There was a time in my life when I thought that the difference between Scotch and Irish whiskey was just the spelling. One week spent exploring Irish whiskey distilleries in Ireland taught me that there is so much more than an extra vowel. While I am not a big fan of peated Scotch, I’ve always appreciated the smooth quality of Irish whiskey. Here’s our distillery tour of Ireland itinerary and a review of the Irish whiskey tours we took in one week in Ireland.
Irish whiskey vs Scotch
So what is the difference between Irish whiskey and Scotch? Irish whiskey differs from Scotch in the fact that malted barley is not dried over burning peat. This is what gives Scotch its smokey quality. The other great difference is in the triple distillation. Scotch generally undergoes double distillation, whereas Irish whiskey is always distilled three times. This is true for distilleries all over Ireland – all the Irish whiskey brands I explored during my tour.
While Scotch counts a wide range of single malts produced, most commercial Irish whiskeys are blends. Single malt Irish whiskey exists, but it’s less commonly produced. Blended whisky is not always synonym with lower quality. There is a lot of effort and research put into crafting the perfect blends. The fact that distilleries have their own master blenders is no coincidence.
Irish whiskey distilleries in Ireland itinerary
Our Ireland itinerary was mostly focussed around the three major whiskey distilleries I wanted to visit. There may be various options for distillery tours in Ireland, but we went for a self-planned road trip with stops at the whiskey distilleries. The first thing I did when defining our itinerary was to study an Irish whiskey distillery map. Once I pinpointed the most famous ones, that offer guided tours, I planned the rest of the trip around these stops. There are also a lot of small distilleries in Ireland, but not all are open to the public.
We landed in Dublin and rented a car at the airport. We immediately drove to Northern Ireland, as the Old Bushmills Distillery was our first stop on our Ireland distillery tour. Despite being geographically located in Northern Ireland, Bushmills is considered an Irish whisky as its production follows the rules of Irish whiskey distillation. On our way to Bushmills we took some time to explore Northern Ireland and stopped in Belfast, drove the Antrim Coast, visited the Dark Hedges, and of course the village of Bushmills and the Giant’s Causeway.
Our second Irish whiskey distillery was the Jameson Distillery in Midleton. Coming from Bushmills we drove down the West coast stopping at the famous Cliffs of Moher, in Galway, the Dingle peninsula and Limerick. We obviously had a night stopover in Midleton as we were not allowed to drive after the whiskey tasting class.
The third and final stop on our distillery tour of Ireland was Tullamore. On the way from Midleton we stopped at the Rock of Cashel and in Killarney. After visiting the Tullamore DEW visitor centre we spent the night in town and made our way back to Dublin the following day. We spent one day in Dublin before flying back home. We did not do any Irish whiskey tours in Dublin for lack of time.
See what we ate during our week in Ireland.
The Old Bushmills Distillery
We started off at the Old Bushmills Distillery, located in Bushmills, Northern Ireland. The Old Bushmills Distillery, founded in 1608, prides itself being the oldest working distillery in Ireland. This was my first time visiting a distillery, so on our first stop we decided to do a proper tour of the premises. Here I learned all the theory behind the Irish whiskey making process. Guided tours are offered daily, but cannot be booked online. I was afraid that coming in the afternoon we would find all the tours for the day sold out, but it was not the case. Tours departed every 10 minutes and we were able to join one that started a minute after we bought our tickets. Visiting on a Tuesday in late September probably also helped.
Due to the alcohol content of the air in the distillery, photography is not allowed inside. The Bushmills distillery tour was really informative and provided some basic knowledge of the Irish whiskey production. We learned about all the stages from grains to end product, and were even able to see the bottling take place (doesn’t happen every day). At the end of the tour we went into the bar where we received two complimentary samples. One was the same for all and it was the Bushmills Original, and we could choose the other. My husband chose the Bushmills 12 year single malt while I opted for the 10 year single malt.
Jameson Experience in Midleton, Cork
After exploring some natural wonders of the west coast of Ireland, we made our way all the way south, to the Jameson distillery in Midleton. The famous Jameson is originally a Dublin whiskey. Today, it is produced in Midleton, County Cork. Following a crisis of the whiskey production in the 1970s, many whiskey producers moved to the Old Midleton Distillery and continued production there. Nowadays production happens at the new Midleton distillery, while the old distillery houses the Jameson Experience visitor centre. The original Jameson Distillery Bow St. in Dublin is no longer a working distillery, but a visitor centre. There you can take the Jameson distillery tour, but we decided to visit the Midleton location, instead.
In Midleton we booked a Premium Whiskey Tasting, which is not a tour but a tasting class. Here we had the chance to sample 4 different types of whiskey that are currently produced in Midleton. We had the Jameson Black Barrel, the Powers John’s Lane Release, the Redbreast 12 year old and the Midleton Barry Crockett Legacy. The focus of this Irish whiskey tasting was all on flavouring the different whiskeys and comparing them. The key is to take proper time to enjoy the taste and personality of each whiskey. If at the sampling in Bushmills I was a novice, here I gained more knowledge and experience. At the end of this visit I had sampled 7 different types of Irish whiskey, including the most expensive one I have ever had. The the best Irish whiskey in Ireland? Probably.
Tullamore D.E.W. Visitor Centre
Our last stop in our Ireland distillery tour was the Old Tullamore Distillery in Tullamore. Tullamore Dew was the first whiskey I had bought for myself. In Tullamore we chose to participate in the Whiskey Wise Masterclass, a combination of Tullamore distillery tour and tasting class. The tasting included samples of 6 house whiskeys.
Just like Jameson, also Tullamore Dew had moved its production to Midleton in the 1970s. In 2014 Tullamore Dew officially made its comeback to Tullamore. Production is now at the new Tullamore distillery, while the old one is a museum and visitor centre. Tullamore Dew specialises in the production of triple blends, meaning a blend of malted and unmalted barley, plus a grain whiskey made with maize.
At the end of the tour we took our seats for the tasting class. We got 6 whiskeys to sample – all different types of Tullamore Dew: Original, Cider Cask, Old Bonded Warehouse Release, Phoenix, 12 year old and 14 year old single malt. As my palate and nose developed after every sample over the past days, in Tullamore I was already confidently comparing and tasting the difference a few droplets of water in the whiskey can make. That’s a long way from the times when I knew nothing about whiskey.
After visiting three of the most renowned Irish whiskey distilleries, I can say I have become if not an expert, at least an aficionado. My appreciation of the golden distillate was very very limited, but after this experience I feel much more knowledgeable. I would even say now I enjoy whiskey more and I know a bit better how to properly drink it. As the novice that I was when we landed in Dublin, I felt definitely more whiskey savvy at the end of our Ireland trip. That’s how much education a week in Ireland exploring Irish whiskey distilleries can give.