Irish Whiskey: The Water of Life

Irish Whiskey: The Water of Life

Let’s hear it for the spirits of the Irish! I was first introduced to Irish whiskey while working at an Irish pub in college. The owner was a little white-haired fellow named Jerry. He fit perfectly on his bar, able to dance to jolly Irish songs without bumping his head on the ceiling. Then, he would hop down and tell anyone who would listen how to properly drink an Irish whiskey. “You have to inhale through your mouth as you sip,” he’d say. “Sláinte!”


Many insist that the Irish actually invented whiskey. The word ‘whiskey’ derives from the Gaelic word that means ‘water of life,’ and some historians believe Irish monks were distilling this drink as early as 500 A.D. It was known as a ‘miracle drink’ and used as a medicine to treat upset stomachs & other ailments. Then, people realized they truly liked the tonic and continued quaffing for more recreational purposes.

Irish whiskey continued to gain popularity through the 19th century. In fact, there were more than 300 whiskey distilleries littering the quaint country in 1890. However, the whiskey distilling industry in Ireland suffered a major decline throughout the following century due to famine, war & other issues, to the point that only 3 distilleries remained in operation in 1975.

Since 1990, Irish whiskey has slowly but steadily risen to popularity again. Many new distilleries have opened their doors in Ireland, and more than 8.7 million cases are produced each year. Production is projected to pass its peak (of 12 million cases in 1900) by 2020.


Irish whiskey requires distillation and aging for at least three years on the island of Ireland, but that’s about the only thing the Irish are picky about. The percentages of grains used and aging containers do not matter. There are four types of Irish whiskeys, all with relatively similar names. Here’s a great descriptions of different kinds from Men’s Journal:

  • Single malt whiskeys (also, malt whiskeys) are made at a single distillery in pot stills from malted barley and only malted barley. From there, flavor ultimately depends on what kinds of barrels the whiskey is aged in. Single-malt whiskeys can be spicy or peaty, or they can be more delicate, with floral, dried fruit, and bread notes.
  • Single pot still whiskeys (also called pot still whiskeys) are also made at a single distillery, also in a pot still, but are made from a combination of malted barley (at least 30%), unmalted barley (at least 30%), and other cereal grains. Pot still whiskeys are the most intense in flavor, featuring lots of spice, and can have an oily mouthfeel compared to other varieties of Irish whiskey.
  • Single grain whiskeys (also called grain whiskeys) are made in a single distillery, but contrary to what their name suggests, they are made from a mixture of cereals, including malted barley (no more than 30%), unmalted barley, corn, or wheat. (The term “single grain” refers to the actual mix that is used to make the whiskey.) These sweeter, lighter whiskeys are often found in blends.
  • Blended Irish whiskeys, as the name implies, are made by blending together at least two Irish whiskeys, whether single pot still, single grain, or single malt. Blended whiskeys tend to be lighter and more approachable in flavor.

Irish whiskey is most often aged in American ex-bourbon barrels (which give the whiskey notes of caramel, vanilla, tropical fruit, and citrus) or sherry barrels (which impart notes of dried fruit, cinnamon, chocolate, coffee, and tannins). However, distillers are experimenting with a wider range of barrels to mature their whiskey, such rum, other varieties of wine or cider.


There isn’t really a wrong way to drink Irish whiskey (though many people from Ireland would argue this statement!). It’s complimentary taste is easy to mix with coke, ginger or even water. I’ve also heard that adding an ice cube or two really opens up the flavors. In fact, they use this method to judge whiskey in contests because its easier to decipher the flavor profiles. However, most Irish will tell you to simply swill it straight and enjoy. And if you’re in a pub in Indiana, a short, white-haired man may tell you to breath in as you sip.


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