The History of Irish Whiskey

No one can say for sure when whiskey was invented. Historical records show that when the Moors came to Europe between 500 and 1000 AD, they brought their knowledge of distilling with them.

Christian missionary monks soon learned the art of distilling from the Moors and brought it to the British Isles.

Some claim it was the Irish monks, while others claim it was the Scottish monks who first learned the art. Either way, it was not long before the monks started distilling whiskey.

The Irish monks also had a strong sense of community to help those who were less fortunate. When the monks made whiskey, they first sold it to farmers who then sold it and got money to feed their families.

After the farmers paid for the whiskey, the monks took the money and used it to buy food for those less fortunate than themselves.

The Irish monks practiced this kind of charity for centuries, and soon the people across Ireland were enjoying the drink they produced.

Origin of Irish Whiskey

The oldest written reference to Irish whiskey dates to 1405, from a description in the Annals of Clonmacnoise - a 17th century English translation of a lost Irish chronicle covering events in Ireland from prehistory to 1408.

One of the passages tells the story of a clan chief who died at Christmas from an "excess of aqua vitae". 

If you read our post: The History of Scotch Whisky, you will already know that aqua vitae means the water of life or Uisge Beatha, the Gaelic term for whiskey in Irish.

Fortunately, this early version of Irish whiskey bears no resemblance to what we enjoy today. It was probably a pure distillate flavored with aromatic herbs such as mint, thyme or aniseed.

For a few centuries, whiskey making remained a rudimentary process carried out in the villages and countryside.

But that was about to change. In 1608, King Charles I of England created legal protection for whiskey distillers by stipulating that only licensed distillers could make whiskey and that they had to make it in a licensed distillery. 

The first license to distill was granted to Sir Thomas Phillips at Bushmill, County Antrim. If a farmer did not have a license to sell whiskey, he was forbidden by law to sell his home-distilled whiskey at the Sunday markets.

The government was concerned that if farmers could sell their own whiskey, they would stop growing grain for food production and focus on producing whiskey to sell in the markets.

This is the earliest recorded case of government intervention in the alcohol industry.

In 1690, the English King William III removed legal protection for distilleries, which soon led to the rise of illegal distilleries - or "moon-shiners".

Whiskey distillers called these illicit traders the "water of life" men - or "Wherretts" (from the Gaelic uisce beatha).

Most of these illegal whiskey distillers did not make their own whiskey from scratch. Instead, they bought whiskey in bulk from legal distilleries, transported it to the woods and then added ingredients to flavor it.

Creating Global Brands

Throughout the 18th century, Irish whiskey grew in popularity, and by the end of the 19th century it was the most popular drink in Ireland. Dublin was now the world capital of whiskey.

The 19th century also saw a significant change in the way Irish whiskey was made. The Irish whiskey industry was dominated by large producers who sold directly to the Irish and British markets. 

In 1805, John Jameson bought his wife's family distillery and established the Jameson brand. In 1852, Jameson sold more than 30,000 cases of whiskey in the British Isles. A new record at that time.

In 1829, Tullamore Dew (named after Daniel E. Williams from County Tullamore) was founded.Here the the first Irish blended whiskey was created. 

In 1884, John Power and Son began distilling at the Midleton Distillery in Cork, and today it is the most popular whiskey in Ireland.

As the production of whiskey increased, it became increasingly important to sell it outside of Ireland, and exports to Canada and the United States increased significantly.

In fact, during most of the 19th century, 80 percent of the world's whiskey came from Ireland.

By the mid-1850s, Ireland exported more than twice as much as all of Scotland and more than the rest of the United Kingdom combined!

By 1890, there were at least 30 distilleries operating in Ireland.

The Irish Whiskey Industry Loses Steam

In the 20th century, Irish whiskey faced major challenges. Prohibition, the World Wars and changing consumer tastes took a heavy toll on the Irish whiskey industry.

Although the industry was still popular and profitable, it was not as significantly prominent as it had been in the previous century.

Prior to American Prohibition, Irish whiskey was loved in America. This was interrupted by the temperance movement, which caused Irish distilleries to lose their largest export market overnight. 

After Prohibition, American whiskey became more popular, while Irish whiskey competed with Scotch.

After World War I, the Irish distilling industry was decimated by two factors: New laws were passed that restricted distilling, and the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930, which imposed a tax on spirits imported by U.S. companies.

In addition, the Irish Free State banned the sale of alcohol nationwide in 1927 in an effort to curb alcohol consumption, which was seen as a major cause of poor health and crime in the country.

Distilleries throughout Ireland were also bombed and destroyed during the World Wars, and the internal civil wars did not help the cause either. 

The 20th century was also a time of consolidation and business realignment. In 1887, there were 28 distilleries in Ireland, but by the 1960s, only a handful were still in operation. 

In the 1950s, the export of Irish whiskey was banned by the government. Because of this ban, Irish whiskey was often replaced by other spirits (such as Scotch and Canadian whiskey), and demand for Irish whiskey in foreign markets declined significantly.

The three of the few remaining distilleries, Powers, Jameson and Cork Distilling Co. merged to form Irish Distillers. They then closed their distilleries in the 1970s and moved all their operations to the new Middleton Distillery. In 1972, Bushmills joined Irish Distillers, furthering the consolidation of the Irish whiskey industry.

What Makes a Real Irish Whiskey?

First and foremost, a good Irish whiskey is made from high-quality grain. There are mainly three types of grains used in its production: Corn, Barley and Rye. Jameson, for example, is made from a mixture of barley and rye.

Secondly, Jameson, Tullamore Dew, Bushmills and others use triple distillation, while others, like Redbreast, use pot stills. In any case, these are top-rate distillations.

A 100% Irish whiskey can only be made in a way that adheres to Irish laws on whiskey production. The rules state the following:

  • Any production, labeling and marketing of Irish whiskey must be approved by the Irish tax authorities, in accordance with the Irish Department of Agriculture.
  • Whiskey must be distilled in Ireland from a mash of malted or unmalted grain.
  • Distilled to no more than 94.8 percent alcohol by volume (189.6 proof)
  • Contains no additives other than water and a simple caramel colorant.
  • Aged for a minimum of 3 years in a barrel of no more than 185 gallons
  • Bottled with a minimum alcohol content of 40% by volume (80 proof)
  • Must be aged in wooden barrels, but not in a warehouse, but in a building with a wooden roof, called a rickhouse. Most distilleries use American ex-bourbon oak or Spanish ex-Oloroso sherry oak casks.
  • The term "single" can only be used if it is produced in a single distillery.
  • Blended Irish Whiskey: Irish whiskey can be blended with other Irish whiskey or other types of whiskey as long as the majority of the blend is Irish whiskey.

The Irish Whiskey Industry Today

Fortunately, that was not the end of the line, and in the 21st century, several independent distilleries have risen from the ashes of a troubled past to create some exciting new Irish whiskeys. 

The Irish whiskey market is now dominated by blends, which account for about 90 percent of the whiskey sold in Ireland. Still, there are a few single malt whiskeys that are produced in tiny quantities.

The Wicklow Wolf Distillery in Ireland is one of the few distilleries that produce a single malt whiskey, and it offers tours of the distillery.

If you are a fan of Irish whiskey and have not visited the distilleries in Ireland, you should definitely consider taking a tour while you are there!

Leave a comment