History & Heritage
Irish Whiskey, the most romantic of spirits with its amber, jewel-like tone and storied past, is made from ingredients so ordinary as to cause wonder that they can be transformed into such a glorious beverage. But when grain, yeast and water are brought through the wonders of distillation and oak aging, a truly delightful spirit results. The devil is in the detail and modern whiskey making in Ireland is equal parts science and art.
The Irish were the original distillers of whiskey: earliest records date back to the 6th Century. Later, the skill was taken across the Irish Sea to Scotland – hence the broad similarities between the two nations’ products. The monks, who were the healers of their day, used spirit as a base for medicines, rubs and liniments. Why wouldn’t they? Here was a substance as clear as water; that burned like fire and literally preserved flesh. It was nothing less than the legendary 'Uisce Beatha' or Water of Life in English, eventually anglicised to give us Whiskey.
16th century records show uisce beatha being produced for consumption, but the art was still the preserve of the religious orders. It was not until the disillusion of the monasteries in the Tudor period that whiskey ceased to be the drink of the elite. In fact Queen Elizabeth I was known to be fond of the beverage - and she wasn’t alone. No less a person than Peter the Great, Czar of Russia, mentioned that “of all the wines, the Irish spirit is the best”.
The Tudor Settlement
With the Tudor settlement of Ireland, English law began to replace native Irish. Up until 1607 home distillation was quite legal. However the Crown was anxious to start extracting revenues from the recently settled lands in the “Countie of Coleraine”. At the time it was common practice for the Crown to lease the rights to a particular activity, like beer or whiskey making. For an agreed fee and over an agreed period (usually seven years) the patentee was authorised to realise whatever they could from the area of their licence.
The modern concept of excise was born in 1661. However it was not until 1823, when an excise system similar to today's was introduced, that whiskey making as we know it today took root; and when it did it was Ireland and not Scotland that blazed the trail. In 1821 there were just 32 licensed stills on the island, by 1835 this had mushroomed to 93. In 1823 the largest pot still in the country could hold just 750 gallons, yet two years later Midleton distillery was boasting the world’s largest still (a record that stands to this day) with a capacity of 31,500 gallons.
Ireland and Scotland go separate ways
The whiskey industries in Ireland and Scotland then went their separate ways early in their development. In Ireland, mixed-grain Pot Whiskey was historically the favoured drink, while the Scots traditionally distilled Single Malt. In Ireland the flavour profile of whiskey has historically come from the quality of the raw ingredients. So Irish pot still whiskey was made with unpeated malt, drying over peated smoke was not necessary as the combination of malted and unmalted grain is very flavoursome. This tradition then carried over into the manufacture of Malt Whiskey, with very few Irish malt whiskeys featuring peat in their flavour profile.
The other main difference is that Ireland perfected the art of triple distillation. The theory is simple. You put your 'wash' into a pot still and gently turn up the heat. Alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water, so it's the first to evaporate. This liquid is collected and the process happens all over again, then again. The 'wash' is distilled three times, rather than twice. In Ireland that second still is called the feints still, in Scotland the intermediary still. What comes out the far end of the third still is a more alcoholic spirit, usually between 80 to 85% ABV, as opposed to the 68 to 70% typical of double distillation.
This Irish formula proved very popular by the early 19th century. After rum, Irish whiskey was the most popular spirit in the world. By 1850, Irish pot still whiskey was in demand all around the world. The enterprising distilleries active during the Victorian period laid the foundation for many of the brands of Irish whiskey currently flourishing.
More efficient distilling
A key turning point in the history of Irish Whiskey came in 1830 when Aeneas Coffey, a former inspector General of Excise in Ireland, developed and patented a more efficient method of distilling. Coffey’s Column Still took the whiskey industry by storm. This process allowed distillers to produce in a week what would take nine months to make in a pot still, thus revolutionising the industry. But the whiskey produced wasn't a Malt and wasn't a Pot Still, in fact many at the time doubted it was even whiskey. The prominent Irish distillers of the day dismissed the tasteless spirit that flowed from the column still as "silent spirit."
The Scots however were more receptive to Mr Coffey's whiskey and from 1860 onwards, they started selling a whole new product: a blend of silent spirit and pungent Highland Malts. Scotch was born. It was cheaper and more accessible and it took the world by storm.
But the growth in the popularity of Scotch didn’t immediately impact on the Irish. During the 19th century, the main Irish producers were still engaged in lucrative export trade with America, England and its colonies, including India, Australia and Canada. Irish whiskey’s reputation and superior distinction was celebrated throughout the world.
As the sun set on 19th century Ireland, a bizarre sequence of events was about to unfold. On their own none of these catastrophes would have had a huge impact, but coming as they did, hot on the heels of each other, a Perfect Storm of totally independent events was about to cause the near-fatal decline of one of Ireland’s few native industries.
Popularity of Scotch and the advent of Prohibition
The most substantial reason for Irish whiskey’s decline was the rise in popularity of blended whisky produced in Scotland – and the Irish refusal to adapt their brands of the time to changing consumer tastes. Then came four serious blows: the First World War, the Easter Rising, the War of Independence and the Civil War. Domestic turmoil was bad for business, but worse was the Economic War with Britain which followed in its wake. This resulted in the loss of all Irish whiskey sales in England and the extensive British Empire. And just when it needed it most, the largest export market for Irish whiskey literally disappeared overnight, as American prohibition bit in 1929.
With the majority of Irish whiskey markets removed, distilleries decreased production and lowered stockholdings of maturing whiskey to a point that, when US Prohibition laws were repealed, there were insufficient stocks to satisfy the market As Irish whiskey evaporated from the world stage, Scotch poured in to fill the gap, and when all those GI’s went home after the Second World War, they were drinking Scotch, not Irish.
The fact that we still have a hugely successful industry today is proof of just how good Irish Whiskey actually is. During the dark decades of the forties and fifties, those who knew their whiskey always searched out Irish. A hard core stayed loyal and during the 1960s the fight back began.
The Return to Popularity
And what a phoenix would emerge. In the 1960s and 70s the remaining distillers in Ireland put centuries of rivalry aside and merged their knowledge and experience. They built a new state of the art distillery in Midleton, County Cork and moved all production there and slowly but surely Irish whiskey took its place back on the world stage.
Across the world Irish whiskey is bucking the trend, for the last few years Irish whiskey has been the fastest growing spirits category globally. Tullamore Dew is now the world No. 2 Irish whiskey and the fastest growing brand in the category. The future for Irish whiskey is brighter than ever and the industry will continue to strive to cement its rightful place in the world whiskey market.