The word "whiskey" is an Anglicisation of the first word in the Gaelic phrase, uisce beatha, meaning "water of life" (modern Irish: uisce beatha, Scottish: uisge beatha and Manx: ushtey bea). The phrase was a translation of the Latin term aqua vitae, which was commonly used to describe distilled spirits during the Middle Ages.
Peat is rarely used in the malting process, so that Irish whiskey has a smoother finish as opposed to the smoky, earthy overtones common to some Scotches. There are notable exceptions to these rules in both countries; an example is Connemara peated Irish malt (double distilled) whiskey from the Cooley Distillery in Riverstown, Cooley, County Louth.
Irish whiskey was once the most popular spirit in the world, though a long period of decline from the late 19th century onwards greatly damaged the industry. So much so that although Ireland boasted over 30 distilleries in the 1890s, a century later, this number had fallen to just three. However, Irish whiskey has seen a great resurgence in popularity since the late twentieth century, and has been the fastest growing spirit in the world every year since 1990. With exports growing by over 15% per annum in recent years, existing distilleries have been expanded and a number of new distilleries constructed. As of August 2017, Ireland now has eighteen distilleries in operation, with at least a further sixteen in the planning stages. However, only six of these have been operating long enough to have products sufficiently aged for sale, and only one of these was operating prior to 1975.
The word 'whiskey' (or whisky) comes from the Irish (or 'Gaelic') uisce beatha, meaning water of life. Irish whiskey was one of the earliest distilled drinks in Europe, arising around the 12th century (see Distilled beverage). It is believed that Irish monks brought the technique of distilling perfumes back to Ireland from their travels to the Mediterranean countries around 1000 A.D. The Irish then modified this technique to obtain a drinkable spirit. Although termed "whiskey", the spirit produced during this period would have differed from what we currently recognise as whiskey. The uisce beatha or whiskey produced in historical times would not have been aged, and was often flavoured with aromatic herbs such as mint, thyme or anise. Irish Mist, a whiskey liqueur launched in 1963, is purportedly based on such a recipe.
Although known to have occurred for hundreds of years, records of whiskey production in Ireland can be difficult to come by, particularly in the earlier years when production was unregulated. Even in later years, as production was frequently illicit, official records bear little reflection of reality. In addition, as many Irish records were traditionally oral, rather than written, details on early production are likely lost.
The oldest known written record of whiskey comes from Ireland in 1405 in the Irish Annals of Clonmacnoise, where it was written that the head of a clan died after "taking a surfeit of aqua vitae" at Christmas, and its first known mention in Scotland dates from 1494. However, it is known that by 1556 whiskey was widespread, as an Act passed by the English Parliament declared whiskey to be "a drink nothing profitable to be drunken daily and used is now universally through the realm of Ireland". This Act also made it technically illegal for anyone other than "the peers, gentlemen and freemen of larger towns" to distil spirits without a licence from the Lord Deputy. However, as Crown control did not extend far beyond the Pale, a fortified area around Dublin, this had little effect.
In 1608, King James I granted one such licence to Sir Thomas Phillips, a landowner in Bushmills, County Antrim. It is through this licence that the Old Bushmills Distillery lays claim to being the oldest surviving grant of licence to distil in the world. However, the current Bushmills distillery and company was not registered to trade until 1784 which allows the Kilbeggan Distillery (formerly Locke's Distillery), founded by the McManus family in Kilbeggan, County Westmeath, which has been licensed and distilling since 1757 (not counting the period between 1954 and 2007) to lay claim to the title of the oldest licensed distillery in Ireland. Kilbeggan also has what is believed to be the oldest operational copper pot still in the world, over 250 years old.
In 1661, the Crown introduced a tax on whiskey production in Britain and Ireland. Therefore, in theory, all whiskey distillers in Ireland were to register and pay taxes. Although Crown control now extended far beyond the Pale, there is limited official record of whiskey distillation during this period. One reason for this, is that until 1761 registration was done on a voluntary basis. Therefore, as registration entailed paying a tax, it was much avoided for obvious reasons. Another reason, is that those tasked with enforcing the law were frequently local landlords, and if their tenants were the illicit distillers, it was not in their best interests to enforce the law. However, it is known that more distillation occurred than is officially recorded, as when registration later became compulsory, several registrations detail the use of existing facilities.
