Irish whiskey is going through a new renaissance as consumers all over the world re-discover what the category has to offer! Thankfully the category has enough international recognition to be considered one of the main whiskey producing regions in the world and as such, lots of people can recite little bits about the category. But with so many people with so many points of view and opinions, it’s sometimes hard to know what is fact and what is fiction!
Thus, this article is intended to debunk some of the common myths around Irish whiskey and to highlight some of things to look out for when buying Irish!
If you’re a connoisseur or a new arrival to the category you might find a lot of the things that are touted as gospel turn out to be common misconceptions. This article is broken down into categories: Myths around the legal definitions of Irish Whiskey, General Myths about the category and finally myths spawning from the world of Marketing.
Myths about the legal definition of Irish Whiskey
Myth: Irish Whiskey isn’t as legally well defined as Scotch.
False: This is a myth that I come across this quite regularly on line and I get asked about during tastings. This myth is one of the few rooted in some form of truth. Scotch whisky has been legally well defined for years. Irish whiskey on the other hand, has had several decade of extremely loose legal framework detailed in the Irish Whiskey Acts of 1950 & 1980. It was due to these loosely defined acts that the myth grew. The reason that it is a myth is because it is no longer true, but people don’t seem to realize it. The Irish Whiskey Technical File, which was published in 2014, gives strong legal definition to what can and cannot be defined as Irish whiskey. Thus ending the years of Irish whiskey being less well defined than Scotch.
Myth: Irish whiskey has to be Triple Distilled.
False: A common misconception in the world of whiskey is that Irish whiskey has to be triple distilled. The number of distillations required for Irish whiskey was never legally defined in any of the acts. It is true that Irish whiskey is mostly triple distilled although there are exceptions such as the whiskeys that come from Cooley distillery (Connemara, Tyrconnel etc.) that are all double distilled. Just in same way that there are distilleries in Scotland, like Auchentoshan distillery in the Scottish Lowlands, who distill three times.
Myth: Irish whiskey must be matured in Oak.
False: This is a misconception that gets thrown around a lot. I have seen many brands and distilleries putting this misconception on their websites as to what defines Irish whiskey. The definition actually states that the spirit must be matured in wooden casks “such as oak”. Oak happens to be the most common type of hardwood used in barrels in Ireland today but others could be used. The main challenge being faced when creating barrels out of other hardwoods is the tightness of the grain. Oak has very tight grain and holds liquid extremely well and seepage is minimal.
Myth: Irish whiskey must be matured three years and a day to be legally called whiskey.
False: I’m actually not sure which is more commonly spread as gospel, this or the oak myth above. Irish whiskey, in all of its technical acts, become whiskey after three years. This is the same length of time as our neighbours in Scotland. This is because our legal age limits on whisk(e)y were written into law by the same act in 1915. The addition of the day to the three years seems to be a long held kind of good luck tradition for the times when the distillers didn’t remember what day they laid the cask on. So adding a day made sure in their heads it was definitely three years. This tradition has now made its way into whiskey society as an incorrect legal definition of the spirit. This shows up all over the internet on different companies’ websites but like most of the above myths, the real answers can be found in the Irish whiskey act or the technical file.
Myth: Irish whiskey can’t be made in Northern Ireland.
False: This is one I’ve heard on several occasions. Like rugby, distilling is an all island activity and the cousins to the North are most certainly not excluded at all. Sure, when has anyone ever heard of Bushmills Not being called an Irish whiskey?
Myth: All Irish whiskey styles can be made in either a pot still or a column still.
False: As set by the Irish Whiskey Technical Act, Pot Still and Single Malt whiskey cannot be made in column stills and as such must be produced in pot stills. Where the confusion seems to lie is in-fact with Grain whiskey, which cannot be produced in pot stills like the other two varieties of whiskey. I’ve heard from a number of people that grain spirit is being run through column stills in Ireland and if it is then it legally falls under a category that more defines what it isn’t rather than what it is. Interesting to see how that’s dealt with if it turns out to be true.
Myth: Poitín is illegal.
