Invention of distillation
Distillation is thought to have been invented by the Arabs who created the original alembics primarily for the purpose of stripping oils from plants and for the creation of perfumes. The alembic operated under the basic principles of evaporation and condensation.
There is great uncertainty over the exact date or even location of the origin of whiskey distilling however it is widely accepted that Celtic Christian monks, who encountered the principals of distillation in Moorish Spain, put this new-found discovery to the distillation of alcohol.
A Celtic Tradition
Given that early Irish history is largely an oral tradition, the first written and unambiguous reference to aqua vitae being distilled from cereal actually appears in Scotland. Nevertheless, historians are largely at one in concluding that due to the close ties at that time between Ireland and Scotland, the likelihood is that whiskey distilling from local grains occurred in both countries at about the same time.
Flight of the Earls
Up to this period, Ireland was largely ruled by Irish chieftains who operated under the ancient Celtic tradition of Brehon Law. The English tried unsuccessfully to introduce licensing and tax systems but given that their control extended only as far as the Pale, a district around modern day county Dublin, distilling went unencumbered from English law.
A Supreme Present
Richard Boyle, the 1st Earl of Cork and, friend of Sir Walter Raleigh, notes in his diary for 20th March, 1617 what is in all probability the first recorded export of whiskey to America (not just any whiskey but ‘Choice Aquavite’). The entry occurs in a sequence of entries which show that he was in Youghal, East Cork, at the time.
The Origins of Pot Still Irish Whiskey
No one really knows when the practice by Irish distillers of adding unmalted barley to the mashbill originated, but the imposition of a series of malt taxes by the English throughout the 18th century certainly would suggest that inventive Irish distillers sought ways to avoid paying tax on malt – enter Pot Still Irish Whiskey.
By the late 1700s, the industrial revolution arrived to the main cities of Ireland and the Irish whiskey distilling industry embraced all of the advantages which it presented. Many of the large Irish whiskey houses came to the fore during this period – the Jamesons, Powers and Murphy families. Excise laws were also changed so that tax was paid based on the number of times a whiskey pot still was 'charged' rather than the volume of liquid it contained. By 1835, the number of distilleries in Ireland had mushroomed to 93 and the largest pot-still in the world was in operation at Midleton Distillery, Cork. Pot Still Irish Whiskey was in great demand throughout the globe and by the turn of the century, Irish whiskey was in its first golden age.
In 1830, the former Inspector General of Excise in Ireland, Aeneas Coffey, filed a patent for a new invention for what was to revolutionise the distilling industry worldwide and initiate the demise of the Irish whiskey distilling tradition. Coffey had invented a new continuous distillation process which would, as a contemporary government publication described, lead to ‘the speediest and most economical device for preparing a highly concentrated spirit in a single operation’.
Whilst the introduction of the Coffey still was to ultimately precipitate the downfall of the dominant Irish whiskey industry, a number of other events led to more rapid and dramatic consequences. At a time when whiskey sales were soaring, the country was gripped by poverty, with many losing themselves in alcohol. In 1838, a capuchin friar from Co. Cork, Fr. Theobald Matthew, started his “total abstinence” campaign. In just 5 short years over 5 million of a population of 8 million Irish citizens had taken “the pledge”. That same year, 20 distilleries closed.
The Great Famine
Following a succession of failed potato crops, on which the vast majority of the Irish population subsisted, the Great Famine of the 1840s ensued. In the space of five years, over 1 million Irish citizens perished and another million emigrated, many to the United States of America. The Irish market for Irish whiskey was dealt another blow.
Rise of the Blenders
In the 1850s another landmark change in legislation brought about the next major milestone in the industry. The tax laws were changed whereby tax would be paid on shipment rather than on production of whiskey spirit. This meant that whiskey could be purchased and put in ‘bond’ with no up-front taxation charges. This, in conjunction with the Scottish uptake of the Coffey still, gave rise to a major commercial advantage for the Scottish blenders.
The Truth About Whiskey
So exasperated were the Irish pot still distillers with the new invention and the tasteless spirit that it produced, that in 1879, the four leading Dublin distillers joined forces to publish a book entitled ‘Truths About Whiskey’. The book called for the banning of the apparatus and claimed that this ‘nefarious’ and ‘silent’ spirit should not be allowed to describe itself as whiskey.
Irish whiskey dominates
Regardless, the Irish whiskey industry forged ahead in their belief that the quality of their pot still whiskey rendered them untouchable. Output was increasing in line with global demand and Irish pot still whiskey continued to prosper. Indeed as the Scottish distillers and blenders were honing their trade, the Irish industry got an unlikely boost. The Phylloxera louse struck France and wiped out the vineyards of the Cognac region resulting in the Irish whiskey’s main competitor, French brandy, being taken out of the market. Between 1823 and 1900, the output of Ireland’s distilleries quadrupled.
Pot Still Scotch whiskey?
Even as Scottish blended whisky continued to gain momentum, certain Scotch distilleries nevertheless hedged their bets and began the process of distilling Irish style pot-still whiskey by adding unmalted barley to their mash. Scotland’s largest whiskey distilling enterprise, DCL, went one step further in 1900 when it opened its own Irish distillery at the Phoenix Park in Dublin city. “There is no Patent Still on the Premises” exclaimed a trade publication of the time and continued to claim that “It is the determination of this company to make the finest Dublin whisky”.
