Irish Whiskey – Then & Now


Irish Whiskey is enjoying its greatest revival.

In a world that is becoming increasingly smaller with each year, you are hard-pressed to find yourself far away from an Irish Pub regardless of your location. Stuck in Manila? I can point you to a great Paddy bar. Ditto for Reykjavík, Rome, Bordeaux, Guadalajara, Munich, Brussels, Hong Kong, and just about anyplace that tolerates the fine art of drinking.

The Irish Pub is the world’s friendliest and most covert church where the flock congregates daily. An essential element of the doctrine is Irish Whiskey. But it’s not just the Irish pubs. All bars are inclined to offer Irish Whiskey and the category offers something in all strata from the quickly quaffed shots to a slowly sipped nectar in the form of a 12 year old Irish Pot Still Whiskey.

Whiskey and Ireland are inseparable. This is the birthplace of Whiskey. Ireland has seen a glorious rise becoming the top Whiskey maker in the world followed quickly by a calamitous fall from grace and as luck would have it — a recent change of fortune.

The History of Irish Whiskey

Until recent times all of Ireland‘s great Whiskey brands were made at one of the country’s three active distilleries (between 1966 and 1987 it was just two). But let us not get ahead of ourselves. Ireland’s Whiskey history looks back more than 1,000 years and it’s a story worth telling.

There is evidence that shows nomadic monks making their way to Ireland in the 6th century bringing with them rudimentary distilling skills. Much of this was reserved for the making of perfumes and medical tinctures.

In the 11th and 12 centuries Irish monks returning from their travels through the Mediterranean region came back to Ireland with the skills to create potable spirits. While the Mediterranean had abundant vines Ireland did not but it did have grain and crude beer – this could be distilled. Eau de vie (water of life) spirits made commonly from fruit had become uisce beatha (later to be anglicized to whiskey) in Irish Gaelic. Whiskey was born.

The Red Book of Ossary makes mention of Irish Whiskey in the 16th century but Whiskey was largely reserved for religious orders. In this time, straddling the Tudor period, Whiskey became a drink that was available to anyone in all classes, not just the elites. Russian Czar Peter the Great said, “of all the wines, the Irish spirit is the best.”

Irish Whiskey Golden Days

Irish Whiskey Golden Days

At the dawning of the 19th century Whiskey grew from being largely a farm product to becoming a full-fledged industry. By 1823 Ireland was home to 40 official Whiskey distilleries and that number swelled to 86 by 1840.

During that same period an invention that would change the world of distilling forever was created. Aeneas Coffey, an Irish excise man (yes this is dripping in irony), patented his column still based on his enhancements made to Scotsman Robert Stein’s original design. The Irish distillers weren’t too fond of Coffey’s still but the Scots loved it.

By 1900 there were more than 100 Whiskey distilleries in Ireland and Dublin was the epicenter. Ireland was the Whiskey king of the world selling the equivalent of 12 million nine-liter cases of Whiskey per year. The world was in love with Irish Whiskey but no nation more so that the USA. This was truly the golden age of Irish spirit.

However, trouble was looming just along the horizon. Remember that the Scots were in love with the column still. These stills could more efficiently and cheaply produce Whiskey. By 1910 there was a surplus of Whiskey and when supply outpaces demand prices fall.

In 1916 Ireland witnessed the Easter Rising while the Brits were fully engaged in World War I. The first World War took its toll on brewing and distilling as barley was greatly reserved for the war effort. Conflict at home and abroad took its tool.

While the First World War concluded in 1918 Irish Whiskey distiller’s greatest customer, the Americans, decided to take an extended break from alcohol with the passing of the 18th amendment effectively killing their number one export market. Prohibition in the United States lasted until 1933 and in that time Ireland experienced a war of Independence in 1921 and a protracted civil war between 1922 and 1923.

When Prohibition in USA was repealed Ireland was still impacted by the crown’s trade embargo on all things made in Ireland. This of course eliminated the numerous outposts of the empire including Canada, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as the UK itself. Essentially 25 percent of the world’s ports were off limits.

In a matter of just three decades the once thriving Irish Whiskey industry, the envy of the world, was nearly mortally wounded.

The Irish distilling industry was all but dead. By 1953 there were only six distilleries left, and by 1966 there were four, which soon became two as Jameson, Powers, and Cork Distillers merged to form Irish Distillers (Bushmills being the other of the two).

Irish Whiskey limped onward with their two distillers, that for a time were both owned by the same multi-national entity, until 1987 when Cooley Distillery in County Lough was launched ending a 100-year plus drought of new Whiskey distillers in The Emerald Isle.

The Modern History

Irish Whiskey Evolves

History Meets the Present

The introduction of John Teeling’s Cooley in the late 1980s changed everything and its gradual success breathed much needed life into the wounded and once proud industry. Until the 1990s all of the Irish Whiskey labels sold world-wide were created in just two distilleries. Now there were three.

