Confused About Whisky… or Whiskey? Grain or Malt? Chill-filtering? Which Glass To Use? Answers To All These Questions And More

In this post:

  • difference between Irish whiskey and Scotch whisky
  • jargon-busting whisky glossary – every term you’ve heard explained
  • the best whisky glass
  • how to store whisky
  • how whisky is made
  • which chocolate to eat with it
  • random fact
  • films about whisky

What is the difference between Irish Whiskey and Scotch Whisky?

Well, it’s more than just an ‘e’.

The main difference is that, except for Cooley’s Connemara whiskey, Irish barley is not dried over peat fires, it’s dried in closed ovens, no smoke touches the malt. The result of that (and the more typical extra distillation) is a smoother taste….. and that’s not necessarily a good thing (see maple syrup).

You might not expect it because today Scotch whisky is much better known, and made in far greater quantities, but before Victoria it was the reverse, and the first written reference (1405) to whisky was made in the Irish manuscript, Annals of Clonmacnoise, where it talks about an Irish chieftain dying from a surfeit of whiskey (‘aqua vitae’) at Christmas.

The Latin for distilled alcohol was aqua vitae – water of life. In Scotland this was translated into Gaelic as uisge beatha … and by the early eighteenth century it had migrated into English as ‘usquebae’.

In Paul Torday’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, the sheik justifies his weakness for whisky explaining that although in the Yemen he never drinks alcohol, when he discovered that the origins of the word ‘whisky’ stemmed from ‘water of life’, he thought that Allah would understand and would pardon him if he drank a little of it in Scotland from time to time.

Scotch whisky is controlled by the Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009, and it is also a Protected Geographical Indication. Irish whiskey also has a PGI and is covered by the Irish Whiskey Act 1980. For more information about PGIs follow this link.

The differences between Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey




regulationsmust be distilled in Scotland. Must be matured a minimum of three years. ‘Age statement’ refers to the youngest whisky contained thereinmust be distilled in Ireland. Must be matured a minimum of three years
distillationusually twice, often moreusually three times, except for the Connemara* whiskey, made at the Cooley distillery, now owned by the US company Beam (makers of Jim Beam bourbon)
made fromeither grain or malt (barley which has been allowed to sprout and then is dried – the process is called ‘malting’)either grain or malt, OR, in the case of single pot still whiskey, from a mixed mash of malted barley and unmalted, green barley. Green Spot is an example of a pot still whiskey.
 many are peated – the smoke used to dry the sprouted barley is made from burning peat – Battle of the TitansConnemara* is the only Irish peat whiskey generally available
matured inoakwood not specified
made inmalt whisky is made in copper-lined pot stills. column stills are used mostly for making grain whiskyboth column stills and pot stills

*unlike most Irish whiskeys this is a peated malt whiskey and all Cooley’s whiskeys are only double distilled (to preserve the flavour). It’s aged in bourbon casks.  There is a high-peat version called Turf Mór which is not listed in 101 whiskies to try before you die… but I think I might just give it a go!

jargon busting whisky glossary:

single whisky: from only one distillery

blended whisky: a mix of grain and malt whiskies

grain whisky: a whisky made of grain – maize (corn), wheat, rye, or, usually, non-malted barley (but see below regarding what is used at North British).

single pot still whiskey: unique to Ireland in general and to the Midleton Distillery in particular. It’s made from a mash of malted and unmalted barley, which is then triple distilled in copper pot still. It’s the inclusion of unmalted barley and the triple distillation which gives it its particular taste. The Midleton range includes Redbreast, Spot whiskeys (see Green Spot), Powers and Midleton. Redbreast produces a particularly nice 15 year old which is not chill-filtered, with a taste of mangoes, honey and cinnamon.

chill filter: chill filtering is an industrial process which gets rid of any cloudiness which occurs when whisky is cooled – eg served ‘on the rocks’ – something which the North American market didn’t really like (could there be something ‘wrong’ with the whisky?). It also removes sediment. The whisky is cooled enabling the cause of the cloudiness – fatty acids, proteins and esters to be filtered out. Whisky enthusiasts maintain that the process impairs the taste, but a recent study by Horst Lüning shows that most people can’t tell the difference.

single grain whisky: a grain whisky from only one distillery. Some of the best are:

  • Darkness! North British – see above
  • Nikka Coffey Grain – Japanese, a little like bourbon
  • The Girvan Patent Still – the 25 year old and 30 year old are both good
  • The Cally – The Caledonian Distillery which closed in 1988 – 40 year old bottles of grain whisky are still available – follow this link.
  • Haig Club – smooth and creamy
  • Hedonism Quindecimus – a blend produced by Compass Box – a fifteen year anniversary celebratory bottling made with whiskies from now defunct distilleries

Most is used in making blended whisky (60-85% of a blended whisky will be grain usually) but it is also a whisky in its own right, as in Darkness! North British 18 Years Old Oloroso Cask Finish which has just won the prize for World’s Best Grain Whisky. As Rona Andrew of North British Distillery explains, “North British Single Grain is made from four ingredients – yeast, water , barley (used for its enzyme content for the starch conversion) and grain( this has to be a single type – it can’t be mixed grains – we are currently on maize and maize is what would have been used for the Darkness! winner). When single grain is bottled it cannot be blended with any other whisky spirit .

