100 AD100 AD
The first clear evidence of distillation comes from Greek alchemists working in Alexandria in the 1st century AD. Although it is generally accepted that the Arabs had a strong impact on distillation when they fashioned the original alembics for the creation of perfumes. The alembic is an alchemical still consisting of two vessels connected by a tube and works under the basic principles of evaporation and condensation
700 AD700 AD
It is believed that Irish Monks brought this technique of distilling perfumes back to Ireland from their travels sometime around 700 A.D. It was then the Irish modified this method to achieve a drinkable spirit. The first distillates were called Uisce Beatha.
The first confirmed written record of whisky comes from 1405 in Ireland. In the Irish Annals of Clonmacnoise in 1405, the first written record of whisky attributes the death of a chieftain to “taking a surfeit of aqua vitae” at Christmas
Irish Whiskey was beginning to gain fans including ‘Queen Elizabeth I’ who in 1541 had stocks of it delivered to her court. The English writers of the reign of Queen Elizabeth considered our ‘usquebaugh’ better than the aqua vitae of England. At the time Distilling was a cottage industry with hundreds of home based distilleries throughout the country. Distilling whiskey was integrated into the daily life of most people. However the face and fate of Irish Distillation was to change. With events such as the Spanish fleet at Kinsale, the Flight of Earls and other devastating elements, things started to change for Irish whiskey. It was in 1608 that the British Crown, through James I, issued the first licence to an Irish Distillery in Antrim. Although the Irish had been making whiskey there for several hundred years this new license served as a notice to the word that Irish whiskey was now a fully-fledged, legal member of world commerce.
In 1661, noticing how well Irish whiskey was doing, and it was on Christmas Day in 1661 that the British imposed a tax on all whiskey at the rate of four pence per gallon of spirit, later specified as ‘proof spirit’. This tax slowed the legal whiskey trade dramatically, although it did encourage the production of illegal whiskey.
1775 – 17701755
By the 18th century, Czar Peter the Great of Russia had found Irish whiskey and declared, “Of all the wines of the world, Irish spirit is the best. Then by 1755 the word whiskey was entered into the dictionary by Samuel Johnson as he commented, “the Irish sort is particularly distinguished for its pleasant and mild flavour”. It would seem that Irish whiskey was to continue to grow in acclaim. As far back as the 1770’s there were over 1200 distilleries on the island of Ireland, although most had no licence.
However, by the 1820’s the government had introduced so many taxes on whiskey that there were only 20 legal distilleries in existence, although again there were a large number of illicit stills in operation. This also brought about a new style of whiskey, Pot Still Whiskey. One of the tax’s that was brought in was on the malted barley, so the Irish decided to create a whiskey by using part malted, and part un-malted barley. This combination created a unique and pleasant flavoured whiskey while also avoiding paying the full tax imposed. It was a great success and was often smuggled off sailing under the British radar.
Tax laws were later relaxed and by 1830 this number of legal Irish distilleries had risen to 90. Irish whiskey was taking its place as the most popular whiskey in the world, and, in the mid-18th century when a tiny insect infested and destroyed nearly all the wine grape vines in France, Irish whiskey became the world’s most popular spirit.
Irish whiskey was regarded as the finest in the world and sales soared, however, with the mass production came mass consumption and then from this a temperance movement began on April 10th, 1838 as a capuchin friar, Fr. Theobald Matthew turned people against what he perceived as the ‘demon drink’. In just 5 short years over 5 million of a population of 8 million Irish citizens had taken “the pledge”. With this, the small provincial distiller began to look financial ruin in the face and in that same time, 20 distilleries closed.
Next to challenge the Irish whiskey was the development of blended whiskey. Aeneas Coffey and Robert Stein created a new way of making a still that had the ability to create spirit in a faster, more economical way. This was patented in Ireland in 1830 and made a cheaper grain spirit with less flavour. The Irish were slow to adopt the Coffey still and continued to use the pot stills, a less efficient but more flavoursome style of still. Finding no interest in Ireland, Coffey went to Scotland where his still, and the lighter more pleasant taste of whiskey it gave, was welcomed.
