What is craft whiskey? – A beginner’s guide

Whiskey or whisky? Scotch, Irish or Bourbon? Craft or mainstream? The world of whiskey is complex, particularly if you’re new to it. There are many classifications, origins, styles and types to discover, and if you’re just dipping your toe into the world of whiskey, it’s easy to get lost.

What is craft whiskey

Before we look at the definition of ‘craft’ whiskey, I’m going to quickly run through some common types, terms and origins. We’ll start with ‘whiskey’ versus ‘whisky’.

In the 1800s both spellings were used, but most believe that as the cheaper Scottish blended whiskies were entering the markets, Ireland’s distillers used whiskey with an ‘e’ which became synonymous with Irish whiskey. But this isn’t really the full truth.

It’s true the ‘e’ was used by the Irish to differentiate cheap whiskey of poor quality with the rest of the world. But there is more to it. Back in the day, Dublin whiskey was the ‘top shelf’ ultra-premium gold standard. The Dubs industrialized whiskey. They figured out how to make whiskey production consistent, how to make it safe and created the techniques still used today to remove the nasty congeners and fusel oils that sent people blind, or even caused death. So, we have a lot to thank Dublin distillers for.

During this time, the rest of the world was making a far inferior inconsistent whiskey. They simply didn’t have the right techniques or knowledge. There were over 1,200 distilleries in Ireland at this stage yet less than 100 were licensed. So, a lot of ‘backyard moonshining’ going on, and this was the same in Scotland, England and the US.

Dublin whiskey was so revered that fraud was inevitable. Other countries such as Scotland and England as well as the rural ‘country whiskey’ from Ireland, would send their cheaper whiskey to Dublin customs warehouses to achieve the official Dublin customs seal. Then ship it back to the UK and around the world, to pass it off as Dublin whiskey for a higher price. This damaged Dublin whiskey’s good reputation. Something had to be done.

At the time the ‘e’ was used interchangeably. So, the big Dublin whiskey houses such as John Jameson, George Roe & Co and John Powers and Sons got together to write a book about all this nefarious fraud at play called ‘Truths About Whisky’. After writing this, they all agreed to adopt the spelling with the ‘e’ to differentiate from the rest. This included Irish ‘rural’ whiskey. In Dublin they had much tighter regulation being in the capital, being industrialized and needed more health and safety measures. But in someone’s shed down the country they could do pretty much what they liked. So rural Irish whiskey had no ‘e’ nor did the cheaper Scottish or English whisky. It was only after the merger of Cork Distillers, and three of the remaining Dublin distillers did the spelling with an ‘e’ become standardized across all Irish whiskey for the second half of the last century.

Today, both spellings can be used, and they are in Ireland. While Scotland now firmly sticks to without an ‘e’ spelling as does Japan and Canada.

Irish whiskey and craft whiskey

Irish whiskey is the fastest growing spirit globally, with more distilleries popping up all the time. According to the Irish Whiskey Association (IWA) there are now 31 operational distilleries in Ireland. In 2013 there were just four. Legally Irish whiskey can only be made and distilled on the island of Ireland itself.

It must be aged for at least three years, in the same way as Scotch whisky. However, after that is where the differences begin. Most Irish whiskeys are triple distilled whereas most Scottish whiskies are double distilled. Scottish whisky has to be matured in oak, whereas Irish whiskey can be matured in any type of wood to achieve different flavour profiles. Such as cherry wood, apple wood and even mulberry.

However, over recent years there’s been a resurgence in independent distilleries making craft or artisanal whiskey. As you’ll see later, there is no single definition for ‘craft whiskey’ but it’s generally used to describe distilleries that make something different, something special, something in smaller batches with an added twist.

Our mission at The Craft Irish Whiskey Co. is simple – to produce only ultra-premium whiskey using our own production techniques. For example, we are the only Irish whiskey company to cask at 52% ABV and our products are few, take a long time to make and never compromise on quality.

Different types of Scotch whiskey

Scotch whiskey is also aged for a minimum of three years, always in oak barrels. Most of it today is aged in bourbon barrels, and it’s usually distilled twice. There are a number of strict classifications for Scotch:

  1. Single malt – Scotch whisky made at a single distillery using only malted barley.
  2. Single grain – made at a single distillery, uses other grains in the mash. Mostly used in blended whiskies.
  3. Blended malt – blend of at least two separate single malt Scotch whiskies from 2 distilleries.
  4. Blended grain – blend of at least one single malt with at least one single grain. Most Scotch made and sold around the world is blended.

How does American whiskey differ?

Most people automatically think of bourbon when it comes to American whiskey. But there are other types too:

  1. Bourbon – must have at least 51% corn. Always aged in new oak barrels, which often then go on to be used to age Scotch and Irish whiskey. While many people think it has to be made in Kentucky, it’s actually made all over the country.
  2. Tennessee Whiskey – same as bourbon but made in Tennessee and has an extra step in the process. This is a charcoal filtering process that’s called ‘Lincoln County Process’. The most popular in this category is Jack Daniels.
  3. Rye – must have at least 51% rye and aged in the same way of bourbon in charred, new oak barrels.
  4. American whiskey – this covers the hundreds of small, craft whiskey distilleries that have sprung up across the country. There are lots of products that don’t easily fit into the categories for rye or bourbon, and while there is no legally defined category for ‘American single malt’ like there is for Irish and Scotch, that’s what producers are now making.
  5. Straight whiskey – whiskey that’s been aged for at least two years and has no added flavourings or colouring.
  6. Bottled ‘in Bond’ – also known as ‘bonded’ whiskey, this is made at one distillery during a defined period of time. Must be aged for at least four years in a federally categorised bonded warehouse. Bottled at least 50% ABV.

Why is craft whiskey popular?

Whiskey (and whisky) is being made all over the world, with Japanese producers becoming increasingly popular. But what does ‘craft whiskey’ mean? While there is no legally mandated definition for ‘craft whiskey’, it’s accepted as a term to describe smaller producers.

Craft whiskey producers are those that are thinking ‘outside of the box’ and coming up with ways to make ever more exclusive and limited products. Whiskey aficionados associate the term ‘craft whiskey’ with the type of still used, the batch size produced and annual production.

Craft whiskey is surging the way forward, much like Dublin whiskey did in the 1800s. Back then we needed industrialization for whiskey to get it right. Get it consistent and safe to drink. Today, that knowledge is shared, and we have safety measures that must be met. So, rather than having to drink a standard industrialized mass-produced product, consumers are looking for something unique. We need not worry of fusel oil and congeners sending us blind in 2020, or whiskey so unpalatable we need to spit it out. The market simply won’t allow inferior products, so the craft side of things is really heating up.

Others take it further and believe that even global producers can make craft whiskey, as it’s about the attention to detail, passion and history of the producer. So, a small batch rye from a big producer could be thought of as a craft whiskey. However, this is just marketing and the approach can backfire. And assuming that every small producer or distiller makes high-quality whiskey is a mistake. It doesn’t always follow that every small producer will make premium whiskey, nor does it follow that bigger producers can’t make great whiskey.