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Comparing Irish Whiskey vs Bourbon

by Jim Passantino June 29, 2022 5 min read

Life is too short to drink bad whiskey. But with so many different types and brands of whiskey on the market, it can be hard to know where to start. And if you're new to the world of whiskey, the choices can be even more overwhelming. But don't worry, we're here to help.

In this guide, we'll introduce you to two of the most popular types of whiskey: Irish whiskey and bourbon. Known for their distinctive flavor profiles and the very different ways they are produced; these two whiskeys have made their mark on the industry and continue to be some of the best-selling spirits in the world.

And though they have a lot in common, they are distinctively different. And that makes it worth the effort to learn a little bit about each one.

So, let's get started with a quick overview of Irish whiskey.

What Is Irish Whiskey?

Irish whiskey is a type of distilled alcohol that originates from Ireland. It is made by fermenting grain mash and then distilling it in pot stills or column stills. The spirits are then typically aged in wooden casks for several years before being bottled.

Irish whiskey can be made from any type of grain, but the most common ones used are barley, wheat, and rye. There are four different categories of Irish whiskey: single malt, single grain, blended, and pot still whiskeys.

Each category has its own distinct characteristics based on the ingredients used and how they are produced.

Single Malt Whiskies

Single malt Irish Whiskey is made from a single malted grain and then distilled in pot stills. These whiskeys are typically aged for a minimum of three years and produced at one distillery. The flavors of these whiskeys range from light and fruity to nutty with hints of spice. 

Single Grain Whiskies

Single grain Irish Whiskey is made from a single grain and distilled in a continuous still, which leads to the whiskey having a lighter taste. Single grains are often used in blended whiskeys, but there are also some that are bottled on their own. These whiskeys are typically aged for at least three years and produced at one distillery.

Blended Whiskies

Blended Irish Whiskey is a combination of single malt and single grain whiskies. Blends offer more complex flavors than either of the two types of whiskey they use as ingredients, usually with hints of vanilla or honey. Blends are also typically aged for longer than single malts or grains, giving them a richer flavor. The vast majority of Irish Whiskey on the market today is blended.

Single Pot Still

Single pot still whiskey is a bit of an anomaly, as it doesn't fit neatly into any one category. It's made with both malt and unmalted barley (like single grain), but unlike single grain, all of the fermentation and distillation takes place in a single pot Still. Single Pot Still whiskeys are typically very rich and complex, with strong flavors of fruit and spice.

What Is Bourbon?

Bourbon is a type of American whiskey, made primarily from corn. Unlike other whiskeys, which can be made from any grain mixture, Bourbon must be at least 51% corn.

Because of this heavy reliance on corn, Bourbons tend to be sweeter than other whiskeys. In addition to the mashbill (the grain recipe), bourbons also get their unique flavors from the barrels they're aged in. Bourbon producers must use new oak barrels for aging; these young barrels impart strong vanilla and caramel flavors to the liquor.

The length of aging also affects the flavor; Bourbons can be aged for as little as two years or up to twenty-four. The longer a Bourbon is aged, the more complex its flavors will be.

Wheated Bourbon

A wheated bourbon is a bourbon whiskey whose mash bill contains wheat in place of or in addition to rye. Wheat gives the finished product a smoother flavor and makes it less harsh than other bourbons.

Bottled in Bond Bourbon

A bottled in bond bourbon is a bourbon whiskey that has been aged for at least four years and bottled at 100 proof (50% alcohol by volume). Bottled in bond bourbons must be produced by the same distiller, during the same distilling season, and at the same distillery.

High Rye Bourbon

A high rye bourbon is a bourbon whiskey with a mash bill that contains more than the minimum 2% rye. Rye gives the finished product a spicier flavor and makes it less sweet than other bourbons.

Bourbon Whiskey

Bourbon Whiskey is an American whiskey that must be made from at least 51% corn and aged in charred, new oak barrels for a minimum of two years. It is then bottled at no less than 80 proof (40% alcohol by volume). Bourbon has to be made in the United States, but it does not have to be made in Kentucky.

Straight

A straight whiskey must be distilled from no less than 51% of a single grain and aged in new, charred oak barrels for at least two years. Straight whiskeys can also be blended with other whiskeys of the same type during aging. The term “straight” does not refer to how the whiskey is served.

Bourbon vs Irish Whiskey - The Key Differences

Now that we have defined bourbon and Irish whiskey, let’s get into the details of how they compare.

1. Grain

The main difference between Irish whiskey and bourbon is the grain that is used to make them. As we mentioned above, bourbon must be made from at least 51% corn (maize) with other grains making up the rest.

It can be made from 100% corn, but most distilleries choose to use a mix of grains. Irish whiskey is made from a mix of barley, corn and other grains. The most common grain used in Irish whiskey is barley.

2. Production

How the whiskey is made also differs between these two types of spirit. Bourbon can only be produced in the US while Irish whiskey can be produced anywhere in Ireland.

3. Aging

Bourbon must be aged in new charred oak barrels for 2 to 4 years. Irish whiskey on the other hand can be aged in both new and used barrels for 3 years or more.

4. Flavors

Bourbon tends to have a sweeter flavor from the corn, but Irish whiskey has a spicier flavor from the barley. Most bourbons are aged in barrels for less time than most Irish whiskeys, so they also tend to present more vanilla and caramel notes.

Final Verdict

It is difficult to say which type of whiskey is better, as it ultimately comes down to personal preference. However, if you are looking for a smooth spirit that goes down easy then Irish whiskey may be the choice for you.



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