The long and short story of the original Irish Whiskey.
The history to date of Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey is a complex one. Follow the timeline below to read all about the rise, fall and rise again of the quintessential Irish Whiskey style.
Sir Walter Raleigh, who for a time lived in east Cork, celebrated in 1617 "a supreme present of a 32 gallon keg of home-distilled uisce beatha". His Monarch, Elizabeth I of England was also said to be fond of Irish whiskey; as was Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia from 1682, who stated "of all wines, Irish wine is best". While in 1755, Samual Johnson (in defining whiskey for his great Dictionary) noted: "The Irish sort is particularly distinguished for its pleasant and mild flavour."
Jameson Distillery Bow Street
In 1780, John Jameson established himself at a distillery in Bow Street in the heart of Dublin. The site developed into the firm of John Jameson & Son and the eponymous whiskey produced there became famous the world over. In 1804, John Jameson II took over the running of the Bow Street Distillery from his father, expanding the premises greatly.
The origins of Pot Still Irish Whiskey
In Ireland, the practice of adding unmalted barley to the mash bill originally evolved as a tax dodge! In 1785 a Malt Tax had been introduced in Ireland, making malt a prohibitively expensive ingredient. The Distillers responded by creating a mash bill of malted and unmalted barley, thus creating the signature taste of Irish Pot Still Whiskey.
In 1791 James Power, an innkeeper, founded a distillery at his premises at John's Lane, on the outskirts of Dublin City, in an area that came to be known as 'Distillery Triangle'. The new enterprise grew steadily, James' son John Power succeeded his father at the distillery on John's Lane. And later, on the 6th of December 1821, John took his own son, James, into partnership – establishing the firm as 'John Power & Son'.
Growth of distilleries
At the end of the 18th century, changes in law favoured the development of larger enterprises with increased still capacity. The Irish whiskey distilling industry embraced all of the advantages presented by the increased understanding of the distillation processes. Many of the large Irish whiskey houses came to the fore during this period – including the Jamesons, Powers and Murphy families. 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, County 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 1805, William Mitchell purchased No.10 Grafton Street in Dublin and started an enterprise that included a bakery, coffee shop and confectionery business. This very soon became Dublin’s most fashionable premises in which to be seen sipping “coffee.” In 1887, his son George expanded the firm opening a dedicated wine shop on Kildare Street. As Wine Merchants, the Mitchells imported barrels of wine to be decanted into bottles before being sold. They would then bring the empty wine casks to the Jameson's at the Bow Street Distillery to have them filled with whiskey, which they would mature in vast underground cellars. As there was little light in the cellars, the individual barrels would be daubed with a spot of coloured paint to distinguish them. This gave rise to the popular names for the whiskeys sold by Mitchell & Son. Namely 'Green Spot' and 'Yellow Spot' whiskey.
Introduction of bonded warehouses
In 1825, a new law was enacted that was to have tremendous ramifications for the Irish distilling industry – Duty Free warehousing was introduced. This meant distillers did not have to pay duty on their spirit until it finished maturing and was sold. This allowed for a longer maturation period for the distillers and also for the system of maturing for customers and other third parties. Thus, bonded warehouses allowed Wine and Spirit Merchants such as Gilbeys and Mitchells to embrace the maturation of whiskey.
Murphy family and Midleton
In December 1825: James, Nicholas and Daniel Murphy, members of a prosperous mercantile family from Cork City, established the Midleton Distillery. Attracted by the pure water of the local Dungourney River and the access to the rich barley fields of East Munster, they immersed themselves in the project, learning the art of distillation from the ground up, and living on site. All the succeeding generations of Murphys followed this pathway, before becoming a Director they were apprenticed to the Distillers on site so that they would know the whiskey business inside out.
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. His 'Coffey Still' invention (also called a Patent Still) facilitated a 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’. Irish Distillers were aware of Coffey's Still, and many installed this new apparatus, but the truth was their customers preferred the taste and aroma of Pot Still Whiskey. And so, even though it was more time consuming and expensive to produce, the Irish Distillers remained loyal to their pot still method. Quality was always their watchword.
The growth of Irish whiskey in the home market was dealt a blow in the 1830s and 1840s by a crusading priest Fr. Theobald Matthew. He was the figurehead for a Total Abstinence movement that at its height enrolled almost half the adult population of Ireland into its ranks. However, the vast majority of the abstainers had previously been drinking cheap products (often the illegal poitín), and so the distilleries producing a more refined (and thus more expensive whiskey) survived the movement.
The 1850s and 60s were decades of opportunity, as Britain was on top of the world economically, as a result of her manufacturing, and politically, from her leadership of a great Empire – and the Gilbey brothers took full advantage. Within 15 years of the firm’s establishment, sales had risen to over nine million bottles a year and by the turn of the century W&A Gilbey was the largest distributing company in the UK. W&A Gilbey Ltd continued to prosper for decades, very much as a family company, but family was necessarily diluted when in 1962 they merged with United Wine Traders to become International Distillers & Vintners, which was then taken over by Watneys in 1972, who were subsequently taken over by Grand Metropolitan in the same year. Big business held sway. The Gilbeys were no longer able to survive as a family company.
Rise of the blenders
Towards the end of the 19th century the lucrative Irish market was targeted by a consortium of Scottish distilleries who were producing Patent Still (or Coffey Still) whiskey at a price substantially lower than the Irish Pot Still Distillers. Convinced of the superior quality of their pot still spirit the Irish Distillers refused to lower prices and standards. Soon, however, the Scottish Blenders were taking their cheaper whiskey and mixing it with a small quantity of Irish Pot Still and calling it 'Irish Whiskey'. This led to a long and protracted legal tussle to define what exactly was 'whiskey'.
The truth about whiskey
So exasperated were the Irish Pot Still Distillers with the tasteless spirit being produced by the Scots, 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 Patent Still apparatus and claimed that this ‘nefarious’ and ‘silent’ spirit should not be allowed to describe itself as 'whiskey'.
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 on whiskey
Following a series of legal challenges regarding what could and could not be called 'whiskey', the 'Royal Commission on Whiskey and Other Potable Spirits’ was set up. Then, 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. With the onslaught of the World War I, the Irish whiskey industry found itself in the eye of a storm with exports restricted from the Island nation. In 1917/18 all distilling in Ireland ceased by Government Order as all barley was required for the war effort. In response the Irish Pot Still Distillers came together under the Chairmanship of Andrew Jameson to fight government plans to turn their premises into munitions factories.
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. But 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. An important lifeline for the Irish industry was cut. Worse damage was done however when the bootleggers, who had sprung up across America, called some of their rotgut 'Irish Whiskey'; trading on the great reputation of Irish whiskey in order to charge a higher price. The reputational damage to the category was immense.
The 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 readily 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.
Revival for Irish Whiskey
By 1948, there were only three distilleries left in the Republic of Ireland and three in Northern Ireland. By 1953, only five survived on the island, mainly based on domestic demand. These were the Jameson and Powers distilleries of Dublin, the 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. By merging, Irish Distillers were also 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.
Keeping the spirit alive
During the lean years of the 1970s and 1980s, Midleton Distillery was the only place producing Single Pot Still in Ireland. Under the guidance of the then Head Distiller, Barry Crockett, stocks of the traditional whiskey of Ireland continued to be distilled in the hopes of a revivial.
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, in Midleton, County 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 the Pernod Ricard group
Irish Distillers Ltd. (IDL) become a member of Group Pernod Ricard. Previously, a hostile takeover 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 2011, 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.
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