FARGO — It's a silly question to whiskey aficionados. Sophisticated palates can tell the difference between Irish, Scotch and Bourbon whiskeys, no problem.
But if you poured the three drinks side by side, many Americans would be hard-pressed trying to explain the difference — even after tasting them.
So on this St. Patrick's Day, a day when some Americans drink more than their fair share of Irish whiskey, "The Scoop with Tracy Briggs" is getting to the bottom of it. We visited with sommelier Justin Blanford, the general manager of Moorhead's 99 Bottles, whose classes and tastings on whiskey fill up almost immediately.
He recently poured some of his favorites at Dempsey's Public House in downtown Fargo and we started our Whiskey 101 lesson.
Although some dispute it, it is widely believed that whiskey was invented in Ireland between 1000 and 1200 when traveling Irish monks brought it back from the Mediterranean. Irish monasteries, lacking the vineyards and grapes of the European continent, turned to fermenting grain mash, which resulted in the first distillations of modern whiskey. Blanford says "whiskey" is Gaelic for "water of life."
"That tells you a lot about the Irish people, I guess," he says.
To be called an Irish whiskey, several factors need to be met:
- It needs to be made in Ireland.
- It must be a single malt and made with barley.
- Grain whiskey may use rye, wheat and corn.
- It must be aged three or more years touching oak.
- It bust be distilled three times.
"Because it's distilled three times, it makes for a lighter, smoother spirit," says Blanford. "That's why a lot of people choose Irish whiskey as their first whiskey experience."
Recommended Irish whiskeys: Powers, Tullamore Dew, Knappogue Castle and Bushmills.
Blanford says ask a Scotsman and they just might respond, "The Irish might have invented whisky, but the Scottish perfected it." And no, "whisky" is not a typo in this case. In Scotland, whisky has no "e" — and it has a few other differences as well.
- Scotch whisky is distilled only twice.
- It is barrel-aged for more than three years.
- It uses peat, which contributes to the smoky taste of some scotches.
"Scotch tends to be heavier than Irish whiskey. It's not as light and smooth," says Blanford. "They want to make something more robust."
Recommended scotches: Johnnie Walker Black Label, Auchentoshan and Lagavulin.
Bourbon is whiskey made in the United States. In fact, in 1964, Congress adopted a resolution declaring bourbon "America's Native Spirit." It originated in Bourbon County, Ky.
Much of the difference between European whiskeys and bourbon starts with production:
- Bourbon is made from at least 51 percent corn, while other American whiskeys can have less corn.
- It has to be made in the U.S.
- It's aged in first-use charred white American oak.
- It's also aged for two years or more for straight bourbon.
"I've always had a soft spot for bourbon," says Blanford. "I find it to be very approachable and a fun thing to drink in the summertime."
Recommended bourbons and American whiskeys: Elijah Craig, Willett and Roknar.
Learn your preference
Blanford recommends people try different varieties of Irish whiskey, scotch and bourbon to learn about their personal preferences. There is much to be learned, and these three countries just scratch the surface.
"It's a fascinating subject and a lot of history and diversity to it," he says. "Whiskey isn't limited to Ireland, Scotland and the U. S. The whole world participates in making some really brilliant whiskey. It's fun to explore."
To learn more about Blanford's whiskey classes, visit 99 Bottles' Facebook page.