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A Brief History of Irish Whiskey

Irish whiskey is having a massive resurgence at present. With this in mind, we decided that it was about time to take a look back at its tumultuous history.

Whiskey is Irish by birth, Gaelic by name, and global by appreciation. Whilst there is no shortage of debate as to where whiskey truly originated, there are some facts we know...

The Birth of the Water of Life

Derived from the Gaelic “uisce beatha” meaning “water of life”, the first record of Irish whiskey dates back to 1405, around 90 years before it was first recorded in Scotland. Whilst the exact story of how whiskey came to Ireland is lost to the annals of history, it is largely believed that 11th century Irish missionary monks brought the art of distilling back with them after their travels around the Middle East. This practice became well-established within the monasteries and seeped out into common use. By the time that Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in 1530s, uisce beatha had become the drink of the people, produced from any crop that was leftover from the harvest. This spirit itself was probably more like poitin than today’s whiskey, and was unaged and often flavoured with fennel, anise, tarragon, mint, thyme and raisin, as well as sometimes being consumed with milk.

The Golden Age of Irish Whiskey

Producing Irish whiskey evolved from a local pastime into an industry in 1608, when Northern Ireland’s Old Bushmills Distillery became the world’s first licensed whiskey distillery. By 1779 there were 1,228 legal distilleries throughout Ireland (although many also distilled in their homes), and Irish whiskey was seen as the best in the world. Taxation from the English caused distillery numbers to fall, however the reputation of Irish whiskey held fast. One form of taxation (the Malt Tax of 1682) is even credited for unwittingly fathering the now quintessentially Irish style of whiskey – single pot still (using a mash bill of both malted and unmalted barley).

Scotland caught up with and began to out-produced the Irish distilleries – especially after the introduction of the Coffey column still there in 1831, which enabled quicker and easier production of larger quantities. However, despite this dominance, the fruiter character and creamy texture of Irish pot still whiskey continued to hold the world’s focus, replacing Brandy (after the Phylloxera Blight of 1860s) as the drink of the British Empire and outselling all other countries in terms of whiskey production.

A Series of Terrible Events

So how did Scotland overthrow Ireland as the whiskey producing darling of the world? Through a period of cataclysmic local and world events that proved near fatal to the Irish whiskey industry.

The Temperance Movement hit Ireland hard. This was followed by The Great Famine, which decimated crops, the population, and the economy. Irish Whiskey then had to attempt to negotiate the First World War, the Easter Rising, the Irish War of Independence (and export restrictions), Prohibition in America (their largest export market), the Irish Civil War, the Anglo-English Trade War (where it was essentially locked out of markets in the Commonwealth) and the Great Depression. By the end of the 1930s, these gruelling years were close to sounding the death knell for Irish Whiskey, and only a handful of distilleries were left open.

Refusal to Die

By the mid-1900s, only five whiskey distilleries/brands had survived: Jameson, John Powers & Sons, Paddy Irish Whiskey, Tullamore DEW, and Bushmills. These five knew they weren’t going to make it on their own, and that they would need to join forces. In 1966, John Jameson merged his business with Cork Distillers and John Powers, forming the umbrella company, Irish Distillers Group. 10 years later, the New Midleton Distillery opened in Cork, where much of Irish whiskey is now made.

Back with a vengeance

Irish Distillers was bought by the goliath, French-owned alcohol company, Pernod Ricard in 1988, and since then the popularity of Irish whiskey has soared.

As of 2020, Irish whiskey is the world’s fastest-growing spirits category of the past decade, growing volumes by 140%, with global sales of Irish whiskey skyrocketing from 60 million bottles in 2010 to 144 million bottles in January 2020.

In a mere 10 years, the number of operating distilleries around the country has gone from just four to 38! With all those bare bones of closed distilleries throughout the island; the deep-rooted culture and knowledge of distillation; and upwards of  €1.55 billion invested in the industry over the past decade, we’re in no doubt that there is about to be a Renaissance in Irish Whiskey. 

Let the uisce beatha flow once more.