The new millennium brought good fortune to the Irish Whiskey business. While Ireland was selling 12 million cases of Whiskey in 1900 they dipped to just 400,000 cases in the mid-1970s. However, in the decade between 2002 and 2012 Irish Whiskey exports rose by an impressive 220 percent. In 2012 Ireland’s lone independent distillery Cooley was sold to drinks giant Beam.

In a relatively short time, and a great deal of sweat and tears, John Teeling had turned a County Lough potato spirits distillery into Cooley, one of the world’s most respected Whiskey distilleries. With the sale complete to Beam, Teeling would not simply go quietly into the night.

The creation and subsequent sale of Cooley inspired dozens of aspiring Whiskey makers. In 2012 the new Irish boom was under way. Dingle Distillery, County Kerry, started Whiskey production in November 2012. Their production is very small and it is doubtful that much if any will be available for export while their Gin and Vodka has an international audience. Echlinville Distillery, County Down, opened in 2012. They are crafting traditional triple distilled Whiskey making Irish Pot Still and Single Malt Whiskey that will be first available in the fall of 2016.

West Cork Distillers, County Cork, quietly opened in 2003  and created a few uninspiring labels but the Whiskies, a Single Malt and blended Irish Whiskey, sold with the West Cork label are lovely. Tullamore D.E.W., County Offaly, owners William Grant built a new distillery that was opened in 2013. The original Tullamore D.E.W. distillery had been closed since 1954 (built in 1829) while the label remained with the Whiskey being made at both Bushmills and Cork Midleton.

Glendalough Distillery, County Wicklow, got their start in 2011 and built a distillery in 2013 while Walsh Whiskey Distillery, County Carlow, got their pot stills in 2015.

The Teeling family didn’t wander far after the sale of Cooley to Beam and in 2012 John Teeling’s sons launched a brand that carries the family name. Teeling Whiskey was launched with casks that they had set aside from their days at Cooley with future Whiskey coming from a new Dublin distillery that was opened in 2014. At the same time John Teeling was busy creating the Great Northern Distillery, County Louth, on the site of the old Great Northern Brewery (aka Harp Brewery) in Dundalk. Pot stills fired in September 2015 while the column stills started a couple months earlier. The total production for both malt and grain whiskey will be about 50 million bottles a year. This will be a force to be reckoned in the Irish Whiskey world.

While these newcomers have just started created new spirit their Whiskies won’t be ready until rested in cask for at least three years and in most cases a few additional years to reach ideal maturity. Don’t panic, the Whiskey is on the way.

What’s with the “E”?

In short, Scottish Whisky has no ‘e’ while Irish Whiskey does. There are many theories to explain this subtle difference including the cheeky suggestion that the Scots were too frugal to buy the additional vowel! The most credible explanation is that in the mid to latter 1800s Scotch Whisky brands saturated the marketplace with loads of cheaply made whisky. Producers in Ireland, in an effort to further distinguish their products, adopted the use of the extra vowel. Certainly, this is not a condition that exists today but the subtle spelling variation endures. In the world of Whisky we generally find that Canada, Japan, and Wales follow the Scottish spelling while the USA uses both spellings. In no way should consumers believe that the choice of one spelling over the other is any indication of style.

Defining Irish Whiskey

All Irish Whiskey by law must be aged in wood casks for a minimum of three years. Much of the malt Whiskey in Ireland is triple distilled but not all as notably Cooley utilizes a double pot still distillation. As is the case in Scotland, Irish distillers prefer used casks for the maturation of their Whiskey. Most of the casks in Ireland come from the USA as Bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey makers are required to use new casks. In a beautiful symbiotic relationship these once-used American white oak casks make their way around the globe.

Types of Irish Whiskey:

Blended – this is by far the greatest volume of Irish Whiskey. As the name suggests it’s a blend of grain Whiskey and malt Whiskey.

Grain (single grain) – In Ireland grain Whiskey is most often made with maize. It is produced in column stills and aged in casks (most often ex-Bourbon casks).

Malt (single malt) — is made with malted barley the same material responsible for the world’s great beers. It is distilled in pot stills and is much more weighty than grain Whiskey. When you see “Single” in conjunction with malt or grain this indicates that the Whiskey was made entirely at one distillery.

Irish Pure Pot Still – is much like the malt Whiskey as it utilizes malted barley in a pot still with the distinctive difference of including unmalted barley. This style is very distinctive to Ireland and came about as a reaction to crown’s malt tax of 1682. You will now often see these Whiskies labeled as “Single Irish Pot Still Whiskey” further indicating that is was made entirely at one distillery.

Whiskey’s Essential Element – Wood – See the story

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