s less pressure to down it as fast as the Irish car bomb, since it’s not going to curdle, but have some pride and drink it in a hurry anyway.

One note: bourbon is naturally on the sweet side, thanks to the corn that dominates the mashbill. Think about that before adding a syrup or sugary beverage, as that’s going to just increase the sweetness past the comfort level of many.

 

The Final Word

If you live in the United States, you have to think that bourbon is the better drink or risk being labeled as unpatriotic. Similarly, don’t travel to Ireland talking about how much better bourbon is than the local Irish whiskey and expect them to offer you any kind of hospitality. To challenge either spirit in its hometown is a losing proposition.

But both have a lot in common as well. They’re smooth spirits that are very drinkable neat, on the rocks, or in a mixed drink, and both seem to come up with new and better options every year. It’s a great time to be a fan of classic spirits, and both bourbon and Irish whiskey have quite a lot for their fans to be proud of.