At the heart of each spirit is, generally speaking, a blend of grain and malt whiskeys that are aged in a combination of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry barrels for a few years. They almost always come in at 40 percent ABV and share some distinct flavor profiles (floral, fruity, nutty, malty). The biggest difference between the two styles is that Irish whiskey is tripled distilled, while scotch whiskies are only twice distilled. This developed as a means for Irish whiskey to distinguish itself as the more refined of the two products, back in the 1800s.
Beyond that, there are smaller variations that designate the styles as uniquely Scottish or Irish. For instance, “single pot” Irish whiskey uses both malted and unmalted barley in its mash bill. Scotch “single malt” uses only malted barley (that’s sometimes peated). But to the surprise of many drinkers, the peaty and smoky flavors of certain Scotch whiskies have plenty of analogs in Ireland.
For this exercise, we’re leaving the Islay-style smoke monsters out of the conversation. We’re looking at three $20-$35 Irish whiskeys and three $20-$35 blended Scotch whiskies to see how they stand up to each other. While this is squarely about taste and ranking the expressions by which ones we want to drink more of, I did try and guess which was from where. I was only really sure about the last two drams. There were two more I was pretty sure of. The final two? No idea.
In the end, I gave it my best guess and ended up getting both wildcards wrong. To me, that goes to show you how close these two regional styles can be at this price point.
Part 1: The Taste
This is malty, warm, and full of cherry. I want to say there’s some vanilla in there but it’s very faint. A butterscotch note kind of takes over and muddles everything. I have no idea what this one is or where it’s from.
Ireland? Sure … why not.
This is grainy and fruity. It’s very light and easy drinking with an almost orange zest edge next to a hint of vanilla.
I want to say this is Irish thanks to the grassy/grainy nose and taste up top.
This is a little malty with a subtle spice next to plenty of orchard fruits, nuts, and softwood. It’s really easy to drink and slightly perfumed but more like a blend of tobacco leaves and dried florals.
Pretty sure this is Scottish.
Very thin and grainy yet warm and malty. There’s a clear apple candy sweetness that’s not overdone. It is mild and there seems to be a note of vanilla somewhere under all that candy.
I’d say Scotland but really have no idea.
Butterscotch and tinniness lead towards a warm malty nature. It’s a little bit fruity and woody. There’s nothing overly distinct besides being very thin and easy to drink.
Pretty sure this is Grant’s and Scottish, thanks to that tinniness.
Dried lemon peels lead to a fruit orchard full of flowers. It’s slightly malty and grainy with a nutty edge. It’s super easy to drink and very bright.
This has to be the Jameson and Irish.
Part 2: Ranking The Whisk(e)y
6. Teacher’s Highland Cream — Taste 1, Scotland (Incorrect)
Average Price: $24
This whiskey from the Highland’s always throws me for a loop. It’s advertised as having peated whisky from Ardmore in the blend but I never get any smoke or peat on this one.
I don’t mind this. It came in fifth out of six drams last week. But when tasted next to subtler Irish whiskeys it just doesn’t do anything for me.
It’d be fine as a mixer in a highball, I guess.
5. Grant’s Triple Wood — Taste 5, Scotland (Correct)
Average Price: $30
This blend from William Grant & Sons touches all of Scotland’s whisky regions. The uniqueness of this expression is in the triple barreling. They use new oak, American oak, and re-fill American oak for the maturation before blending, proofing, and bottling.
This is really drinkable, for what it is. Though, tasting it today, that tinniness really stood out and didn’t do it any favors.
Still, this is perfectly fine for highballs or as a mixer in general.
4. Bushmills White Label — Taste 4, Ireland (Incorrect)
Average Price: $26
This is a classic Northern Irish whiskey. The grain and malt whiskeys are tripled distilled. The juice is then aged in ex-bourbon barrels before blending, proofing, and barreling.
I took a stab in the dark and guessed this was Scottish. While it is pretty easy to drink, there was nothing that said either scotch or Irish whisk(e)y here.
Again, this is a perfectly good mixer but not much more.
3. Tullamore D.E.W. — Taste 2, Ireland (Correct)
Average Price: $28
Tullamore’s entry-point whiskey is a blend of triple distilled grain, malt, and single pot (malt and unmalted barley mash) whiskeys. Those spirits are then aged in a combination of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks before blending.
This is very easy to drink for a cheap and familiar whiskey. I’d easily drink this over some rocks and not complain for a moment.
2. Jameson Caskmates IPA Edition — Taste 6, Ireland (Correct)
Average Price: $33
This expression of Jameson uses the standard and much-beloved triple distilled juice from Midelton and finishes it in an IPA cask from craft beer brewers around County Cork. The result is a whiskey that’s just touched by the hoppiness of the brews, adding a brighter nature to the sip.
I’ve never really liked this pour until today. Maybe because it was the last dram of the day? It’s grown on me a lot and that brightness cannot be denied.
I can see sipping this on the rocks later or in a highball with an ice twist of lime.
1. Chivas Regal 12 — Taste 3, Scotland (Correct)
Average Price: $35
Chivas is a Highland blend from the Strathisla Distillery. It’s crafted as a workhorse whisky that’s great for sipping or mixing.
This really did stand out with the best overall complexity and drinkability. There are zero rough edges on this dram and you really want to keep drinking it to find more depth and flavor.
Part 3: Final Thoughts
This was actually more fun than I thought it’d be. For one, these whisk(e)ys are shockingly similar. Sure, there are plenty of nuances that make them unique, but they all look pretty much identical and fall pretty neatly into the same overall flavor profiles of fruity, malty, and maybe a little vanilla-y.
I do have to call out that Jameson again. There was something about it today that really popped. Maybe it’s the oxidization from an open bottle? Or maybe it’s simply growing on me. Either way, I’m into it now.