What is Irish Whiskey?

For a whiskey to be designated as Irish Whiskey, certain rules must be followed. In addition, there are 3 different Irish Whiskey varieties, each also with its own requirements. It's all a bit confusing, but by the time you're done reading this post, you'll be an expert. Let's get started!
What is Irish Whiskey?

Have you ever wondered, “Exactly, what is Irish Whiskey?” Well, wonder no more. To be designated an Irish Whiskey, certain rules must be followed. In addition, there are a few different varieties of Irish Whiskey, as well as a couple of additional points you’ll need to understand. It gets a little complicated, so buckle up, because here we go!

The Definition of Irish Whiskey

The U.S. Federal Code Title 27 recognizes Irish Whiskey as per the rules of Ireland. So let’s check those out from the Technical File Setting Out The Specifications With Which Irish Whiskey /Uisce Beatha Eireannach / Irish Whisky Must Comply. That document is from the Food Industry Development Division, Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, published in October 2014 in Ireland. It is very detailed, and includes the history of Irish Whiskey as well as the specifications and methods for producing it, and each of its variations.

Bushmill's Aged 16 Years - A Premium Single Malt Irish Whiskey
Bottle photo: Bushmills.com
Bushmill’s Aged 16 Years
A Premium Single Malt Irish Whiskey*
Rules From the Technical File

“Irish Whiskey/Uisce Beatha Eireannach/Irish Whisky” is a spirit distilled on the Island of Ireland, including Northern Ireland, from a mash of malted cereals with or without whole grains of other cereals and which has been:

  • (a) saccharified by the diastase of malt contained therein, with or without other natural enzymes;
  • (b) fermented by the action of yeast;
  • (c) distilled at an alcoholic strength of less than 94.8% by volume in such a way that the distillate has an aroma and taste derived from the materials used;
  • (d) subject to the maturation of the final distillate for at least three years in wooden casks, such as oak, not exceeding 700 litres capacity. (casks may be new or previously used)
  • The distillate, to which only water and plain caramel colouring (E150a) may be added, retains its colour, aroma and taste derived from the production process referred to in points (a) to (d).
  • Must be produced in Ireland

In addition, Irish Whiskey can not be exported in wooden barrels, and like all whiskeys, it must be bottled at no less than 80 proof. Bottling can take place outside of Ireland, however the whiskey must have been transported in inert containers such that no further maturation takes place. Also, when bottling offshore, the water used for proofing down the whiskey must be demineralized, such as not to alter the flavor. It may or may not be chill filtered.

Redbreast Aged 27 Years - A Premium Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey
Redbreast Aged 27 Years
A Premium Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey
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But Wait, There’s More!

So, the general rules of Irish Whiskey are pretty straightforward. Basically, they follow those of whiskey with the specific requirements that it has to age at least 3 years and must be produced in Ireland. However, things get a bit more complicated, because there are 3 distinct Irish Whiskey “varieties“. These each differ in their composition and production process. The three varieties are Pot Still, Malt and Grain. There’s also a 4th subtype, Blended, which is simply a blend of two or more of the other varieties.

Frootbat - Making hard to find liquor easy to buy

“Varieties” – What is Irish Whiskey?
  • Grain Irish Whiskey or Irish Grain Whiskey is produced from malted barley (not exceeding 30%) and includes whole unmalted cereals, usually maize, wheat or barley, and is distilled on continuous column stills. It is generally triple distilled, but may be double distilled, and usually to 94.5% alcohol by volume
  • Pot Still Irish Whiskey or Irish Pot Still Whiskey is a spirit distilled from a mash of a combination of unpeated malted barley, unmalted barley and other unmalted cereals. The mash must contain a minimum of 30% malted barley and a minimum of 30% unmalted barley and be distilled in pot stills. It is typically triple distilled, however double distilled is also acceptable. Large pot stills are usually used.
  • Malt Irish Whiskey or Irish Malt Whiskey is a spirit made from a mash of 100% malted barley and distilled in a pot still. The malted barley may be peated or unpeated. It may be double or triple distilled. Smaller pot stills are usually used.
  • Blended Irish Whiskey or Irish Blended Whiskey is any combination of 2 or more of the 3 varieties
Midleton Very Rare 2022 - A Premium Blended Irish Whiskey
Midleton Very Rare 2022
A Premium Blended Irish Whiskey
Frootbat - Making hard to find liquor easy to buy

What Does “Single” Mean?

The word “Single” on a label can be a bit confusing. It simply means that the whiskey is a product of one distillery. Therefore, if the label states “Single Malt Irish Whiskey” it simply means that the entire contents of the bottle were made at one distillery; whiskeys from multiple distilleries can not be used. It does not mean that only a single type of malt was used.

No, It Does NOT Have To Be Triple Distilled

I don’t know why this “fact” is repeated over and over, but it isn’t true. That is clearly stated in the rules above. Irish Whiskey can be either double or triple distilled. Triple distilled may be more common, but it is not a requirement.

Summary

Well, now you know the answer to the question, “What is Irish Whiskey?”. To sum it up, it follows the general rules of whiskey, with a few additions. First, it has to be distilled and aged in Ireland. Second, it must be aged at least 3 years in wooden casks. Third, it can contain no additives other than water and plain caramel coloring. In addition, there are three variants: Grain, Pot Still and Malt. There is a fourth variant, Blended Irish Whiskey, which is a blend of two or more of the variants. The word “Single” on the label indicates that the whiskey was distilled at a single distillery. And contrary to popular belief, it does not have to be triple distilled. So, there you have it. You now understand Irish Whiskey! Easy peasy! Cheers!☘️🥃


If you would like to learn more, then check out our article Bourbon Whiskey vs Irish Whiskey, where we review the specific differences between these two types of whiskeys. You also may be interested in these related reviews: Fighting 69th Single Malt Irish Whiskey Review, Keeper’s Heart Irish + Bourbon Review and Four Walls Irish American Whiskey Review.

*Some of the bottle shots used in the top of page collage and in the Bushmill’s Aged 16 Year photo are credited to various distilleries: midletondistillerycollection.com, properwhiskey.com & bushmills.com

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