Trade Spirits expert and Coe Vintners Head of Advocacy Alex Turner looks at Irish and Japanese whiskies - and makes some suggestions how you can add more depth and interest to your whiskey selection.
Whisky is defined as spirit distilled from fermented grain. It is usually aged in wooden barrels which are mostly made from oak. The word whisky or whiskey comes from the Gaelic ‘uisce/uisge beatha’ meaning ‘water of life’ and the addition of the ‘e’ is found on Irish and American whiskies, whereas Scottish, Canadian and Japanese whisky leave it out.
The Irish were the first people to distill whiskey in the 12th century (notice the e) around 200 years before the Scottish. It is likely that Irish monks learnt how to distil when travelling throughout the Middle East and Western Europe and they returned to Ireland and began to distil spirit for medicines. Barley is one of the main cereal crops in Ireland so it was with that the monks began to make a crude spirit which would be flavoured and sweetened to make it palatable, the spirit was not aged only stored and was consumed usually mixed with a little spring water.
Soon the farmers were also distilling their barley to make a spirit, this made sense as any barley they harvested that was not used for bread or feed could be distilled and then consumed throughout the cold winter months, it could also be used for bartering as well as medicines. The spirit was often stored in wooden barrels for convenience and if it was left long enough it would slowly take on some of the character of the wood.
Irish whiskey flourished in Ireland as well as having a huge market in the USA which led it to have bigger sales than Scotch or American whiskey, however there were a number of historically events that led to the decline of Irish whiskey sales around the world. Firstly, the Irish civil war and then partition of Ireland in the 1920’s led to import restrictions into Commonwealth countries and more importantly the introduction of Prohibition in America around the same time essentially removed Irish whiskies market overnight.
The impact was so devastating that most of the distilleries closed down and the ones that were left consolidated into three main distilleries; Bushmills in Northern Ireland and Midleton and Cooley in the south with these producing a significant amount of whiskey between them. For approximately forty years Irish whiskey performed very badly (12 million cases in 1900 down to less than half a million by 1980) whilst Scotch and American went from strength to strength. There has been a massive rise in the interest in Irish whiskey over the last decade or so and this has led to new distilleries being built and new brands emerging. In fact there has been a 400% increase in consumption in the US since 2002 and a 22.5% increase in 2012 (Distilled spirits council of the USA)
So what is the difference between Irish and the rest? Barley is the main grain used, although unlike Scotland it is not always malted and in most cases is dried using gas and not peat smoke, hence the lack of smoky character. The Irish produce three styles of whiskey; single malt whiskey (made from malted barley distilled in pot stills) single pot still whiskey (made from a blend of barley and malted barley and usually distilled three times) and blended whiskey (a blend of single pot still and continuously distilled grain whiskies). The triple distilled single pot still whiskey is the style most commonly associated with Irish whiskey and the process is unique to Ireland. However, blended whiskey is the most widely produced style
Once it is distilled it has to be matured in Ireland for at least three years, the barrels used are always oak which has usually be used to store something else first (bourbon, sherry, wine etc), occasionally it is brand new oak that will be used.
The sheer variety of spirits produced and different barrels used gives huge scope to the distiller and blender allowing them to create hundreds of different expressions of whiskey that will suit almost any palate.
So it is safe to say that if you don’t already stock an Irish whiskey or only have the brand leader it is worth having another look at this fast growing and important spirit.
Take a look at our product pages for our full range of Irish whiskies.
Whilst the Irish were making whisky first the Japanese are reasonably new to the game and only started to produce whisky commercially in the 1920’s. Much of the whisky produced in Japan is consumed domestically but in the last two decades or so it has started to gain a great reputation in the rest of the world. Blended whisky is the most popular style with brands like Hibiki being the biggest selling, however single malts such as Yamazaki and Yoichi are also very popular.
Japanese whisky is dominated by two big producers; Suntory and Nikka. Suntory was founded by Shinjio Torri who built the Yamazaki distillery near Kyoto, he employed Masataka Taketsuru as his director of production. Masataka was sent to Scotland to learn about whisky making, he returned to Suntory where he worked producing whisky before leaving to set up a new Yoichi distillery and founded company that was to become Nikka!
As they had learnt about whisky making in Scotland it is no surprise that Japanese whisky is made in a similar way to Scotch. However, unlike Scotch whisky the Japanese whisky makers do not trade with each other meaning that blended whiskies only contain liquid from one company and not a selection like in Scotland. As there is a limited supply the Japanese distilleries are at the cutting edge of innovation and are able to create many styles of whisky to create their blends.
Malted barley from Scotland is imported either peated or not, this is then double distilled in pot stills before being aged in oak barrels which are usually imported from the USA and Europe. In recent years the trend has been to ‘finish’ the whiskey in other woods including Japanese Mizunara oak. The climate in Japan is closer to Kentucky than Scotland so the spirit tends to mature quicker and impart more wood flavour into the whisky.
Blended whiskies are blended using single malt and grain whiskies, corn, wheat & un-malted barley are used, distilled using continuous stills, then matured.
Take a look at our product pages for the full range of Japanese whiskies available.