From a regulatory perspective, the introduction of this Act is a historical milestone as it provides a clear distinction between licit and illicit whiskey distillation in Ireland. For many years following the introduction of this Act, whiskey produced by registered distillers was known as "Parliament whiskey", while that produced by illicit producers was, and still is referred to as Poitín, a Gaelic term meaning "small pot" (often anglicised as poteen) in reference to the small pot stills used by the illicit distillers. However, although traditionally the product of illicit production, many legal varieties of Poitín have come to market in recent years.
In the 18th century, demand for whiskey in Ireland grew significantly, driven both by strong population growth, and by displacing the demand for imported spirits. Growth in the latter is very much visible in the share of Irish duties paid on legal spirits in the late 1700s. In 1770, whiskey only accounted for 25% of the total duty on spirits received by the exchequer, while duty on imported rum accounted for 51%, with the remainder divided equally between brandy and gin. However, by 1790, only twenty years later, whiskey's share accounted for 66%.
As a consequence of this increased demand, some distillers prioritized quantity over quality, to the detriment of their product. This prompted parliament to pass an Act in 1759 prohibiting distillers from using any ingredient other than malt, grain, potatoes or sugar in the production of whiskey, and specifically prohibiting several unsavory ingredients. Another consequence, was that the potential revenue lost to the exchequer through the under-reporting of output at legal distilleries, and the tax avoidance of illicit producers became more significant, prompting parliament to introduce another Act of Parliament. This was enacted in 1779 and significantly reformed how the taxes payable on whiskey production were calculated. Previously, taxes were payable on production volumes, which were subject to manipulation. However, this Act removed the potential for under-reporting by making taxes payable on a distillery's potential output (based on the capacity of its pot stills), rather than its actual, or reported output. In addition, the Act penalised smaller distillers in an attempt to reduce reporting fraud.
Due to the stringency of this Act, which made assumptions about output (for instance, a 500-gallon pot still was assumed to produce 33,075 gallons a month) and the minimum numbers of days which a still was in operation per annum (112), many of the smaller, or less efficient registered distilleries were forced underground. In 1779, when the Act was introduced, there were 1,228 registered distilleries in Ireland, however, by 1790, this number had fallen to 246, and by 1821, there were just 32 licensed distilleries in operation. This had the effect of concentrating licit distillation in a smaller number of distilleries based mainly in the larger urban centres, such as Cork and Dublin, which offered better markets for legal producers. Whereas, in the rural areas distillation became a more illicit activity. In particular, in the northwest of Ireland, where agricultural lands were poorer and poitín provided a supplemental source of income to the tenant farmers, an income which landlords were again slow to curtail as it would have weakened their abilities to pay rent. The scale of this illicit activity was such, that one surveyor estimated that duty was paid on only 2% of the spirit consumed in northwestern provinces of Ulster and Connaught, while Aeneas Coffey (an excise officer at the time, and later inventor of the Coffey Still) estimated that there were over 800 illicit stills in operation in Inishowen, County Donegal alone. By contrast, illicit distillation in Munster and Leinster was less extensive.
By some measures the Act was successful, as the volume of whiskey on which excise was paid increased from 1.2 million to 2.9 million gallons. In addition, it prompted capital investments in establishing larger distilleries (which were more easily regulated), due to the need for economies of scale to profit from legal distillation. However, when demand for whiskey increased in the early 1800s, due to population growth, and changing consumption patterns (which saw it becoming more ingrained in Irish cultural activities), much of the demand was initially met by small-scale illicit distillers who did not need to pay tax or comply with the restrictions of the 1779 Act. In fact, so much illicit spirit was available during this period that the licensed distillers in Dublin complained that it could obtained "as openly in the streets as they sell a loaf of bread".
In 1823, the authorities, acknowledging the problems with the licensing system, cut the duties by half, and published an Excise Act which significantly reformed the existing legislation, making legal distillation much more attractive. In particular, the reforms removed the need for distillers to rush production in order to produce as much (or more) whiskey than duties would be paid on, leading to improvements in fuel efficiency and product quality, as distillers could operate the stills at a more appropriate pace. In addition, restrictions on the type and capacity of stills used were removed, granting distillers more freedom to tailor their equipment. Another significant reform, was a change to how duty was paid. Previously, duty was charged monthly, based on still output, meaning that distilleries paid tax on whiskey before it was sold. However, under the reforms, duty was to be paid only when the whiskey was actually sold, making its storage in bond more attractive, as less of the distillery's working capital would be tied up in stock.
