Understanding Irish whiskey and Scotch whisky and what distinguishes them from each other is not as simple as you might think. Mostly because there’s a lot of misinformation, myths, and oversimplifications pedalled on whisky sites, tours, social media, and generally anywhere whisky is spoken about.

Luckily we’re here to clear things up. We’re going to imagine a conversation with a very inquisitive sort and answer all their burning questions. 

Single malt whisky on an old wooden pole on a Scottish seashore

Let’s talk about Irish whiskey and Scotch whisky

So, what is the difference between Irish and Scotch whisky?

The first major distinction is pretty simple. Whisky labelled as Scotch whisky must be produced in Scotland and spend a minimum of three years maturing there, while whiskey labelled as Irish whiskey must be produced in Ireland and spend a minimum of three years maturing there. 

Well, obviously. I knew they were two different countries. What else? 

Both have a legislative framework with details that determine how each is made: The Scotch Whisky Regulations of 2009 and the Irish Whiskey Technical File 2014. Although there is a lot of overlap between the two, there are differences throughout each document. 

One is the way whisky is categorised in each country. Here’s a breakdown:

Scotch whisky: Single Malt, Single Grain, Blended Malt, Blended Grain, and Blended Scotch Whisky

Irish whiskey: Single Malt, Single Pot Still, Single Grain, and Blended Irish Whiskey.

Both countries produce single malt, single grain, and blends. But as you can see in Scotland blended malt and blended grain are distinguished (think Johnnie Walker Green Label for the former, Blended Grain Whisky 30 Year Old for the latter). But Blended Irish Whiskey must be made from two or more different whiskey types (pot still, malt and grain).

The biggest difference between the two is the single pot still category. This is a style of whiskey that is unique to Ireland and is made from both malted and unmalted barley. Redbreast would be a fine example. 

An interesting nuance between the two is that Irish distillers can mature whiskey in wood species other than oak. For Scotch whisky, every barrel the spirit goes into must be made of oak. But the Irish Whiskey Technical File 2014 only calls for the use of woods “such as oak”. Hence the more varied cask types we’ve seen in recent years.  

Another nuance is that Scotland has a much more distinct regional variety, with legally defined regions.  

A bottle of Waterford whisky and whisky in a glass

Waterford: Irish whiskey, but spelt whisky

“But they’re spelt differently, right?”

Generally speaking, Scotch whisky is spelt without the “e” and Irish whiskey is spelt with an “e”. But while a bottle labelled Scotch whisky must be spelt like without the “e”, there’s no such restriction for anything Irish. 

Waterford would be an example of an Irish brand that spells it “whisky”. There’s more info on the Whisky vs Whiskey debate here

“Scotch whisky is peated though”

Something you hear all too often. If I had a penny for every time I heard somebody say that Scotch whiskies are smoky because they’re made with peat and Irish whiskies are sweeter and smoother because they’re not then… well pennies aren’t buying you much these days but I’d still have too many coins. 

You can make Scotch whisky using peat. It’s lovely. But you don’t have to. You could make Irish whiskey with peat, like Connemara. Most of the original Irish whiskies would have used peat as a fuel source to dry barley too. Peat doesn’t distinguish Scotch from Irish in any way. Stop telling people it does.  

“Ah, but Irish whiskey is distilled differently and that makes it smoother, correct?”

Not quite. A lot of Irish whiskey produced is triple distilled, while most Scotch whisky is usually distilled twice. But there are exceptions. Like Auchentoshan. Scottish, but triple distilled. 

As we state in our article Irish whiskey explained: triple distillation, “Irish whiskey doesn’t have any kind of monopoly on triple-distilling its whiskey, nor does the process define Irish whiskey.” It’s worth reading that feature if you want to learn more. 

Suffice it to say, a lot of Irish whiskey has a smooth, light, and sometimes fruity profile but there’s no requirement for all Irish whiskey to taste like that and plenty don’t. There are lots of Scotch whiskies that are plenty refined and approachable too. 


AI’s interpretation of Scotch vs Irish. I never thought when the robots came they would be this stupid.

“Is Scotch whisky better than Irish whiskey?”.

That’s a matter of preference. Scotch whisky is certainly bigger than Irish whiskey. In 2023, Scotch Whisky exports were worth £5.6bn, while Irish whiskey exports surpassed €1 billion for the first time in 2022. Jameson makes up a huge part of those sales, recording 10.7 million cases sold in August 2023.

There are currently 151 operating Scotch Whisky distilleries across Scotland (May 2024), around 100 more than there are in Ireland. 

Irish whiskey has staged a real comeback after some difficult periods, however, and is only set to get bigger. But bigger doesn’t = better. Scotch can boast more varieties, presence, and reach right now. But what whisky you like the taste of most is down to you alone. 

“I guess it’s not Irish whiskey vs Scotch whisky, but Irish whiskey and Scotch whisky?”.

Yes, yes it is. 

Ok, that was a bit cheesy, but the basic point is this: Ireland and Scotland have a lot in common and together they are the heartlands of whisky, where it all began. 

Whisky developed from uisge beatha (in Scottish Gaelic) or uisce beatha (in Irish Gaelic), spirits made from grain flavoured with local botanicals. They both evolved into the spirit we recognise today, one made by distilling fermented grains which are then aged for a minimum of three years. 

Irish whiskey and Scotch whisky have heaps of history, culture, and stories. Most importantly, they’re both delicious. 

Oh, and both say Slàinte. So let’s drink each of them (not at the same time, certainly not in the same glass) and say it together: Slàinte!