The Boozy Difference Between Gaelic And Irish Coffee

Seasoned and newbie barflies alike have probably made the acquaintance of Irish coffee before. At its simplest, it's a two-parter of coffee and Irish whiskey. A richer, more popular variation of the cocktail calls for coffee, Irish whiskey, coffee liqueur, some sort of sweetener, and heavy cream. Still, the essential identifying factors of this timeless drink are that the coffee is strong and the whiskey is Irish. If you've never heard of its smoky cousin, Gaelic coffee, allow us to introduce you. Just as these two cultures have flavors and characteristics that make them unique, so, too, do the coffee-whiskey cocktails inspired by their namesakes. 

"Gaelic" refers to the Gaels, the Celtic Highlanders of Scotland. Gaelic was the most commonly spoken language in Scotland around the ninth and 11th centuries. But during the Norman Invasion of the British Isles in the 11th and 12th centuries, Gaelic speakers concentrated in Scotland's northern and western regions. As political tensions grew and northern and southern Scotland grew more and more isolated from each other, Gaelic cemented its position as a fixture of the Highlands. The Irish language, meanwhile, remained largely unaffected. 

Long story short, Gaelic is a Scottish thing, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, Gaelic coffee is made not with Irish whiskey but with Scotch. Irish whiskey and Scotch are the two oldest types of whiskey in the world, and it's unclear which type is technically older. There is one important whiskey naming distinction, though: When it's Irish, it's spelled "whiskey," but when it's Scotch, it's "whisky."

Gaelic coffee is all about the Scotch

Why does this one ingredient make such a difference? Irish whiskey is triple-distilled from a mash of malt and cereal grains, most prominently unmalted barley. By law, the spirit must be aged for at least three years and produced entirely in Ireland. (Jameson is perhaps the most widely-recognizable brand of Irish whiskey in the U.S.) It can be blended with grain whiskey, but can also come single malt, and is known for its smoothness. 

Scotch whisky, on the other hand, is known for its peat-forward smokiness. Like Irish whiskey, Scotch is also made with barley, but it's typically twice-distilled and malted. Also, Scotch is more commonly single malt, while Irish whiskey is more commonly blended with grain whiskey. Both drinks provide an excellent opportunity to showcase the high-quality spirits in your liquor cabinet. In Gaelic coffee, the Scotch and sugar or simple syrup are combined in a separate glass and then poured into the coffee. 

To finish, the heavy cream is added last, poured slowly over the back of a spoon to float it to the top for a dreamy layered topper. The traditional preparation of Irish coffee is much simpler. Irish whiskey is poured directly into the coffee, then brown sugar or another sweetener is stirred in until dissolved, and the whole thing is topped with floated cream and sometimes whipped cream. Also unlike Irish coffee, Gaelic coffee does not use coffee liqueur, making Irish coffee smoother and more dessert-like while Gaelic coffee is bolder and smokier.