Together, these reforms greatly improved the distilling landscape, leading to a drop in illicit whiskey production, and a boom in investment in legal distilleries. In 1821, two years before the reforms, there were 32 licensed distilleries in Ireland. However, just four years after the reforms, this number had risen to 82 in 1827, while by 1835 it had reached 93, a 19th-century peak. The increased attractiveness of legal distillation is evident in the scale of the equipment used. Prior to the Excise Act of 1823, the largest pot still in Ireland had a capacity of just 750 gallons. However, by 1825, just two years later, the Midleton Distillery would open with a 31,618-gallon pot still, which remains the largest ever built; the largest pot stills currently in operation in the world (as of 2014), located next door in the New Midleton Distillery, are roughly half this size, at 16,498 gallons (75,000 litres).
Though domestic demand would reduce somewhat in the mid-1800s, due to the Temperance movement of the 1830s, and the Great Famine of the 1840s, during which a million died, between 1823 and 1900, whiskey output in Ireland increased fourfold, and with access to the overseas markets provided by the British Empire, Irish whiskey became the most popular spirit in the World, with "Dublin whiskey" being particularly well regarded.
In the early 1800s, Ireland was the largest spirit market in the United Kingdom, with demand for spirit exceeding that even of more populous England. Therefore, as capacities expanded, Ireland became the largest producer of spirits in the United Kingdom, and Dublin, then the largest market for spirits in Ireland, emerged as a major distilling centre. By 1823, Dublin boasted the five largest licensed distilleries in the country. At their peak, the distilleries in Dublin would grow to become the largest in the world, with a combined output of almost 10 million gallons per annum, the largest of which, Roe's Thomas Street Distillery, had an output exceeding 2 million gallons per annum. By 1878, the reputation of Dublin whiskey was such that Distillers Company Ltd., a Scottish distilling firm, having built a distillery in Dublin, claimed that Dublin whiskey could sell for a 25% premium over other Irish whiskey, and that it had a demand five times that of Scotch at the time. Although these figures are likely inflated, they give an indication of the esteem in which Dublin whiskey was held, even by Scottish distillers. During this period, the four largest Dublin distilling firms, of John Jameson, William Jameson, John Powers and George Roe (all family run, and collectively known as the "Big Four") came to dominate the Irish distilling landscape. The chief output of these distilleries, known as single or "pure pot still" whiskey, was made from a mix of malted and unmalted barley, and solely distilled in pot stills. The style, having initially emerged as a means of avoiding a 1785 tax on malt, endured although the tax had been later repealed. In fact, even by the late 1880s, only two of Ireland's then 28 existing distilleries were producing single malt whiskey, the rest steadfast in their devotion to "pure pot still".
In this period, when Irish whiskey was at its zenith, it would have been difficult to imagine that Scotch, then produced by small-scale producers, and almost unheard of outside of Scotland, would soon becomes the world's preeminent drink. Whereas, Irish whiskey, then the world's most popular whiskey, would enter a century of decline, with all of Dublin's great distilleries shutting their doors. So much so, that by the late 20th century, the once popular pure pot still whiskey had almost disappeared entirely, with only two specialist bottlings, Green Spot and Redbreast remaining in existence. However, since 2010, several new single pot whiskeys have been launched.
There were a number of factors, both internal and external, which lead to this decline. However, one of the main turning points was the patenting in 1832 of the Coffey still by Aeneas Coffey. Ironically, Coffey was both the former Inspector General of Excise in Ireland, and subsequently, after leaving the excise service, an Irish distiller himself. His patent, the Coffey still, was a continuous distillation apparatus which offered an improvement on the traditional pot still. Although similar continuous stills had been proposed in the past, including by other Irish distillers themselves, the Coffey still was the most effective, and soon entered widespread use.
Unlike traditional pot stills, which were operated in a batch manner, Coffey stills could be operated continuously. This made them cheaper to operate, as they required less fuel, and more efficient to run, producing a continuous, rapid output of spirit. In addition, because technically, continuous distillation entails the conduct of a series of distillation runs in sequence internally within a self-contained unit rather than the conduct of a single distillation within a pot still, Coffey stills were capable of producing a far higher strength output than pot stills. However, this advantage also came with a downside. As a consequence of increasing the alcohol concentration in the product, Coffey stills removed some of the other volatile components responsible for flavour. As a result, their use proved extremely controversial when first introduced.
