A Brief History of Irish Whiskey

by Steve Forrester

A Brief History of Irish Whiskey

Irish whiskey has a long and storied history behind it and how it came to be world-renowned. Despite the length of the history, we’ll give you a brief overview of the story of Irish whiskey, although be forewarned, you’ll probably want to know more, and find yourself wanting a taste of this delicious and legendary alcohol as well. That’s only natural, since the word whiskey itself means, in Gaelic, the “water of life.”

THE EARLIEST DAYS

It is believed that somewhere around 1000AD, Irish monks encountered the distillation of perfume while traveling through the Mediterranean. They brought the knowledge they gained during their travels back home to Ireland, where they adjusted what they had learned to create a drinkable alcoholic beverage. The product that bore the name “whiskey” first appeared in Ireland in 1405AD, and had spread to Scotland by the year 1494, when production began in Campbeltown and on the Isle of Islay.

ALONG CAME THE TAXMAN

Production continued on by small individual distillers and monks in monasteries over the next century, until 1608, when the King James issued the first official royal license to a distillery that would become known as Bushmills in 1784.

The awarding of this licence and others did not go over well with the Irish. This was largely because the issuing of licenses was directly tied to an excise tax being placed on production of the spirit. This caused a long-lasting disagreement between the government of the United Kingdom and the Irish, including those running unlicensed distilleries, which numbered twice as high as those licensed among the 2,000 distilleries in operation.

By 1781, private distilleries were outlawed, and tax collectors were permitted to seize whiskey, the equipment used to make it, as well as horses and vehicles used to transport the finished product to its destinations.

By 1885, the number of licensed distilleries in operation had shrunk to a mere 28, despite Irish whiskey being thought of as the best whiskey in the world. The distillers that remained, primarily located in Dublin, were enormous and believed to have produced as much as two million gallons of whiskey each year by this time.

THE GLASS IS EMPTYING

Despite the success of these remaining distillers, the first portion of the 1900s brought the industry down to a new low point through a combination of events. The introduction of the patent still by a man from Ireland by the name of Aenas Coffey was poorly received by the Irish distilleries, but widely accepted by those in Scotland, who used it to make blended whiskeys and capture a higher share of the market. The start of the Irish Free State in the early 1900s resulted in a trade battle between Ireland and England, costing the Irish their main customers.

The final blow to the distillers of Irish whiskey came with the introduction of prohibition in the United Sates in 1920. Irish whiskey had been the most popular whiskey with drinkers in the USA, but the enforcement of prohibition cut off Irish producers’ access to their last main sales market. This lead to the end of many distilleries, leaving only the largest ones that were able to reduce production for long stretches while still remaining in business.

THE LAST DROPS

In 1966 the few distillers remaining formed a collective corporation called Irish Distillers in order to pool their few remaining resources. This did little initially to revive the industry, even after they built a new, top-of-the-line production plant next to the location where the once-legendary “Old Paddy” was produced. The collaborative still suffered, however, and by the mid-1970s only New Midleton and Bushmills distillers remained. The two remaining found themselves making only 400 to 500 million cases per year, one twenty-fourth of what they produced in 1900.

THE GLASS GETS RE-FILLED

Sales and production remained stagnant until a change came in 1988, when Irish Distillers was acquired by Pernod Ricard. This change resulted in increased marketing of Irish whiskey and its various brands worldwide, particularly in the United States. This brought the industry back, and Irish whiskey’s popularity has only continued to grow, resulting in it being the fastest growing alcohol product worldwide for more than 20 straight years. Production has increased as of 2013 to more than six hundred million cases, and 800 workers in the once-giant industry. It is expected that production of Irish whiskey will finally reach its production high point of 12 million cases, last seen in 1900, again in the year 2018.

It’s looking like the comeback story of the century, so raise a glass for Irish whisky and the distillers behind it!




Steve Forrester
Steve Forrester

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