Whisky returns to the Emerald Island

by Elizabeth Willoughby

In the 1800s, Dublin was the world capital of whisky production. In the 1900s there were but two distilleries left on the island. This century, Irish whisky is making a comeback. Here's what happened.

first still

Whisky is making a comeback in Ireland, but where has it been and why?

Alcohol was invented by the Arabs in the 6thcentury as a base for perfume. When Irish monks met these Muslims in Spain, however, a different idea was conceived. The monks brought the stills back to Ireland around 1000 AD and used them to produce something to drink instead. Although it took until the 1400s for it to be called whisky, or rather uisce beathe (meaning the water of life), this still gave Ireland a 90-year head start on Scotland.

Fast forward 400 years to the Victorian era, 60 percent of the world's whisky was being produced in Dublin, which was the whisky capital of the world at that time. The production of alcohol (including beer), directly and indirectly, employed one third of the working population in Dublin.

To be called Irish whisky, the liquor had to adhere to two regulations. It had to be made on the island of Ireland, and it had to be aged for three years and one day (the one day to ensure that the three years was always met or, as some say, to differentiate it from Scotch). Some major whisky players' names are still recognisable today:

George Roe, the richest man in Ireland at the time and known as the king of Irish whisky, was producing two million gallons of whisky per year. His distillery was powered by a windmill, which is still standing today, but without its sails.

John Jameson was producing half that at one million gallons of whisky per year. His goal was to make Jameson the best-selling whisky in the world by utilising the latest techniques, finest and freshest ingredients and by maturing his whisky for seven years, more than double the regulation.

If Roe was the king, the queen of Irish whisky was surely Ellen Corrigan, who had taken over Bushmills, located in what is now Northern Ireland, after her husband died. She sailed around the world on her own ship exporting Bushmills' barrels, and she brought her distilling facilities into the 19th century by installing electricity.

John Locke, who ran Kilbeggan Distillery and had the reputation of being a good employer, delighted in handing out shots of his whisky to visitors. Naturally, it won him a loyal following. When his boiler exploded in 1866 and he couldn't afford to replace it, the community pooled their money and bought one for him.

whiskey barrelsAt the top of the world, what could go wrong?

There's a reason why "Scotch" is more familiar today than "Irish whisky". Ireland's industry was nearly decimated in the last century and is only now making a comeback. There are three main factors that undermined Ireland's position of dominance. The first was a man named Aeneas Coffey.

It was Coffey's job, back in the 19th century, to ensure that distilleries were paying their proper share of taxes to Britain. Upon inspection of the distilleries, however, Coffey was distracted by the copper still pots — he saw them as inefficient. This led him to invent a continuous "single column" distillation process.

The Irish rejected this new method outright, seeing the end product as inferior and not a true whisky, but the British and Scots bought into it. The "Coffey still" produced more whisky cheaper and faster, making in one week what traditional distilleries needed nine months to make. This light whisky lacked flavour but was good for blending.

The second factor in the demise of Irish whisky was political. The Irish were fighting for independence, which didn't help to soften the heart of the British crown. In 1921, Britain and the Commonwealth banned Irish whisky. It was around this same time that the triple whammy came: Prohibition in the United States. With no market left, Irish whisky producers dwindled. By the 1980s there were only two distilleries left (Bushmills and New Midleton), while Scotland had 120.

whiskey museum

Why the comeback?

Why has whisky made a comeback in Ireland? In a word, "millennials". The 20 and 30-year-olds in North America, Europe and Asia have taken an interest in whisky and they're making it chic. Suddenly, there is a market. Coupled with a climate that is good for barley production and storage, Ireland is back, with a growing list of distillers popping up and coming soon to a liquor store near you. Choose from old brands and new ones, traditional and craft, pot stills and column, blended and pure.

If you're in Ireland, take the time to visit the Irish Whiskey Museum in Dublin for a well-rounded, interactive tour of the history of uisce beathe, followed by a tasting. And God bless Irish monks. Slàinte.

Images ©Elizabeth Willoughby 2016

This article was published at © 2016

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