Irish Whiskey (Uisce Beatha Eireannach)

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History of Irish whiskey

Words by Simon Difford

There is evidence that drinking whiskey was widespread in Ireland by the 16th century and that distillation started at least a century earlier.

The oldest known written reference to whiskey in Ireland is found in the 1627 translation of the 1405 Annals of Clonmacnoise. This records the demise of various member of clans, including "Richard or Risdard maGranell, chieftaine of Moyntir-eolas, [who] died at Christmas by takeing a surfeit of aqua vitae, to him aqua mortis."[sic]

The Irish are proud that evidence of whiskey in Ireland predates evidence of distillation in Scotland and the Irish government's technical file claims that Irish Whiskey has "been distilled since the 6th century" and "is one of the oldest spirit drinks in Europe." The 6th century claim is unsubstantiated but it is certain that its consumption was commonplace in Ireland by the mid-16th century due to a 1556 Act passed by the English Parliament restricting distillation without a licence due to whiskey being "a drink nothing profitable to be drunken daily and used is now universally through the realm of Ireland".

Whenever it originated, 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.

Despite this, 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, a series of different events served to put a check on the spirits' rapid growth and push it into sharp decline.

The first was the 1916 Irish war of Independence which resulted in the partition of the country and a civil war which ran from 1919 to 1921. Trade embargos imposed by the British prevented exports to the Empire including Canada, South Africa, India, Australia and New Zealand.

Then came American Prohibition (1920 - 1933) which effectively cut all sales to this previously lucrative market.

The third misfortune was the beginning of the temperance movement in Ireland, started by Father Theobald Mathew, a Capuchin Friar, on 10th April 1838 with his Cork Total Abstinence Society. This movement grew countrywide and quickly impacted whiskey consumption.

Then many of those who wisely forewent abstinence in favour of whiskey were impacted by the 1845-49 Great Famine which resulted in the deaths of one million and the emigration of a further million, causing the island's population to fall by as much as 25%.

The final spanner in the works was the development of blended whisky in Scotland. Ironically, this came about partly thanks to an Irish exciseman, Aeneas Coffey, who invented a more efficient continuous still able to produce cheaper and lighter spirit. Scottish experiments mixing pot still malt whisky and grain whisky produced in the new Coffey stills resulted in the development of blended whisky. Scotch blends proceeded to dent the sales of their Irish counterpart.

It has been claimed by some Irish whiskey marketing departments that "Irish distillers rejected the development of Coffee stills, not wanting to sacrifice the distinctive flavour of their whiskies." The big three Dublin distillers (Jameson, Roe and Powers) did indeed reject continuous stills and advertised against their use. However, other Irish distillers embraced the new technology and whiskey production using column stills in Ireland was ahead of that in Scotland until 1847. The truth is that with war, famine and temperance, not to mention competition from Scotland, there was a surplus of spirit and those Irish distilleries that survived focused on quality not quantity.

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 shareholder expectations and take-over loomed. Two companies vied for the prize, GC&C Brands and the French group Pernod-Ricard.

Although GC&C was a joint bidding company created by two Irish firms, Gilbeys of Ireland was a wholly owned subsidiary of Grand Metropolitan while Cantrell & Cochrane was owned by Guinness Ireland and Allied-Lyons. Hence, these companies weren't viewed as being Irish, particularly against Irish Distillers' "Keep the spirit Irish" promotional campaign against GC&C's hostile takeover bid.

So, the prize went to the French and Pernod Ricard put its worldwide marketing efforts chiefly behind two of the numerous whiskey brands it had acquired, 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.

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