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Irish Whiskey vs American Whiskey: Whats the Difference?

By Alec L Stein

With St. Patrick’s Day sneaking up on us, we at Garfield’s thought this would be the perfect time to answer a question we are often asked: What’s the difference between Irish and American whiskies? The short answer is that one is distilled and aged in Ireland and the other in the United States, but you probably figured that much out already. As with most questions we get, the actual answer is a bit more complicated.

American Whiskey

Unlike many spirits and liquors, the American version of whiskey can encompass a wide array of mashes, distilling processes, and aging. The primary versions of the liquor include bourbon, rye, rye malt, malt, wheat, Tennessee, and corn whiskeys, respectively. And even that list still doesn’t mention the array of blends. For the sake of simplicity we will focus on the most popular two: bourbon and rye.

Bourbon

Though most people think of Kentucky and its famous Bourbon Trail when they think of bourbon, bourbon whiskey can be produced anywhere within the United States.

There is not much room for debate on what sort of whiskies constitute bourbon and what don’t, because federal regulations lay out the defintion pretty clearly. In order for a whiskey to be considered bourbon it must meet all of the following requirements:

  • Produced in the United States
  • Made from a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn
  • Aged in new, charred oak containers
  • Distilled to no more than 160 proof
  • Entered into the container for aging at no more than 125 proof
  • Bottled at 80 proof or more

When you look at this list, there are two primary components that give bourbon its distinct taste. This is the percentage of corn in the mashbill, and the charred oak barrel, which provides bourbon its color and imparts unique flavors and aromas as it interacts with the whiskey while it ages.

Beginner Recommendations:

Rye

American rye follows the same legal requirements listed for bourbon, just substitute the 51% corn mash for 51% rye. Rye itself is a grass grain, closely related to wheat, and it provides the whiskey a much more dry tone and spicy flavor profile. 

An interesting point in regards to the mash, is that rye distillers tend to lean into this spicy taste. The mash for bourbon often peaks at around 70% corn in traditional whiskeys, with the remaining portion being divided amongst grains such as barley, wheat, or even rye. On the other hand, it is not at all uncommon to find rye whiskies that use a mash bill of 90% rye or more. This gives rye whiskey its distinct and more intense “punch.”

Beginner Recommendations:

Irish Whiskey

The term whiskey actually comes from the Gaelic term Uisce Beatha (ish-keh ba-ha) which means “water of life”. Needless to say, the Irish are quite passionate about their whiskey. And much like its American “counterpart”, there are stipulations on what can be labeled Irish Whiskey including:

  • Produced and matured in Ireland
  • Aged in wooden barrels for a minimum of three years
  • Distilled to no more than 94.8% ABV (189.6 proof)
  • Bottled at no less than 40% ABV (80 proof)

There are also a few practices that are not required by regulations but tend to be industry standard. In particular, the mash normally consists of malted barley and the whiskey undergoes distillation three separate times.

It’s the latter practice, the triple distillation, that gives Irish whiskey it’s distinct smooth taste. Often described as “light” and “fruity” when compared to bourbon, Irish whiskey is viewed by some as a superior choice for drinking straight, while bourbon is better reserved for cocktails. But, as with all things alcohol, this is purely a matter of preference (we’ve always been a bit partial to straight bourbon and Irish whiskey in coffee).

Beginner Recommendations:

Conclusion

As you can see, the differences in Irish and American whiskies does stretch beyond simply the country of origin. The mashes used in both bourbon and rye account for a near infinite combination of sweet and spicy flavors, while the increased distillation of Irish whiskey offers a clean profile that can be enjoyed by almost any whiskey drinker, from beginners to seasoned veterans.

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