Ireland was the initial testing ground for the Coffey still, with Coffey showcasing them in his own distillery and offering them to other Irish distillers. Although there were seven in operation in Ireland by 1833, their use did not become widespread amongst the larger distilleries. In particular, the big four Dublin distillers, proud of their existing produce, scoffed at its use, questioning if its product, grain whiskey, which they termed neutral or silent (i.e. tasteless) spirit, could even be termed whiskey. It wasn't that the distillers were Luddites, afraid of change, their distilleries being amongst the most advanced in the world. The distillers were simply steadfast in the belief that their existing methods yielded a superior whiskey. For instance, John Jameson trialled a Coffey still at his distillery, but chose not adopt the technology because he was not satisfied with the quality of product it produced. Therefore, in the face of opposition in Ireland, Coffey offered his still to the English gin and Scottish whiskey distillers, who proved more receptive, and where the technology gained widespread use.
The adoption of the Coffey still in Scotland was indirectly assisted by Ireland's Great Famine of the 1840s, which lead to the repealing of the Corn Laws, which between 1815 and 1846 had restricted the import of cheaper foreign grain into Britain and Ireland. After the laws were repealed in 1846, cheap American corn could be imported and used to produce neutral spirit in Coffey stills. This spirit, though lacking in taste, could then be blended with traditional pot still derived spirit to produce, a cheaper, "blended whiskey". This blended whiskey, which was less intense in taste than pure pot still, was to prove popular in Britain, capturing much market share from Irish pure pot still whiskey.
Despite changing tastes and falling market share, the adoption of Coffey stills was stubbornly resisted by Irish distillers for many years, with some arguing for restrictions on their use. For instance, in 1878, the big Dublin distillers jointly published a pamphlet entitled "Truths about Whisky," in which they referred to the output of Coffey stills as "Good, bad or indifferent; but it cannot be whiskey, and it ought not to be sold under that name". In 1904, almost seventy years after it had been patented, the Senior Manager of Ireland's largest rural distillery, Allman's of Bandon, placed an outright ban on the introduction of Coffey stills at his distillery in the face of opposition from a director.
The issue came to a head in 1908, when a royal commission was appointed to investigate the issue. By this point 60% of all whiskey produced in Britain and Ireland was made in Coffey stills. In 1909, a royal commission settled the argument once and for all, declaring that whiskey could refer to the output of by either Coffey or pot stills. By comparison, it is interesting to note that a similar debate occurred in France; such that under French law, to be termed "Cognac", a spirit must be produced using a pot still. Whereas, Coffey stills are permissible in the production of Armagnac.
In addition to the introduction of blended whiskey, and the Irish distillers' failure to account for its appeal to changing tastes, there were a number of additional issues which placed further pressure on the Irish distillers: the Irish War of Independence, the subsequent civil war, and trade war with Britain (which cut off whiskey exports to Britain and all Commonwealth countries, then Irish whiskey's biggest market); prohibition in the United States (1920-1933), which severely curtailed exports to Irish whiskey's second biggest market; widespread counterfeiting of Irish whiskeys in America and Britain; protectionist policies introduced by the Irish Free State Government, which significantly capped whiskey exports in the hope of taxing domestic consumption; and finally, over-expansion and mismanagement at several Irish distilleries. Together, these factors greatly hampered exports and forced many distilleries into economic difficulties and out of business, and by the early 20th century, Scotland had surpassed Ireland to become the World's largest whiskey producer.
When Alfred Barnard, a British historian, published his account of the distilleries of Britain and Ireland in 1887, there were 28 distilleries in operation in Ireland. By the 1960s, there was only a handful of these remaining in operation, and in 1966, three of these (John Jameson, Powers, and Cork Distilleries Company) chose to amalgamate their operations under the name of Irish Distillers and to close their existing facilities and concentrate their operations in a new purpose-built facility to be constructed beside the Old Midleton Distillery in Co. Cork. In 1972, these were joined by the only other remaining Irish operation, Bushmills, so that by the mid-1970s there were only two whiskey distilleries in operation in Ireland, the New Midleton Distillery and the Old Bushmills Distillery, both owned by Irish Distillers, and with only one of these having operated during Irish whiskey's golden years.
