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Is it whiskey, or whisky? Does it matter how you spell it? Is an Irish whiskey really smoother than a Single Malt Scotch or a Kentucky Bourbon? And crucially, is one really better than the other? It’s fair to say that it’s not easy to navigate the world of whiskies - even for the most seasoned Scotch fans or avid Bourbon drinkers. Today we explain the origins of whiskey and what makes scotch, Irish whiskey and bourbon different from historical, craft and taste perspectives.
History of whisk(e)y
Whiskey has a long and colourful history spanning well over a millennium and that takes us all around the world. After alchemists in the Mediterranean invented the technique of distilling alcohol, travelling monks brought it over to Scotland and Ireland over a thousand years ago. Missing the abundant vineyards found in their native France and Spain, the monks instead began distilling local grains like wheat and barley, and so whiskey - or at the very least its distant ancestor - was born.
So whiskey is of Celtic origin: whiskey fanatics agree on this much at least!
However from here on the story gets more complicated as we begin splitting camps into Irish and Scotch whisky. This is why you’ll see us talk about both “whisky” and “whiskey” with an “e”: the former includes Scotch, Canadian and Japanese whiskies, whereas whiskey encompasses Irish, American and other varieties.
The dispute over who first created whiskey - the Irish or the Scots - is controversial to say the least. Both Irish and Scottish monks referred to whiskey as “aqua vitae” or “uisge beatha” (that’s “water of life” to you and me) from as early as the 11th century. Previously, it was thought the Scots were officially first past the finish line, with evidence that King James IV ordered a monk named Friar Cor to make him near 800 gallons of Scotch whisky in 1494. Recently however, written records of Irish whiskey from 1405 have surfaced in the Annals of Clonmacnoise, predating Scotch by almost a century. We may never know for sure who really came first, as many Scottish and Irish records were passed down orally rather than written, but they are certainly great stories to enjoy with a dram or two.
Thankfully for whiskey fans, Bourbon has somewhat less controversial origins. It takes its name from Bourbon County, Kentucky, after British and Irish immigrants crossed the pond in the 17th century; that’s why American whiskey is also spelt with an “e”, like Irish whiskey. Missing the whiskey from their homeland, Irish settlers used corn rather than barley to distill their own spirit, and created a much sweeter version in the process.
What is the difference in taste between Whiskey, Scotch and Bourbon?
Despite being close cousins, Scotch, Bourbon and Irish whiskey each have very distinctive characteristics. The final flavour of your favourite dram is driven by a whole host of factors including what the base spirit is made from, how many times the spirit is distilled, and the types of barrels used to age the whiskey. The craft element is hugely important when making whisky, and even the smallest of changes made by the Master Distillers can account for big differences in flavour!
Irish whiskey needs to follow a couple of simple rules to be legally considered as such: mainly that it must be aged in wooden barrels in Ireland for at least 3 years and 1 day. Thanks to the tradition of triple distilling Irish whiskey, many whiskey drinkers claim that it is usually lighter and smoother than its cousins, Scotch and Bourbon. Additionally, Irish whiskey is traditionally crafted with unmalted barley, giving it more of a more mellow, vanilla flavour.
Much like Irish whiskey, Scotch has to be distilled in Scotland and aged there in oak barrels (which can be no larger than 700L) for at least three years and one day, before being bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV. It is generally thought of as more full bodied, or even fiery, thanks to the use of malted barley and generally only being distilled twice, but the flavour varies hugely depending on the local style and each distillery’s own secret recipes.
Despite being associated so strongly with Kentucky - where 95% of the world’s bourbon comes from - bourbon can be made anywhere in the USA. Bourbons can feature rye, wheat, and barley, but must always be made from at least 51% corn, which is what makes it a much sweeter sip than Scotch or Irish Whiskey. Bourbon also has to be matured in unused, charred oak barrels, which is what gives it a notably spicier flavour than its Celtic counterparts.
What does Patrick think?
Naturally our very own Master Mixologist, Patrick Pistolesi, has a personal love affair with Irish Whiskey on account of his Irish roots - but as a whiskey drinker he also enjoys whisky from across the spectrum. We asked him how he would sum up three of the whiskies in our collection, and why he wanted to work with them.
“We have massive differences between these three wonderful liquids. Each one of them represents the very best of where they are from. Bulleit, which you can find in our Whiskey Box, is a classic American bourbon with a round, vanilla taste - a true sip of the United States. The Singleton of Dufftown has a strong Scottish personality, rich in allspice and nutty flavors. And last but not least we have Teeling, a must-have in your Irish whiskey collection. Super mellow, with plenty of spice and fruit - this is a quintessential taste of Ireland that’s perfect for any palate”.
So, is one really better than the other?
While each whiskey has its own impressive histories and accolades, our honest answer to this question is: whichever you prefer! All three have their own unique qualities that lend themselves to mixing a great cocktail. Scotch whisky’s full-bodied flavours would appeal to anyone who loves a more spirit-forward cocktail, although our Singleton Plus Two Box is an ideal introduction to scotch thanks to Singleton’s smooth yet rich flavour profile. Irish whiskey’s lighter flavours makes it easy to mix with unconventional ingredients, like the Irish Emerald cocktail in our NIO x Teeling Box. Finally, bourbon’s easygoing sweetness and soft spice mixes well in both classic cocktails, like the Manhattan, or with more adventurous flavours found in the NIO x Rebel Box.
Whether you are shopping for a whiskey novice, or are a seasoned scotch enthusiast, NIO Cocktails has a cocktail to please every palette. Browse all our exclusive, limited-edition whiskey gift sets or check out our Father’s Day Gift Guide.