The battle of Irish whiskey vs Scotch is one that’s raged for many-a-year.
At their closest points, there are only 12 miles separating Scotland and the North Antrim Coast. But despite the proximity, Ireland and Scotland produce two very different whiskies, and I’m not just talking about the spelling!
Below, you’ll find some straight forward, no-BS answers to the question, ‘What’s the difference between Scotch and whiskey?’. Dive on in!
Some quick need-to-knows about Irish whiskey vs Scotch
I’m going to break down the key differences between Irish whiskey vs Scotch with an easy-to-browse overview, first, before going a little more in depth in the second half of the guide.
1. Whiskey v whisky
Before even opening a bottle, the first difference you’ll notice between the two is the lack of an ‘e’ in the spelling of ‘Scottish whisky’. The only fact for sure, is that there is no great reason why they’re spelled differently!
While many contend that it might be something to do between the nuances of Irish and Scottish Gaelic, the boring truth probably lies closer to do with the largely inconsistent spelling of the 19th century, and for some reason, the Irish (and consequently American) spelling of ‘whiskey’ stuck whereas Scotch went with ‘whisky’ instead.
2. The ingredients
Another key difference between Scotch and Irish whiskey is the ingredients. The main difference between the contents of their ingredients is that Irish Whiskey is usually made from unmalted barley, whereas Scotch is made from malted barley.
Sometimes (like in the case of single pot still whiskey) Irish Whiskey is made with both malted and unmalted (green) barley.
3. How they’re produced
Though their ingredients differ slightly, both whiskies are produced in a copper pot still and matured for a minimum of three years. The ageing process is essential to create a fine flavour, as the harsh alcohol profile mellows out over time, whilst the cask imparts glorious woody, spicy and fruity notes.
4. The distillation
The big difference in the distillation processes is that Scotch is typically distilled twice, while Irish whiskey is often triple distilled. Irish single malts, however, may be double distilled (Tyrconnell Double Distilled Irish Single Malt Whiskey, for example). You’ll also find some triple distilled Scotch’s, largely in the Lowlands region (such as Auchentoshan Single Malt).
The final difference between Scotch and Irish whiskey is the taste. Those distillation processes might not seem like a big difference, but the effect is pretty pronounced. It’s what gives Irish Whiskey its often, not always, lighter and smoother taste, while Scotch will often taste heavier and fuller.
Aside from the distillation, there are also other factors (such as the casks used) that can affect taste but we’ll get to them below!
The invention of Irish whiskey and Scotch whisky
Arguably the most notable difference between Scotch and Irish whiskey is the tale behind the invention of each. While worldwide sales of Scotch are greater than those of Irish Whiskey, fans of Irish whiskey brands will always be able to say that Irish Whiskey came first!
It’s generally thought that monks brought distilling techniques from southern Europe to Ireland in the 11th century, though there isn’t any documentation to prove it.
Records aren’t easy to come by, though the oldest known written record of whiskey in Ireland dates from 1405, while the spirit doesn’t get a mention until 90 years later in 1494.
Following the introduction of licences in the 17th century and official registration of distillers in the 18th century, whiskey production took off and demand for whiskey in Ireland grew significantly, driven both by large population growth, and by displacing the demand for imported spirits.
Eventually, however, Scotch Whisky became the number one spirit in the 20th century as Irish Whiskey sales suffered thanks to conflict with Britain and American Prohibition.
The different ingredients used in Irish whiskey vs Scotch
As we discussed earlier, the big difference between the ingredients used to make the two spirits is that Irish Whiskey is usually made from unmalted barley, whereas Scotch is made from malted barley.
A single grain Scotch is often used to denote a whisky made with a single grain that’s not malted barley, although malted barley is added to start the fermentation process.
Irish Whiskey comes in single malt, single pot still, single grain, and blended forms, though the single pot still is probably the most interesting. It means that it is made from both malted and unmalted barley, which grew out of a tradition of using unmalted barley, as malted barley was taxed (get stuck into a bottle of Green Spot or Redbreast for a great taste of this style!).
Related read: Check out our guide to the difference between Irish whiskey vs Bourbon.
The production and distillation process
Another of the key differences between Irish whiskey vs Scotch is the production and distillation. In Scotland, their whisky is typically double distilled and a vast variety of copper pot stills are their tool of choice.
Irish distilleries also use copper stills, though they tend to boast less variety. Triple distillation is much more common with Irish whiskey, and it’s this divergence in distillation techniques that account for the biggest differences in taste between the two types of whiskey.
All Irish whiskey must be mashed, fermented, distilled to no more than 94.8% ABV, and matured in wooden casks, such as oak, and not exceed 700 liters for a minimum of three years.
Scotch whiskey must also not exceed 94.8% ABV, but it must be produced at a distillery in Scotland from water and malted barley. It also must have a minimum alcoholic strength of 40%.
Related read: Check out our guides to the best Irish whiskey cocktails (each cocktail is tasty and easy-to-make)
The difference in taste between Irish whiskey vs Scotch
The final key difference between Scotch and Irish whiskey is the taste. Scotch Whisky is made from malted barley and often features a fuller, heavier taste than most other whiskies.
Irish whiskey, on the other hand, is renowned for its smooth flavour and hints of vanilla, thanks to its triple distillation and use of unmalted barley (or a combination of malted and unmalted barley). It tends to show up in blends a lot more frequently due to this easy taste.
The materials used in the process of making whiskeys are also integral to their final flavour profiles.
Both Scotland and Ireland use oak casks. These have a pronounced effect on a whiskey’s flavour, which can vary based on the conditions and type of the cask used. Ex-Bourbon casks, for example, contribute to a sweeter flavour, while Sherry casks often mean a fruitier or spicier taste.
FAQs about the difference between scotch and Irish whiskey
We’ve had a lot of questions over the years asking about everything from ‘What’s the difference between Irish whiskey and scotch taste-wise?’ to ‘Which is easier to drink?’.
In the section below, we’ve popped in the most FAQs that we’ve received. If you have a question that we haven’t tackled, ask away in the comments section below.
What is the difference between Irish Whiskey vs Scotch?
There are several differences between scotch and whiskey: The ingredients, the way they’re produced, the distillation and the taste (see our guide for more).
What’s the difference Between Scotch and Whiskey taste wise?
Irish whiskey tends (not always) to have a lighter and smoother taste, while Scotch whiskey is heavier and fuller.