Travel to Irleland for whiskey

Bushmills Irish Whiskey quietly matures in casks before it is bottled and shipped around the world. (MARY ANN ANDERSON, MCT / November 21, 2012)

DUBLIN - True or false? Irish whiskey is practically the same as scotch whisky.

Did you answer true? Blarney! You lose. Their rich shades of amber are about the same, but in tradition and taste, the two couldn't be more different.

And I have to admit, I didn't know that, either, until I embarked on a journey to Ireland, a country I've had a romantic fascination with since I was a child.

I didn't visit just for the whiskey, of course, but for its legendary beauty, architecture and culture. Still, it was the whiskey that held the most intrigue.

The tiny island, which is about the size of West Virginia, is surrounded by the cold waters and salty mist of the North Atlantic and the Irish Sea. Rain is often and plentiful.

This roundup of pure, sweet water is the base of Irish whiskey. And while it may be true that the Irish like their Guinness, it's even truer they like their whiskey as well.

Irish whiskey, relatively speaking, hasn't been around long.

The process of distilling dates back to about 500 A.D., to the Arabs who extracted oils from plants to make perfume. Thus began the unique process of evaporation and condensation, the essential principles of whiskey-making today.

Later on, Celtic Christian monks, who traveled throughout Europe spreading the gospel, used those same principles to creatively distill local ingredients into alcohol.

In France, for example, grapes were distilled for eau de vie, the cognac and brandy of today. Scandinavian countries produced aqua vit, while in Ireland grains like barley yielded uisce beatha. These romantic-sounding words simply translate to "water of life."

In the late 1400s, the first accounts of grain distilling appeared in Scotland, but Ireland was deemed so close geographically that historians generally agree that for both countries the era of whiskey- and whisky-making began. To distinguish themselves from their Irish cousins, the Scots left the "e" out of whiskey. The first official license for distilling was granted in 1608.

And here begins our journey.

Our group began our whiskey education in Dublin, touring its narrow flower-lined streets resplendent with statues, churches, shops and pubs. Lots of pubs, where the whiskey pairs well with local specialty dishes like corned beef and fish pie.

The first stop was Old Jameson Distillery in Dublin, where we teamed up with Emer, our bubbly, happy guide. "We take whiskey making seriously here at Jameson," she said before missing a significant beat, then adding with a wink, "but we also take drinking it seriously."

As we toured the distillery, which dates to 1780 but closed as a working distillery in the 1970s when operations were moved to Midleton Distillery in Co. Cork, Emer explained the biggest differences between Irish whiskey and scotch whisky is that the Irish version is triple distilled and doesn't have the smoky, peaty taste that is the hallmark of scotch.

She then took us through the complicated process of whiskey-making, which begins with barley that's malted in a kiln - the Gaelic word for oven - before it is milled to a flour-like coarseness.

Next it is mixed with pure Irish water in the mash-tun to produce wort - it sounds nasty but is actually sweet - which is then fermented to convert the sugar into alcohol. From there it is distilled to separate the water from the alcohol before being placed into handcrafted barrels for maturation.

With whiskey information overload, we finished our tour at the visitor's center, where a quarter-million visitors come each year, before heading south to Cork to visit the Old Midleton Distillery at the Jameson Heritage Center.

While you can't visit the actual working distillery, you can take an educational and historical tour of the superbly-preserved old distillery to learn more of Jameson's time-honed craft of producing whiskey, have lunch at the Malt House Restaurant, or browse the gift shop for distinctly Irish gifts.