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From Monks to Distilleries: The History of Irish Whiskey

As much as we love our Bourbon and other American Whiskeys, we are certainly not the only country in the world making great whiskey. In fact, whiskey has been around longer than America has. So let’s take a journey across the ocean to one of the two most important countries in the history and evolution of whiskey: Ireland. (In case you’re wondering, the other important country is Scotland). What is the history of Irish Whiskey—and what sets it apart from other spirits?

The History of Irish Whiskey

Even the term “Irish Whiskey” is historic in its own right. It is a recognized European geographical indication (GI). The term whiskey is derived from the Gaelic term “Uisce Beatha,” which translates to “aqua vitae,” or “water of life.” As an additional note, the “e” in whiskey comes from the Irish trying to distinguish themselves from the Scots, who spell it “whisky.” So already we see some major historical contributions.

Irish Whiskey: The Beginnings

Irish Whiskey is one of the oldest distilled spirits in Europe, and is believed to trace its roots back to the 1200s, when monks returning home from the Mediterranean brought back the art of distilling spirits. The oldest written record of Irish Whiskey appears to be from 1405, from a description in the Annals of Clonmacnoise. The passage explains that the head of a clan had died from taking a “surfeit of aqua vitae” on Christmas. Back then, Irish Whiskey would really have no resemblance to what we now know it as. It would have most likely been a clear spirit, infused with mint and other herbs, and even mixed with things like honey. The liqueur Irish Mist is based on a similar style recipe.

For a couple hundred years, whiskey production was a pretty rustic process conducted throughout the countryside, but as with everything it did start to evolve. It also became a taxable commodity, becoming a major source of national revenue. In 1608, King James granted the first license to distil to Sir Thomas Phillips in Bushmill, County Antrim, giving it a claim to being the oldest distillery in the world. This is a claim that is mildly debated, since it wasn’t granted a license to trade until 1784. Kilbeggan, on the other hand, was granted a license to trade in 1757, which grants it the title of oldest distillery in Ireland.

Ireland’s Production Boom

Irish Whiskey became the highest selling spirit in the UK, with Ireland logically being its biggest consumer. In the rush to meet demand for product, a lot of inferior product began to flood the marketplace (sounds a little like what would happen years later in America). So in 1759 a law was passed that stated that only malt, grain, potato, or sugar could be used in the production of Irish Whiskey. By the 1800s, Ireland was the capital of the whiskey world. Dublin was at the center of it, with the Powers and Teeling distilleries being just walking distance from one another. In 1805, John Jameson bought his wife’s family distillery and turned the Jameson brand into the number one whiskey in the world. In 1829, Tullamore Dew (named for Daniel E Williams from Tullamore county) was founded, and they would create the first blended Irish Whiskey. Powers, which dates back to 1791, and was the first brand to bottle its own whiskey in Ireland, would create the first “airline bottle” in 1886. By 1890, there were at least 30 distilleries operating in Ireland. Sadly, 100 years later only about 3 would remain.

Losing Steam—But Holding Strong

Prohibition, world wars, and a change in consumer taste took a major toll on the industry. Prior to Prohibition, Irish Whiskey held a great prominence in America. But changes in taste, as well as the Kennedy family business of exclusively importing Scotch, really hurt its comeback. Distilleries were bombed and destroyed during world wars, and internal civil wars certainly didn’t do much to help the cause either. In the 1960s, three of the few remaining distilleries, Powers, Jameson, and Cork Distilling Co., merged to form Irish Distillers. Then, in the 1970s, they closed their distilleries and all moved operations to the new Middleton Distillery. In 1972, Bushmills joined Irish Distillers, further consolidating the Irish Whiskey industry.

How Irish Whiskey is Made

Now before we start to taste these great whiskeys, we should probably go back in time and learn a bit about the different styles of Irish Whiskey, as well as some of the rules of production. Traditionally, Irish Whiskey was made in what is known as a pot still, which in simplistic terms almost looks like an upside-down funnel. Pot Still whiskeys are distilled in small batches, which is best for getting maximum flavor out of barley. In the 1800s when the Irish ruled the whiskey world with what was known as the big four distilleries: John Jameson, William Jameson, John Powers, and George Roe, pot still was the main style. After the 100 years of decline, only Red Breast and Red Spot were really still making it that way. Now, as part of the growth of the industry, this is a style that more distilleries are returning to. In 1832, Anneas Coffey patented the Coffey Still, which allowed for continuous distillation, which in turn allowed for more product to be made faster. This method also made grain-based whiskey much more economical. This type of still is what most of the big producers now use.

As a quick side note, the use of peat moss as a heat agent to dry out malted barley is very common in certain areas of Scotland for the production of whisky (especially in the Islay region). This is not a common practice in Ireland, though you may find a few distilleries that do it. Connemara is one that does for certain, but fear not: they clearly state it on their label. I'm fairly certain any other distillery would do the same. The reason I point this out is that a lot of people have the misconception that all Scotch tastes like campfire, and it is simply not true. Peat moss can impart a sort of smokiness and almost iodine flavor, but there are also other factors that can impart smokey flavor notes. So if you think your Irish Whiskey tastes “peaty,” chances are that it is not peat unless it says so on the bottle. It is more likely the toastiness of the oak.

What Makes a Real Irish Whiskey?

With that, here are the rules and standards that must be adhered to in order for the product to be a true Irish Whiskey. Rules, that as of 2016, state that “all production, labeling, and marketing of Irish Whiskey must be approved by Irish Revenue Authorities conforming to the Irish Department of Agriculture.”

  • Must be distilled in Ireland from a mash of malted or unmalted grains of cereal with or without whole grains of cereal
  • Saccharified by the diastase of malt contained therein, with or without other natural enzymes (basically soaked in water to release its enzymes with or without other enzymes)
  • Fermented with yeast
  • Distilled to no more than 94.8% alcohol by volume (189.6 proof)
  • Aged minimum of 3 years in a barrel no more than 185 gallons
  • Caramel color and water can be added
  • Bottled at a minimum of 40% alcohol by volume (80 proof)
  • The term “single” can only be used if it is made at one single distillery
  • Single pot, single malt, single grain, or blended must be on the label
    • Single malt: 100% malted barley, must be pot still. Ex: Tyrconnell, Bushmills 10, The Sexton
TYRCONNEL SINGLE IRISH WHISKEY
BUSHMILLS 10 YEAR SINGLE MALT
THE SEXTON IRISH WHISKEY 750ML
    • Single pot: Malted and unmalted barley, must be pot still. Ex: Redbreast, Glendalough

RED BEAST 15YR 750ML

GLENDALOUGH POT STILL 750ML

    • Grain: Made in a Coffey still. Ex: Kilbeggan

KILBEGGAN SINGLE GRAIN 750 ML

    • Blended: Any blend of the 3 styles. Ex: Jameson, Tullamore Dew, Bushmills, Paddy, Powers
JAMESON 750ML
TULLAMORE DEW 750ML
BUSHMILLS IRISH WHISKEY 750ML
PADDY'S IRISH WHISKEY 750ML
POWERS IRISH WHISKEY 750ML

Bring Home Some Irish History

The history of Irish Whiskey is fascinating, and the end result is a high-quality style of spirits that is still enjoyed around the world today. Looking to bring home a bit of Irish history? Wachusett Wine and Spirits carries a large selection of authentic Irish Whiskeys. Explore our selection online or in-store. Not sure what kind of whiskey you’re looking for? We can help. Visit us in-store or contact us; we’re happy to provide a recommendation.

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