In recognition of the upcoming St. Patrick’s Day, I decided it is a good time to discuss the different styles of Irish Whiskey. As with most things Irish, there is disagreement as to how many styles of whiskey there are; some would argue there are four, while others claim only three.
I will begin this discussion by identifying the three styles that all the experts agree upon. Those are malt, pot still and grain. The debated fourth style is a blended combination of two or more of the other three styles. Those who argue that there are only three styles base their argument on the fact that blends can only exist because they are the product of a combination of the other three styles.
Below are definitions of all four styles, as well as examples of each. The whiskies highlighted in blue are periodically available in Canadian liquor stores.
Single Malt Whiskey
Malt whiskey is produced from 100% malted barley. It is double or triple distilled in copper pot stills. To qualify as single malt, the whiskey must be made in its entirety at one distillery. Irish single malts are typically soft in texture, smooth, sweet, and malty in flavour.
Examples of single malt whiskies include Bushmills single malt, Knappogue Castle single malt, Connemara 12 Single Malt, Teeling Single Malt, West Cork, Tyrconnell and The Sexton.
Single Pot Still Whiskey
This style is unique to Ireland. It is made from a mash of at least 30% malted and 30% unmalted barley, which gives pot still its characteristic full-rounded and spicy flavour. In addition to the barley, the mash may contain up to 5% of other cereal grains, such as rye or oats. The mash is fermented and then double or triple distilled in copper pot stills.
Examples of single pot whiskies include Redbreast, Powers John’s Lane and Powers Three Swallow, Midleton Barry Crockett Legacy, Green Spot, Yellow Spot, Red Spot, Blue Spot, Drumshanbo and Teeling.
Single Grain Whiskey
Unlike pot still and malts, grain whiskey is distilled using a column still instead of a copper pot still. This produces a spirit that is lighter and cleaner in body and sweeter in taste. It is most often distilled from a base of corn (maize) with up to 30% malted barley added. Other grains such as wheat or oats may also be used.
Single grain whiskey must be made at a single distillery.
Examples of single grain whiskies include Kilbeggan Single Grain, Teeling Single Grain, The Busker, Clonakilty Bordeaux Cask, Egan’s Vintage Grain and Glendalough Double Barrel.
A blended Irish whiskey should not be automatically considered to be inferior to a single grain, single malt or pot still whiskey. The success of the blend comes down to the quality of the whiskeys it is contrived of and the skill of the blender who creates it. A blend is a mixture of two or more styles of Irish whiskey. There are no specific names to differentiate between blends made from malt and grain, pot still and grain, malt and pot still, or even malt, pot still and grain.
Blends are often light when grain whiskey is included in the mix, while the addition of pot still or malt whiskey will give body and complexity. Blended whiskeys can be a great alternative to a single pot still or single malt whiskey, which may be too rich or intense in flavour. Blended whiskey is generally smooth, mellow and silky.
Blended whiskey may be distilled in pot and/or column stills and can be made at a single distillery or multiple distilleries.
Blended whiskey examples include Jameson, Powers Gold Label, Clontarf, Bushmills Black Bush, Teeling Small Batch, Writers’ Tears Copper Pot, Dubliner Bourbon Bask, The Irishman Founder’s Reserve, The Busker ‘Triple Cask Triple Smooth’, The Dubliner, and Teeling Blackpitts.
If you are a whiskey fan and have not tried all four variations of Irish Whiskey, you owe it to yourself to sample them all. You may discover a new favourite.