False: While not technically whiskey, Poitín is being included due to how intrinsecly tied the two products are. Poitín, which had been relegated to the secluded barns and sheds, has been legal for several years at this point. It received its European Union Geographical Indicator in 2008 and the full technical file on Poitín can be found here.
Myth: Whiskey in Ireland has to be spelled with an “E”.
False: The origins regarding the E in the word whiskey has been controversial for a long time. What we do know is that, Irish whiskey wasn’t always spelled with an E. There were tonnes of brands across the island of Ireland that spelled their whisky without the E. Examples include, Paddy Whisky from Cork Distilleries Company, Kinahan’s Whisky and Tyrconnel Whisky. This isn’t all just ancient history, in-fact, up until 1975 whiskey in Ireland had both spellings commonly in the market and both spellings are still allowed under the current legislation.
Myth: You can mature Irish whiskey outside of Ireland.
False: According to all of the acts written about the spirit, whiskey must be matured and aged on the island of Ireland to be called ‘Irish Whiskey’. Any spirits that are distilled here and matured elsewhere are not legally permitted to be called Irish whiskey. Thus companies, like Mosswood distillers, in the United States who purchase casks of Irish whiskey and continue to age them outside of Ireland cannot claim that they are Irish whiskey. Bodies like the Irish Whiskey Association have been set up to represent the booming category and any infringements in any of the acts can be brought to their attention.
Myth: You can only make Irish whiskey from Barley and Corn.
False: Irish whiskey currently being made using alcohol made from barley and corn but this doesn’t have to be the case and it wasn’t always. For many years other grains such as oats and wheat would have been extremely prominent in the making of whiskey in Ireland. Furthermore, there are records of Andrew Jameson (director of Jameson Whiskey in the early 1900’s) saying that he was unable to source his rye from Ireland at the turn of the 1900’s. So there was a medley of grains used in the production of Irish whiskey for generations. Barley only is a modern invention but thanks to the Irish Whiskey Technical File this may change because it defines the mash used to create pot still whiskey must contain at least 30% malted barley and 30% unmalted barley but the remaining 40% can be other grains as the distiller sees fit.
Myth: Irish whiskey isn’t peated, like Scotch.
False: Irish whiskey finds its roots in peated distillation, just like Scotch. When whiskey was still a household activity peat (or turf as it is commonly known as in Ireland) would have been the central flavours of most poitíns and whiskey. Even as the larger distilleries in Dublin were using smokeless fuel, like anthracite, distilleries in the countryside would have relied on peat as a fuel source to dry their grains. Today, Connemara is the only peated whiskey in Ireland but distilleries such as Teeling Whiskey Company have been recently distilling peated malt. So we should be seeing more and more in the coming years.
General Misconceptions in Irish Whiskey
Myth: Jameson is a Catholic whiskey and Bushmills is a Protestant whiskey.
False: This is a myth that has been doing the rounds for years. These days it primarily exists as a myth outside of Ireland. It states that Catholic’s and Protestants have loyalties to certain whiskeys that in turn have loyalties to certain religions. The myth is most certainly false. Regardless of people’s opinions when ordering drinks, neither Jameson or Bushmills were Catholic whiskeys. John Jameson was a Scottish Presbyterian, which makes both of these distilleries Protestant distilleries, funnily enough. If you really wanted to find a Catholic distillery, Powers is your only real choice for distilleries of this era. To add to the strange nature of this myth, when this myth started to do the rounds Bushmills and Jameson were actually both owned by Irish Distillers making them apart of the same company.
Myth: Irish whiskey is smooth because it is triple distilled.
False: “Smoothness” in Irish whiskey is a creation of the modern day blender to compete with blended Scotches, like Johnnie Walker. Traditional pot still Irish whiskey was full of lovely spices and oils that made for creamy, yet prickly mouthfeels. These were also triple distilled (with some exceptions) and they were not whiskeys to be described by their smoothness. If Irish whiskey was smooth because it was triple distilled then by this logic more distillations equals a smoother spirit. As such that would mean that vodka, which is fractionally distilled like 40+ times, would be the smoothest alcohol in the world…
Myth: ‘Dram’ is an Irish word.
