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.
I didn't visit just for the whiskey, of course, but for its legendary beauty, architecture and culture. Still, it was 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 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, 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.
We finished our tour at the visitor's center 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 a 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.
Following a stop at the famed Ballymaloe Cookery School in Cork, our group traveled to Co. Westmeath to the Kilbeggan Distillery Experience, a gorgeously restored distillery.
One of the things I most enjoyed about Kilbeggan, dating to 1757, was its amalgamation of unusual sounds, from the rhythmic ba-ba-boom-ba-ba-boom of some sort of mechanical gears grinding together to the flip-flipping of waterwheels to gurgling, bubbling streams.
Northern Ireland was next, to the village of Bushmills in Co. Antrim. As we drove northward, I sighed contentedly at the emerald green and gorgeously lush scenery of Ireland's pastures and craggy cliffs. It's not called the Emerald Isle for nothing, and the serene countryside is punctuated by the bones of ancient castles, stone fences, and masses of sheep and cattle.
Arriving in Bushmills, we found a quiet Old World village crammed with taverns, shops and restaurants. From our accommodations at Bushmills Inn, the distillery was less than a half-mile walk.
"Bushmills is the heart of the Irish whiskey industry," said Robert Galbraith, our guide and Bushmills ambassador, before explaining the heritage of its distilling process really hasn't changed in the more than 400 years since King James granted the first license to distill in 1608.