Whiskies of the World: The History of Irish Whisky
Welcome to Whiskies of the World, a new series in which we’ll be exploring the history and origins of some of the most revered spirits that this planet has to offer.
This edition is the first of a two-parter on Irish whisky. This week, we’ll be talking about the history of Irish whisky. Next time, we’ll explore the different kinds of Irish whisky on the market today, as well as recommending plenty of bottles for you to sample.
The Irish are widely credited as inventing whisky, and in the late 1800s, they were the premiere whisky producers in the world. But, by the early 20th century, the Irish whisky world was in disarray.
This is the story of how Irish whiskey rose, then fell, then rose again, staging a spectacular comeback in the past 20 years that defied the odds and reestablished it as a world whiskey player.
So let’s jump in, and find out how the so-called “water of life” came to be:
Finding the “Water of Life”
While the Scots will fiercely contest it, it was the Irish who first gave the world “whiskey” way back in the 12th century. The term whisky is in fact derived from the Irish uisce beatha – which literally translates at the water of life (an apt descriptor of whisky if we ever heard one!).
Where did it come from? Well, it came from monks, who brought back the technique of distilling – not liquor, but perfumes – from their travels to the Mediterranean around 1000 A.D. Some bright spark (a genius I dare say!) decided to adapt this technique to create a drinkable spirit, and whisky was born.
Or rather, the term whisky was born, because the drink that came about as a result bore very little resemblance to the drink we know today. Uisce beatha was not aged and was flavored with aromatic herbs including mint, thyme and anise. If you’re curious about what that original uisce beatha tasted like, you might want to sample a glass of Irish Mist, a whiskey liqueur that purports to be based on the original recipe.
Licensed distillation of Irish whisky began in 1608, and by the 18th century, the demand for Irish Whisky had grown significantly. As a result, Ireland became the largest spirit market in the United Kingdom by the early 1800s. In 1832, the city of Dublin was home to the five biggest distilleries in the country, which grew to become the largest distilleries worldwide. By late 1800s, the reputation for Irish whisky overseas was so strong that it had a demand five times that of Scotch. Irish “pure pot still” whisky (we’ll come back to “pure pot” whisky in the next edition) was supremely popular.
But, by the turn of the century, Scotch had displaced Irish whisky as the world recognized spirit, and all of Dublin’s legendary distilleries were closed for business.
So what happened?
The Decline of Irish Whisky
There were a few factors that led to the decline of Irish whisky, but the introduction of the “Coffey still,” and Irish distillers’ refusal to adopt it, is perhaps the most significant. Invented in 1832 by Aeneas Coffey, the Coffey still was a continuous distillation apparatus that was much more efficient, required less fuel, and was cheaper to run than the traditional Irish “pure pot still.”
But, while more efficient, the Coffey still removed other volatile components from the drink that contributed to its flavor. Irish distilleries were amongst the first to trial Coffey stills, but decided against using them, believing they produced an inferior drink. However, the much milder tasting whisky from the Coffey still found increasing favor with British drinkers, particularly when blended with whiskies produced by traditional means.
While tastes changed, and the demand for the new “blended” Whiskies soared, the Irish distillers remained steadfast in their refusal to use them, with some even arguing for restrictions on their use.
It was too little, too late however. Failing to account for blended whisky’s appeal to changing palates, the Irish distilleries were dealt further blows thanks to the Irish War of Independence and the subsequent civil and trade war with Britain. While there were 28 distilleries in operation in Ireland in 1887, there were only two by 1972. Old Bushmills was the last remaining distillery from Irish whisky’s golden years, while the New Mildeton Distillery was opened when three remaining Irish distillers – John Jameson, Powers and Cork – amalgamated their operations under “Irish Distillers” and closed their existing distilleries.
A Spectacular Comeback
To understand just how far Irish whisky had fallen by the 1970s, you’ve only got to look at the statistics. Throughout the decade, only 400,000 – 500,000 cases of Irish whisky were being shipped per annum. That might seem like a reasonable number, but it’s a drop in the ocean compared to the 12 million cases being shipped per year circa 1900.
Towards the tail end of last century, Irish whisky was seen as something of a relic, overtaken in popularity by the Scotch juggernaut, seemingly never to recover. But, the massive resurgence of Irish whisky in the past 20 years has been one of the most surprising stories in the sprit world’s recent history.
Two milestones in the late 1980s can be attributed to Irish whisky’s recovery. The first is the establishment of the Cooley Distillery in 1987, a major boost to the country’s whisky industry. The second was the takeover of Irish Distillers by Pernod Ricard in 1988. Pernod Ricard – the conglomerate that owns the French, anise-based spirit Pernod – invested significant time and energy into promoting Irish whisky (particularly Jameson’s) worldwide.
Thanks in no small part to Pernod Ricard’s efforts, Irish whisky has undergone a spectacular resurgence in the past two decades. While there were only two Irish distilleries in 1972, the country currently boasts 18, with a whopping 16 under construction. 8.7 million cases of Irish whisky were sold in 2016 and that number is expected to exceed 12 million by 2020, beating the 1900 historical peak. In fact, with an annual growth rate of approximately 20 percent, Irish whisky is now the fastest growing spirit in the world.
That’s it for this edition. Be sure to come back next time when we’ll be getting to grips with the differences between Irish single malts, pure pots and grains, as well as recommending a few choice for your liquor cabinet!