True or false? Irish whiskey is practically the same as Scottish whisky. Did you answer true? You lose. Their rich shades of amber are about the same, but in tradition and taste, the two couldn’t be more different.
And I have to admit, I didn’t know that either, until I embarked on a journey to Ireland, a country I’ve had a romantic fascination with since I was a child.
I didn’t visit just for the whiskey, of course, but for its legendary beauty, architecture and culture. Still, it was the whiskey that held the most intrigue.
This tiny island is surrounded by the cold waters and salty mist of the North Atlantic and the Irish Sea. Rain is often and plentiful. This pure, sweet water is the base of Irish whiskey. And while it may be true that the Irish like their Guinness, it’s even truer they like a drop of the hard stuff.
Irish whiskey, relatively speaking, hasn’t been around long.
The process of distilling dates back to about AD500, to the Arabs who extracted oil from plants to make perfume. Thus began the unique process of evaporation and condensation that is essential to whiskey-making today.
Later on, Celtic Christian monks, who travelled throughout Europe spreading the gospel, used those same principles to creatively distil local ingredients into alcohol.
In France, for example, grapes were distilled for eau de vie, the cognac and brandy of today. Scandinavian countries produced aqua vit, while in Ireland barley yielded uisce beatha. All of these romantic-sounding words simply translate to “water of life”.
In the late 1400s, the first accounts of grain distilling appeared in Scotland. To distinguish themselves from their Irish cousins, the Scots left the “e” out of whiskey.
The first official license for distilling was granted in 1608. And here begins our journey.
Our tour group began its whiskey education in Dublin, touring narrow flower-lined streets resplendent with statues, churches, shops and pubs. Lots of pubs, where the whiskey pairs well with local dishes like corned beef and fish pie.
The Old Jameson Distillery in Dublin was where we teamed up with Emer, our bubbly, happy guide.
“We take whiskey-making seriously here at Jameson,” she said, before missing a significant beat, then adding with a wink, “but we also take drinking it seriously”.
As we toured the distillery, which dates back to 1780 but closed as a working distillery in the 1970s when operations were moved to Midleton Distillery in County Cork, Emer explained that the biggest differences between Irish whiskey and Scottish whisky is that the Irish version is triple-distilled and doesn’t have the smoky, peaty taste that is the hallmark of scotch.
She then took us through the complicated process of making whiskey, which begins with barley that’s malted in a kiln – the Gaelic word for oven – before it is milled to a flour-like coarseness.
Next, it is mixed with pure Irish water in the mash-tun to produce wort – it sounds nasty but is actually sweet – which is then fermented to convert the sugar into alcohol. From there it is distilled to separate the water from the alcohol before being placed in handmade barrels for maturation.
With whiskey information overload, we finished our tour at the visitor’s centre, where a quarter of a million people come each year, before heading south to Cork to visit the Old Middleton Distillery at the Jameson Heritage Centre.
While you can’t tour the working distillery, you can take an educational and historical tour of the superbly preserved former distillery to learn more of Jameson’s time-honed craft, have lunch at the Malt House Restaurant and browse the gift shop.
“We hold on to the traditions of the past,” says master distiller Barry Crockett as he shows off the world’s largest pot still and a “ye-olden-days” waterwheel that once powered all of the machinery in the distillery.
Crockett confirms that Irish whiskey is triple distilled, declaring the final product is “cleaner, more pure, and sweeter in taste, like apples, pears, and peaches”.
Following an afternoon stop at the famed Ballymaloe Cookery School in Cork, our group, heads filled with a cornucopia of fruity images, travelled to County Westmeath to Kilbeggan to visit another gorgeously restored working distillery.
One of the things I most enjoyed about Kilbeggan, which dates back to 1757 and draws about 45,000 visitors annually, was its amalgamation of unusual sounds, from the rhythmic ba-ba-boom, ba-ba-boom of mechanical gears grinding together to the flip-flipping of waterwheels and the gurgling of bubbling streams.
Andrina Fitzgerald, who at 24-years-old is one of the youngest whiskey distillers in Ireland, showed us a 185-year-old pot still. (Funny, it didn’t look a day over a hundred.)
Northern Ireland was next in our sights, and the village of Bushmills in County Antrim.
As we drove north, I sighed contentedly as the lush scenery of Ireland’s pastures and craggy cliffs sauntered past. It’s not called the Emerald Isle for nothing, and the serene countryside is punctuated by the bones of ancient castles, pastoral stone fences, and masses of fat, happy sheep and cattle.
Finally arriving in Bushmills after a stop at the mythical Giants Causeway, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, we found a quiet village crammed with taverns, shops, and restaurants. From our accommodations at Bushmills Inn, the distillery, was less than a half-mile walk.
“Bushmills is the heart of the Irish whiskey industry,” said Robert Galbraith, our guide and Bushmills ambassador, before explaining that its distilling process really hasn’t changed in the more than 400 years since King James granted the first license to distil in 1608.
We had booked a premium tour, so Galbraith took us to a comfortable tasting room. Before us sat glasses of whiskey, shimmering like gold in the light pouring in through the windows.
The whiskey went down smoothly as we sipped our way through several centuries of whiskey-making traditions. Quietly I raised a glass and cheered “slainte” silently to King James.
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This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.