Production reached a nadir at about 400,000–500,000 cases per annum during this period, down from a height of 12 million cases around 1900. However, the late 1980s saw the beginnings of a long and slow resurgence in the Irish whiskey industry, with the establishment of the Cooley Distillery in 1987, and Pernod Ricard's takeover of Irish Distillers in 1988, which led to increased marketing of Irish whiskeys, in particular Jameson, overseas. Since then Irish whiskey has undergone a major resurgence, and for the past twenty years, has been the fastest growing spirit in the world, with annual growth of approximately 15–20% per annum. In 2010, the Kilbeggan Distillery, which had closed in 1954, reopened, bringing the number of operating distilleries up to four. By August 2017, this figure had grown to eighteen, with at least sixteen more in the planning stages. As of 2016, sales of Irish whiskey stood at 8.7 million 9-litres cases, up from 4.4 million cases in 2008, with sales projected to exceed 12 million cases (its historical peak) by 2020, and 24 million by 2030. As of 2017, roughly 750 people are employed on a full-time basis in the whiskey industry in Ireland. In addition, it is estimated that the industry provides support to a further 4,200 jobs across agriculture and other sectors of the economy.
Irish whiskey is a protected European Geographical Indication (GI) under Regulation (EC) No 110/2008. As of 29 January 2016, production, labelling and marketing of Irish whiskey must be verified by the Irish revenue authorities as conforming with the Department of Agriculture's 2014 technical file for Irish whiskey. Key requirements include specifications that:
There are several regulations governing the labelling of Irish whiskeys. In particular:
According to the Alcoholic Beverage Federation of Ireland (ABFI), as of August 2017 there are 18 whiskey distilleries in operation in Ireland. However, many of these are recently established and have not yet aged their own spirits for sale as whiskey:
According the Alcoholic Beverage Federation of Ireland, as of November 2016, at least thirteen new distilleries have been granted planning permission in Ireland, with many other projects in various stages of planning. In addition, to the Alltech and Glendalough distilleries mentioned above, which had previously distilled spirit, planned distilleries include:
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, around 1,000 registered distilleries opened and closed across Ireland - with multiples of this number operating illegally. Most of these have disappeared without a trace, only to be remembered by local street names e.g. Bond Street in Dublin. For instance, the excise return for 1800 lists 40 distilleries operating in Dublin city alone, while Drogheda is estimated to have had 15 distilleries in the 1780s, with as many as ten operating in Cork city in the 19th century. Of these numerous ventures, only one, Bushmills, has remained in continuous operation until the present day. However, the Kilbeggan Distillery (est. 1757) which closed in 1954, reopened in recent years, while a new distillery was constructed in Tullamore to replace an existing distillery which also closed in 1954. Some of the notable distilleries previously in operation across Ireland are listed below.
Irish whiskey comes in several forms, with the name of the style depending on the type of grain used and the distillation process. Traditionally, Irish whiskey was produced in pot stills. Irish whiskeys made in a pot still fall into two categories.
Whiskeys made entirely from malted barley distilled in a pot still within a single distillery are referred to as single malt whiskeys, a style also very commonly associated with Scotch whisky. These may be double or triple distilled.
Single pot still whiskey is made from a mixture of malted and unmalted barley completely distilled in a pot still within a single distillery. This differs from single malt whiskey through the inclusion of raw, unmalted grain in the mash. This style has also historically been referred to as "pure pot still" whiskey and "Irish pot still whiskey", with older bottlings and memorabilia often bearing these names. Single pot whiskeys were the most common style of Irish whiskey until the emergence of blends in the 20th century.
Whiskey produced from continuous distillation in a column or Coffey still, rather than a pot still, is referred to as grain whiskey. This may be produced from a variety of grains. Lighter and more neutral in taste, this spirit is rarely found on its own, though some examples exist. The vast majority of grain whiskey is used to make blended whiskey, a product made by mixing column still product with richer and more intense pot still product.
A mixture of the above styles. Regardless of whether the blended whiskey is made from combining grain whiskey with either single malt whiskey or with single pot still whiskey or both, it is labelled with the same terminology. Blended whiskeys are now the most common style of both Irish and Scotch whiskeys.
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