Irish Whiskey doesn't get the praise that it should, we reckon. Ireland was, after all, the birthplace to whiskey and have spent centuries refining it to the pure brilliance it is today. No-one is quite sure of the exact date, year, or even century that it was first produced in Ireland - though we do have on record that it was enjoyed at Christmas time in the beginning of the 15th century. Since its birthplace whiskey has been known to many as 'the water of life'. In fact it was immortalised in the first English dictionary, written by Dr Samuel Johnson in 1755, as 'usquebaugh' - an Irish word meaning 'a compounded, distilled spirit being drawn of aromatiks [sic], and the Irish sort is particularly distinguished for its pleasant and mild flavour'.
Over the last 3 centuries Irish Whiskey has seen a massive decline. Tax after tax, friars parading the sin of the 'demon drink', and laws banning grain usage and importation have all lead to shrinking population of distilleries in Ireland. In fact there are now only three which still stand, and all the various brands are all produced between them.
The Three Distilleries
With an incredibly high production capacity helped by using the world's largest pot still (holds up to 141,000 litres at one time!) it produces the bulk of it all. The distillery is expansive with many stills; pots and columns, big and small. With this diversity of stills they are able to produce a wide range of styles to pure barley to pure grain to pure pot-still and occasionally a peated whiskey.
Most likely the most well known distillery of them all. The second oldest of the three, founded in 1784, which gives this a rich history. Over the years they have produced a wide range of styles and exported most of it to the Americas. Now Bushmills focus on their main label 'Bushmills' and produce only malt whiskeys from Irish-only barley.
Cooley was established in the late 1930s to produce methylated spirits. It has since expanded into top end whiskey as well as helping to produce the base spirit for many big name liqueurs - such as Baileys. With an eye on enterprise Cooley have always been known for producing a wide range of whiskeys. They use peat, grain, barley and corn - where most use solely barley or grain.
There is a law that stipulates that all Irish Whiskey must be distilled three times in order to be legally labelled as an Irish Whiskey. Each of these three distillations have different purposes. The first is to remove unwanted aromatics/compounds, the second (intermediate) is to attain pure aromatics, and the final (spirit) distillation is to refine the final distillate. The final distillate then must be aged for a minimum of three years before it can be, finally, called Irish Whiskey or sold as such.
There are four styles of Irish Whiskey: pure pot-still, blends, single malt or single grain.
Pure pot-still whiskey is unique to Ireland which gives a particular character unfound anywhere else. These also are made up of a mash of malted and un-malted barley - again all to create a pure and unique expression of Irish Whiskey.
Corn is allowed to be used in the blended Irish Whiskeys and, in fact, will make up the majority of the base due to its cost. It isn't solely cost that the corn will give to the resulting whiskey - it is believed that it helps to give a richer and smoother texture.