Whiskey Wars! Comparing Irish Whisky vs. American Whiskey

Serve any Picklebacks lately? The quirky drink, a double shot ritual of Irish whiskey and pickle brine, exploded in popularity a couple of years ago, catching the attention of hipster bartenders and their young customers, adding yet another boost to the rocketing popularity of Irish whiskey in the U.S.

The Pickleback is just one landmark in the growing trend to return Irish to its pre-Prohibition standing as the country’s favorite imported whiskey. Sales continue to surge year over year in the double digits from a rather small base but now well above 1.5 million cases.

Despite the surge, Irish pales in comparison, in sales, interest, and, usually, hue, to the better quality American whiskies – bourbon, rye, Tennessee and, these days, the small world of micro distillers and their wares, which include unaged white whiskey now even sold by the major distillers.

The differences are easy enough to tease out: Most Irish whisky brands are distilled three times (though double-distilled variants are widely available) resulting in Irish’s reputation as an easy drinking, light whiskey. Barley is the main ingredient, and while there are numerous single malts (Tyrconnell, Bushmills, Michael Collins and Connemara come to mind), the blended whiskies from Jameson, Bushmills and Tullamore Dew are best known and most popular. The Irish also make something called pot-still whiskey, a mix of malted and unmalted barely made exclusively in copper pot stills that is richer and fruitier than most other styles.

Bourbon whiskey, the largest selling of the American whiskies, must be made with corn making up at least 51 percent of the grain ingredients (known as the mash bill). Wheat, barley and rye are the other main grains, the proportions used essential in creating any whiskey’s style – Maker’s Mark, for instance, is the best known of the so-called wheated whiskies with a high percentage of wheat in the mix, known for being soft, easy but full flavored. Jack Daniel’s is the best-selling American whiskey, but it is bourbon that taken another step: legally, the only requirement is that bourbon made in Tennessee, but the main two brands – Daniel’s and George Dickel – filter the spirit through maple charcoal, something known as the Lincoln County process.

Rye, like bourbon, can hail from anywhere (Kentucky whiskey is another story altogether, but it must be made in the state that bears its name.) In rye, like in wheated whiskies, the grain that makes up at least 51 percent of the mash bill takes the name. Many rye whiskies have a higher rye content, but a simple majority is all that’s required.

That’s what they are – but what’s best in drinks? Irish has made great strides with the Pickleback and served in ginger ale, highlighting its lightness and easy drinking. Irish has long been known as the most mixable of whiskies, though the single malts and pot still variants can be as complex and robust as any Scotch whisky. Like Irish, bourbon is sweet on the palate, and creates a deep and mellow base for cocktails. Rye has been admired and employed for its spicy and even peppery kick, as opposed to the smoothness of Bourbon and lightness of Irish. Tennessee whiskey can seem to some like a cross between, with the mellowing nature of the charcoal filtration also sharing a bit of ashy tang as well.

What any restaurant should carry depends on the concept; if you sell lots of full flavored beers, your customers would probably enjoy a broad selection of bourbons. Adding a rye can be difficult these days as the industry suffers from a supply shortage, but even one shows how serious an operation is about cocktails. The expanding Irish business is looking to build distilleries for the first time in modern memory, and new expressions with a broader flavor palate continue to arrive. They’re only following the path of their American cousins, who have already proven with their continuing experimentation that there has never been a better time to be a whiskey drinker.

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