One whiskey, one bourbon, and one… scotch?
St. Paddy’s Day is coming up soon, and we started getting a bunch of emails from readers wondering just what is the difference between Irish whiskey and American whiskey. So, we’ve decided to clear the air a little ahead of time so that our readers know exactly what to order this holiday when they’re partaking in the wearin’ o’ the green.
You might think the answer is easy: one is made in Ireland, one is made in America. Easy there, smart aleck. But it’s a bit more complex than that. It actually comes down to ingredients and the aging process.
Irish whiskey is made from barley. Sometimes, it’s a mixture of barley and malt. This means it has a lighter flavor than American whiskey, but that also makes it age better. Irish distilleries will use old barrels and let their whiskeys sit for a minimum of three years to get the full, classic flavor. It used to be that Irish whiskeys were reserved for folks who just weren’t into that strong taste, but now they are finding a new place in cocktails. There’s a level of subtlety to the flavoring that you won’t find in an over-powering American whiskey.
Americans, on the other hand, want their whiskey and they want it NOW! Two years is the minimum wait for an American whiskey, thanks to the strong taste of its ingredients and its aging process.
First of all, there are four types of American whiskey: rye, bourbon, American blend, and Tennessee whiskey. They can be made with corn, rye, or wheat. These ingredients make the spirits darker and give them a stronger, more distinct flavor.
Ryes are obviously made with rye. Bourbons, like those so famously out of Kentucky, tend to have a sweeter flavor, are made with at least 51% corn in the mash bill. This sweetness makes bourbons more popular in cocktails, just like Irish whiskey. Some distilleries will use a combination of wheat, rye, or corn– those are typically called American blends, and they can lead to all sorts of different flavors.
American distilleries also use newer barrels, and even char the wood to give the whiskey a smokey flavor. This is common in Tennessee whiskeys.
In many pubs in America, there are usually a lot more American whiskey choices than Irish. This is because there are simply a lot more variety in the ingredients distillers can use to make American whiskey. That’s good and all, but if you want something that’s carries the classic, whiskey flavor and has been lovingly and tediously crafted, Irish is the way to go. Look for brands like Tullamore Dew, Tyrconnell, and Bushmills are all good starting places.
So, this St. Paddy’s day, if you’re at the pub and you are looking to sip on something authentically Irish, go for that classic taste over the bolder and smokier flavors of the American whiskeys. Your choices may be more limited, but you’ll thank us later.