False: Dram is a word that has been brought into the global whiskey lexicon by makers of whisky hailing from Scotland. As Irish whiskey becomes more popular there seems to be a small amount of confusion around the origins of the word itself. ‘Dram’ is most certainly a Scottish word. If you were looking for an Irish word to use instead of ‘dram’ when speaking about Irish whiskey you could use ‘Taoscán’. This is a word that basically means “an un-specified amount”. Thus it can be used in the exact same way as ‘dram’: “I’d love a dram of Lagavulin right now” or “I’d love a taoscán of Greenspot right now”.
Myths Coming from Marketing
A lot of myths in Irish whiskey a born from misunderstandings to do with marketing. Furthermore, in a few isolated cases, marketers are intentionally pushing the boundaries of ‘creative marketing’ and this is leading to a lot of mis-truths being perpetuated in the Irish whiskey market. This section will just work to clear up a few of these and arm you with the right questions when faced with a bottle of whiskey that you’ve never seen before.
Myth: Bushmills Distillery was built in 1608, making it the oldest distillery in the world.
False: Bushmills distillery was actually built in 1784 and traded for many years with this year as its date of establishment. 1608, the date on Bushmills labels today, refers to the date of the first licence to distil in the region. It was a licence granted by the British government to the region in 1608, which was 176 years before Bushmills was established.
The 1608 establishment date was only attached to the Bushmills label in around the 70’s/80’s era. At this point there were no other distilleries in the province to challenge the acquisition of the title. That said, Bushmills today’s do not claim to be the world’s oldest distillery. Nor do they claim that they were built in 1608, although, it appears that the addition of 1608 the label has caused a slight amount of confusion over the matter.
Myth: Jameson is made at “The Bow Street Distillery”.
False: This is a misconception that a lot of people have in regards to Jameson whiskey. I think this is a simple misconception. I think this is rooted in the front label of Jameson original. Written across it are the words: “Triple Distilled, Matured & Bottled in Ireland. (Return Space) The Bow St. Distillery, Dublin 7, Ireland”.
The Bow Street distillery is the original birthplace of Jameson whiskey but today the building stands as a museum to the distilling that once took place there. Distilling ceased in Bow Street in the 1970’s before eventually moving to Midleton distillery where it is produced now. I believe that this address still stands as the business address for Jameson whiskey but has created some confusion with tourists who come to Dublin expecting to see Jameson whiskey distilled.
Myth: There are dozens of Irish whiskey distilleries.
Kinda False: There are dozens of distilleries popping up all over Ireland at the minute. Most of them intend to produce whiskey in some shape or form, although, there are only approximately six distilleries in Ireland producing whiskey at the moment. This is simply due to most of the distilleries being too young to have stock that is legally able to be called whiskey. These distilleries are: New Midleton, Old Bushmills, Cooley, Kilbeggan, West Cork Distillers and Dingle Distillery.
Myth: All brands of Irish whiskey have their own distilleries.
False: As we see Irish whiskey explode in popularity we see the amount of independent bottlings explode too. There are hundreds on the market both in Ireland and abroad at the moment. As we see in the myth above there are only six distilleries with stock of their own whiskey in Ireland. Due to there being so few Irish distilleries actually having their own stock over three years old the majority of these new brands are sourced from ex-Cooley or ex-Bushmills stocks.
Myth: Single Malt whiskey is the traditional style of Irish whiskey.
False: The new brands of Irish whiskey are often trying to establish a provenance for themselves wherever they can. In many cases these brands refer to their whiskey being historic or the traditional style of Irish whiskey, which is just not true. The traditional style is pot still whiskey, which is currently only produced by Midleton distillery. Single malt has been produced in Ireland for many years but it is more traditionally akin to Scotland rather than Ireland. These brands are simply incorrectly marketing their single malt as the traditional style from Ireland because it sounds more romantic.
Myth: The label always tells the truth.
Nonsense: I felt that this point needed a stronger word than false. Sadly, people can almost put anything on a label these days. These mistruths spread from what I call “creative marketing” all the way up to straight lying.