The barley that is used is the preference of the distillers. At the North British we use mainly Green malt (barley that has been germinated but not dried) and small proportion of dried malt”

malt whisky: whisky made only from malted barley

single malt whisky: malt whisky from only one distillery – and usually with an ‘age statement’ – that is to say that the youngest malt whisky it contains is older than the three years minimum

cask strength: The strength it is when stored in the cask – some 60-70%, rather than the watered-down ‘bottle’ strength of just over 40% ABV (alcohol by volume)

Which is the best whisky glass?

In early 1992, a panel of Scotch whisky experts convened at headquarters of Riedel (better known for their recommended wine glasses) in Austria to test a range of nineteen different glass shapes. They must have had fun.

Georg Riedel then undertook further research with the help of some master distillers in Scotland.

This research resulted in a glass that is an elongated tulip shape on a truncated stem. The design incorporates a small, slightly outturned lip which directs the spirit first onto the tip of the tongue – the part which tastes ‘sweet’. Available, of course, on Amazon – the difference between the set of two and the ‘sommelier’ is that the pair are machine made and the ‘sommelier’ is mouth-blown and handmade. They are both exactly the same size and shape.

Personally, I usually drink my whisky in a brandy glass, but the experts at Riedel say that these ’emphasise the alcohol at the expense of finesse’, while they warn that a sherry glass magnifies ‘the oak components to such an extent that the whisky begins to take on cognac-like characteristics.’ – hmm, I must try that sometime. Or perhaps, more traditionally, I should try a quaich – see ‘films’ below.

which is the best glass for whisky
The best glass, research shows, is a tulip shape.

How should whisky be stored?

Store your bottles of whisky upright, somewhere cool, dry, and dark – if it’s not dark it will lose its colour.

How is malt whisky made – a quick, clear and not-boring explanation

Malting – barley is soaked in water until it begins to germinate – then it’s dried – it’s then known as malt.

Mashing – the malt is then ground until it becomes grist (yes, as in It’s all grist to the mill…). It’s soaked in hot water to which yeast is added in order to begin fermentation. When that process is complete the finished product is known as wash.

Distillation – the wash is then distilled in lovely copper pot-shaped stills in order to further purify the alcohol

Maturation – in oak casks

Which chocolate to eat with it?

Go to Iain Burnett, the Highland chocolatier, who makes chocolates specifically to pair with whisky – Caol Ila 12 year old for example goes with an espresso truffle… hmmm. Must try those.

And finally…. not a lot of people know…

….the smoky deformation of this garnet is known in the jewellery trade as ‘Scotch and Water’.

Scotch and water
Scotch and water

Introducing a Frenchman to the delights of whisky

In his debut book on Bruno, the delightful Chief of Police in a small town in Pergord, Martin Walker has his hero introduced to whisky by a very attractive red-head. This is how she briefs him:

““‘And now I want you to try this as your digestif instead of cognac. It’s a Scotch malt whisky, which is to ordinary whisky what a great chateau wine is to vin ordinaire. This one is called Lagavullin, and it comes from the island where my grandmother was born, so it has a taste of peat and the sea.’ ‘You sip it like cognac?’ ‘My father brought me up to sniff it first, a really long sniff, then to take the tiniest sip and roll it around your mouth until it evaporates, and then take a deep breath through your mouth so you feel the flavour all down your throat. Then you take a proper sip.’ ‘It feels warm all the way down,’ said Bruno, after taking his deep breath. ‘That’s very good indeed,’ he said, after a long sip. ‘A most unusual smoky taste, but a very satisfying digestif after a wonderful meal and a great conversation. I feel that I’ve learned a lot. Thank you both.’”

Martin Walker, Death in the Dordogne

Whisky Films

If you’re interested in whisky you might enjoy the film, The Angels’ Share. Be aware it has some fairly gross scenes. The whisky specialist, Charles MacLean, current Keeper of the Quaich (pronounced quaik), is played in the film by himself. The Quaich is an ancient Celtic drinking vessel (supposedly based on a scallop shell – for some beautiful examples go to my Water of Life pinterest board) and its keepers are part of an invitation-only club, founded in 1988, of leading figures in the Scotch whisky world.

Alternatively you could try the 1949 classic, Whisky Galore, where a ship with a full cargo of whisky sinks off the Outer Hebrides during a hard wartime drought of drams.

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