The Royal Commission
Following a series of legal challenges regarding what could and could not be called 'whiskey', the ‘Royal Commission on Whisky and other Potable Spirits’ was set up. Following a year and a half of submissions from the Irish and Scottish distillers and lobbying from the large whiskey merchants, the Commission found that grain whisk(e)y from patent stills was indeed whiskey. The Irish distillers had lost their argument and the die was cast. This was the single biggest blow to the Irish whiskey industry as the Scottish industry had already made considerable advances in the area of blended whiskey from which the Irish were neither willing nor able to recover.
Economic and social turmoil
Just as Irish whiskey was riding a wave, the beginning of the end was just around the corner. Over the preceding years, the Scottish distillers had been radically increasing output of whiskey from Coffey stills giving rise to an enormous surplus of whiskey and the collapse of whiskey prices. Combined with recession and the onslaught of the World War I, the Irish whiskey industry found itself in the eye of a storm. 1916 brought the Easter Rising and the economic turmoil which accompanied it. In 1917 all distilling in Ireland ceased as all barley was required for the war effort.
Loss of the main market
Up to this time, the largest whiskey market in the world was the USA, which also happened to be the largest export market for pot still Irish whiskey. In 1919, the Volstead Act was passed and Prohibition was enacted and overnight the single most important market for pot still Irish whiskey was shut down. The lifeline for the Irish industry was cut.
Irish War of Independence
The Irish War of Independence in 1921 was followed by the Irish Civil War from 1922 to 1923. While the Irish were embroiled in civil strife, Scottish entrepreneurs like Walker, Buchanan and Dewar had come to grips with the modern concept of whisky brands and were building their brands around the world. Meanwhile in Ireland, the whiskey industry continued to implode and as the 1930s came to a close, the Irish whiskey industry had been decimated.
Good news then bad news
By the time Prohibition had ended in 1933, the Irish whiskey industry was reeling and was in no shape to cash in on the pent-up demand that the US market now represented. The Irish distillers had reduced their stocks of maturing pot-still whiskey, the reputation of which had been irrevocably damaged by the bootleggers, while the Scots were ready to expand with their stocks of ready available blended whiskey. To compound matters, in 1932 the recently emancipated Irish government entered into a Trade War with its former landlord and largest trading partner, Great Britain, culminating in exclusion to 25% of world markets. This meant that the remaining exports for Irish whiskey disappeared behind a wall of duties and levies.
Exposure to Scotch
American soldiers, having been based in the UK during World War II, return home with a newly acquired tasted for Scotch whiskey. This creates an instant demand for Scotch whisky throughout the USA.
Scotch whisky was the drink-du-jour of the 1960s and the name Scotch became the byword for whiskey.
Revival for Irish whiskey
By 1948, there were only 3 distilleries left in the Republic of Ireland and three in Northern Ireland. By 1953, only 5 survived on the island, mainly based on domestic demand. These were the Jameson and Powers distilleries of Dublin, Cork Distilleries Company (CDC) of Cork and the Bushmills and Coleraine distilleries in Northern Ireland. Sensing that the writing was on the wall versus the might of the Scottish distilleries, Jameson, Powers and CDC merged in 1966 to form Irish Distillers Ltd. This date marked the start of the revival for Irish whiskey.
Jameson leads the revival
Recognising that the way forward was through exports and accepting that their whiskey styles had to be reinvented, a whole new range of lighter, blended whiskeys was created and the world’s love affair with Irish whiskey was re-ignited. Additionally, by merging, Irish Distillers were able to pool their marketing efforts in order to invest in their flagship brand, Jameson, which became the main vehicle through which whiskey drinkers around the world would be reacquainted with Irish whiskey.
New state-of-the art distillery
Recognising the early signs of interest and demand for Irish whiskey, Irish Distillers Ltd. took the momentous step of closing its land-locked distilleries in Dublin and in 1975 opened a new state-of-the art distillery at the home of the Cork Distilleries Co. in Midleton, Co. Cork. This distillery was, and is to this day, one of the most advanced in the world. In fact, there are two distilleries in Midleton, a pot-still and column still distillery which means that the various brands of whiskey can be made in the one facility.
Irish Distillers Ltd. joins Group Pernod Ricard
Irish Distillers Ltd. (IDL) become a member of Group Pernod Ricard. Previously, a hostile take-over bid had been launched by a joint venture of Grand Met, Allied Lyons & Guinness. This bid was resisted on the basis that a break-up of the company would ensue. The 'White Knight' in the guise of French owned Pernod Ricard, arrived on the scene and led a friendly takeover. The French owned company, which was a rising player in the international spirits industry, saw the future potential for Irish whiskey. Crucially, not only did the new owners promise to keep the company intact but the French multi-national would provide distribution opportunities for Jameson, and the other IDL Irish whiskey brands, through its well established global sales network.
Demand for pot-still
The appeal and interest in Irish whiskey, forged mainly by the global success of Jameson, has meant that there is a groundswell of new demand for different types of whiskeys, particularly the traditional pot-still whiskeys which once wowed the world. On the 5th of May, two new Single Pot Still whiskeys were launched, namely Powers John's Lane Release and Midleton Barry Crockett Legacy, joining the two existing Single Pot Still brands of Redbreast and Green Spot.