There are some companies that resurrect old brands that used to exist in Ireland in days gone by. In many of these cases these new companies will take the establishment date of the company that they are resurrecting. They will continue to “pay homage” to their company’s history of distilling or bonding and this is where my idea of creative marketing comes in. For example, the current company trading as Egan’s Irish whiskey was most certainly not established in 1852, nor is their whiskey bottled in Tullamore or the “heart of Ireland” any more. Finally, the company is not 160 years old, like they claim, but its all in the name of marketing right?
Thankfully they aren’t saying that it’s the exact same whiskey in the bottle since 1852. Others are trying that and I hope consumers are seeing through it. In the end of the day they are trying to pay homage to Egan’s company of Tullamore which was a very interesting and very successful bonding company established in 1852. The new company appears to be a relative who is somewhere down the family tree that has resurrected the brand in 2014/15.
There are other companies which move from creative marketing to more unfamiliar territories which straddles a difficult line of confusing consumers and misleading customers. One of the biggest reasons I am not a fan of these marketing techniques or creative advertising is the damage it could do to the Irish whiskey industry. Break consumer confidence and you can break an industry.
Egan’s aren’t the only company resurrecting old family names. Kinahan’s was a family owned business in the 1800’s that bonded whiskey and sold wine all over the world. They were an incredibly interesting and import company in Dublin. They had a large role to play in spreading the good word of Irish whiskey around the world in the 1800’s and achieved many accolades for the quality of its finished product.
Sadly, companies who have resurrected this brand are playing hard and fast with bot history and marketing. The current Kinahan’s brand was established circa 2014 and sells predominantly in the United States. Unfortunately, they perpetuate a lot of questionable information around their product. They are claiming accolades that were awarded to a whisky of the same name from a different century. One of the accolades that they tout the most was a comment from a bar tender/author in 1862. They claim that Kinahan’s was “Jerry Thomas’ preferred whisky” which is sort of true. He liked the original Kinahan’s in cold punch. This has nothing to do with the current product. You cannot pick up a bottle of Kinahan’s without seeing Jerry Thomas’ name all over it.
When examining the label further we see that the company is proudly displaying their Irish roots with their office on Trinity Street, the original street Kinahan’s was registered on in 1779. So fair play, they’ve got a business address of 6-9 Trinity Street and funnily enough you can too! For just €20 a month Dublin Serviced Offices will allow you to register your business at their address, which is 6-9 Trinity Street, Dublin 2.
Unfortunately, its not just resurrected brands that change their date of establishment. In the south of Ireland, West Cork Distillers are distilling away and producing a menagerie of brands for markets all over the world. They use their own stocks alongside stocks sourced externally (E.g. ex-Cooley). Which is great to see an Irish distillery doing great business the world over.
What’s not so great to see is the label. Examining the new labels of West Cork Whiskey a little closer we can see that the gold shield bears the year ‘2003’.
This was not the original date of the establishment of this company. The company was established by three friends; John O’Connel, Gerard McCarthy and Denis McCarthy. The location of the establishment was the Union Hall, West Cork and the year of establishment was 2008. I don’t know why they would change the date on the bottles to say 2003. I’m not sure what the reason to look older is so I went checking to see where it might have come from. Their website claims that the distillery was established then, although, several sources including John himself will refute that. Check out this video of John O’Connel himself explaining how West Cork Distillers was established in 2008. Jump to 0:40 to skip the intro and hear from John himself.
Update: After speaking to the team in West Cork Distillers, I have been informed that WWC as we know it today was in-fact established in 2008. Although, they inform me that they previously had a company in Cork registered in 2003. I have been informed that this was where they began experimenting with the process of distilling.
They have commented that the information in public domain is confusing and I am pleased to report that West Cork are now taking steps to improve their communication of information with stakeholders and with their consumers within the whiskey industry. Hopefully soon we will have more information share regarding West Cork Distillers.
So there we have it. Some myths about Irish whiskey debunked and some things to look out for when you see new brands of Irish whiskeys on the shelves. All is not what it appears all of the time but Ireland still produces amazing spirit and I hope that this makes the enjoyment all the better for (hopefully) knowing a little bit more about the category. If you have learned something new or think that something was left out let me know in the comments!
As always, to good health.
P.S. Special thanks to David Cummins, Nick Ligon and Willie Murphy for their insights into this topic.