The Irish looked upon blended whiskey with outright disdain and their export sales began losing out to Scotch blends. The situation became so bad that in 1879 the four Dublin distillers joined forces to publish a book titled “Truths about Whisky”, which called for the banning of blended whiskey. They were so enraged at the blending of whisky that the Irish began to use an e in their spelling to differentiate it from what the Scottish were now calling whisky. So Whiskey was officially the name for Irish Whiskey.
The Royal Commision On Whisky And Other Potable Spirits was designated to sort the whole “what is whiskey?” question. So it was in 1909 a decision was taken that grain spirit could also be called whisky provided it was matured for long enough. Irish Distillers now had an uphill battle against the Scotch producers and only Cork Distilleries seemed keen on marketing a blend.
1916 – 19211916
Even with the outcome of this blow to the Irish Whiskey market, it still had a healthy market in parts of the Empire and also in the United States. However, due to elements such as the 1916 Easter Rising, causing distilling in Ireland to cease due to all barley being needed for the war effort, and then Irelands War of Independence from 1919 – 1921 causing an interruption to distiller’s access to overseas markets.
1922 – 19331922
The next nail in the coffin of Irish Whiskey was placed when the United States closed its markets from 1920 – 1933 due to Prohibition, during this time bootleg whisky from Scotland managed to get over and when prohibition finally ended, the American palate had acquired a taste for the Scotch which began to blaze a trail throughout North America and into the British Empire.
1932 – 19381932
Then between 1932 and 1938 an economic trade war ensued with Britain cutting off all access to their markets including all commonwealth countries such as Canada etc., leaving Ireland no outlet for their production.
1948 – 19661948
By 1948, there were only 3 distilleries left in the Irish Republic and 3 in Northern Ireland and in 1966 Jameson, Powers and CDC merged to form Irish Distillers Ltd, in an effort to stop the decline. A new distillery was constructed behind the Old Midleton Distillery in County Cork. They went on to buy Bushmills Distillery, giving them a monopoly on Irish Whiskey.
1988 – 1999
With total Irish whiskey case sales of between just 400,000 and 500,000 annually, Pernod Ricard purchases Irish Distillers in 1988 giving it control of the last two functioning distilleries in Ireland – Bushmills and New Middleton. It was to mark the end of Irish whiskey’s seemingly terminal decline as the new owner invested heavily in its new assets.
1999 – 2013
Over the period Pernod Ricard invested heavily reestablishing mass-market appreciation for the smoothness of Irish whiskeys and kick-starting the Irish whiskey revival. Other international drinks groups start investing in Irish distilleries and brands. In addition to the big international drinks companies, a range of independent whiskey distilleries and producers began to emerge. In 1999 the Hot Irishman Company and brand was established by Bernard and Rosemary Walsh for the creation of an award winning Irish Coffee mix. Following on from this success, the Walsh’s saw the opportunity to be part of the resurgence of the Irish whiskey category and in 2006 their first whiskey, The Irishman, was released. The Walsh’s created another award winning and critically acclaimed whiskey, Writers Tears in 2009.
The Irish Whiskey Association releases a strategy document for Irish whiskey predicting growth of Irish whiskey sales from 6.7million cases in 2014 to 12million cases by 2020 (the same number as in the early 20th Century when Irish whiskey was the world’s number one selling whiskey) and 24 million cases by 2030.
2016 – From 2 to over 20 distilleries
At the height of Irish whiskey’s popularity in the 19th century there were 88 licensed distilleries. That number dwindled to just 2 by the mid 1980s prior to the resurgence triggered by Pernod Ricard’s takeover of Irish Distillers. The demand for Irish whiskey has attracted a lot of investment, both local and international. There are currently 18 distilleries in or soon to commence production and another 10 in various stages of planning. Walsh Whiskey Distillery at Royal Oak is commissioned with a capacity to produce 650,000 cases annually, becoming one of the largest independent Irish distilleries and the only independent distillery producing all three styles of Irish whiskey (pot still, malt and grain) in the one still house.