Words by Simon Difford
As the name suggest, Irish whiskey (‘fuisce’ or ‘uisce beatha’ in Irish) must be made and aged on the island of Ireland. Although within the category there are some notable exceptions, Irish whiskey tends to be triple distilled, unpeated and easy drinking.
History / origins
There is evidence that whiskey distilling and drinking in Ireland was widespread by the 16th century, however is believed that distillation was practiced much earlier, possibly the 14th century.
Early Irish whiskey was drunk unaged and flavoured with herbs - rather like gin today.
One Christmas present the Irish whiskey industry will never forget is the imposition of taxation on whiskey that began on Christmas day in 1661. A tax of four pence was applied to every gallon distilled. Over the preceding years the industry continued to expand, much of it through illegitimate stills. By the end of the 18th century there were around 2000 stills in operation.
The fortunes of Irish whiskey were given an unexpected boost in 1872 when the Phylloxera Vastatrix louse decimated vines in the Cognac region of France. Whiskey exports rose as the stocks of cognac diminished. Unfortunately for the Irish whiskey industry four different events served to put a check on the spirits' rapid growth.
The first was the beginning of the temperance movement in Ireland, started by Father Mathew, a Capuchin Friar in the 1838. Within six years his movement was directly responsible for the closure of over a third of Irelands drinking outlets.
The second was the development of blended whisky in Scotland. Ironically blended Scotch whisky came about partly thanks to an Irish exciseman, Aeneas Coffey, who invented a more efficient continuous still able to produce cheaper grain spirit, but with a different flavour produced by the existing pot stills. Irish distillers rejected the development, not wanting to sacrifice the distinctive flavour of their whiskies. So Coffey went to Scotland where experiments mixing pot still malt whisky and grain whisky produced in his still resulted in the development of blended whisky. Scotch blends proceeded to dent the sales of their Irish counterpart.
The third misfortune was American Prohibition (1920 - 1933) which effectively cut all sales to this previously lucrative market.
The fourth and final spanner in the works was the 1916 Irish war of Independence which resulted in the partition of the country and a civil war which ran between 1919 and 1921. Trade embargos imposed by the British prevented exports to the Empire including Canada, South Africa, India, Australia and New Zealand.
In 1966, the three remaining Irish distillers in the Republic that had survived (Jameson, Powers and Cork Distillers) joined forces to form the Irish Distillers Company. These allies were further bolstered during the 1970's when Irish Distillers acquired, Bushmills the last distiller in Ulster. However, this united force failed to meet expectations and take-over loomed. Two companies vied for the prize, GC&C Brands (jointly owned by two Irish firms, Gilbey's of Ireland and Cantrell & Cochrane) and the French group Pernod-Ricard. The French won the prize and Pernod Ricard put its worldwide marketing efforts chiefly between two brands, Jameson and Bushmills (the latter first moving to Diageo in June 2005 and then Casa Cuervo in December 2014).
One independent Irish distillery emerged to challenge the dominance of the Irish Distillers Group, named Cooley Distillery near Dundalk. Established by John Teeling in 1987 and subsequently purchased by what is now Beam Suntory in 2011.
While the brands that benefitted from Irish Distiller's period of almost unchallenged promotion still dominate the world market, Cooley has in recent years been joined by a plethora of other producers with gleaming new distilleries springing up across Ireland in a race to gain share of what is now the fastest-growing whiskey category.
Styles of Irish whiskey and production
Irish whiskey Distilleries
Alltech Distillery (est. 2012)
Belfast Distillery Company (under construction)
Blackwater Distillery (est. 2015)
Burren Irish Whiskey (under construction)
Cooley Distillery (est. 1987)
Dingle Distillery (est. 2012)
Dublin Whiskey Company (under construction)
Echlinville Distillery (est. 2013)
Glendalough Distillery (est. 2013)
Great Northern Distillery (under construction)
Kilbeggan Distillery (est. 2007)
Niche Drinks Company (under construction)
New Midleton Distillery (est. 1975)
Old Bushmills Distillery (est. 1784)
Slane Castle Distillery (under construction)
Teeling Distillery (est. 2015)
Tullamore Distillery (est. 2014)
Walsh Whiskey Distillery (under construction)
West Cork Distillers (est. 2008)