The History of Irish Whiskey

The Irish like to boast that they invented whiskey. There is much to suggest that it is true. The oldest licensed whiskey distillery in the world, Bushmills from 1608, is located in Ireland. History books also tell us that Celtic monks brought the production of distilled malt brew to Scotland via Ireland.

But the Scots counter with a document from 1494 on which a sale of barley for whisky production was attested. As hard as the Scots, who are by far the leaders in marketing, try, the majority of history books now seem to support the monk theory.

Even if the Irish and the Scots or the British have become allied neighbours in the EU, the smouldering and in the past sometimes murderous conflict in Northern Ireland shows that they are still not quite on the same wavelength. At the same time, the international matches in the north-western provinces of the European Union, despite sporting competition, often show warlike clashes in the stands.

Hard times and oppression

As beautiful as the green island appears to us today, in earlier times daily life on it was hard. The forces of nature were too cold, too wet and too windy to allow the inhabitants to live a normal life. Despite the difficulties with the environment, it did not stop hostile neighbours from forcibly incorporating the island into the English kingdom in 1541.

English nobles took over the land and the subsequent levies to the Crown were high, which did not make life in Ireland any easier. The wedge between Ireland and Scotland, actually allies or at least like-minded and Catholic co-religionists against Protestant England, was driven by the Treaty of Union between Scotland and England in 1707. Instead of standing up to oppression by overbearing England, the Scots entered into union with England. 1745, the oft-cited year of the rebellious Bonnie Prince Charlie, represented only a last stand. Scottish independence had been over for decades.

The biggest blow to Ireland, from which it has still not recovered, came with the brown potato blight. The introduction of the American potato to Europe and the resulting improved calorie supply for the population in the 18th century, led to a surge in the Irish population as well. When potato blight destroyed much of the Irish crop between 1845 and 1851, millions of Irish died of starvation and millions more emigrated, mainly to North America.

There was little help for those left behind from the English nobility and large landowners in Ireland. Later it was even stopped altogether. Of the more than 8 million Irish in 1841, only 1/3 remained in the country. To this day, the population of about 6 million has not recovered from this mass death and emigration. Historians still disagree, but the refusal of the English to help in times of greatest need ultimately led to the War of Independence from 1919 to 1921, which made Ireland independent. Ireland's anger was also directed at Scotland, which, as a voluntary part of the United Kingdom, seemed to be making common cause with the English.

In 1937, Ireland withdrew from the Commonwealth with its own constitution. However, the English could not be driven out of the country completely, as a particularly large number of English had settled in the province of Ulster in what is now Northern Ireland. Here the conflict still smoulders to this day.

The Origin and Rise of Irish Blended Whiskey

The history of Irish whiskey is related to this very much abbreviated recent Irish history. Similar to Scotland and America, there were initially many small private distilleries in Ireland that preserved any surpluses of grain production through distillation. In contrast to the introduction of alcohol taxes in Great Britain and the USA, Ireland levied a malt tax. This meant that not only whisky but also beer could be used to replenish the state coffers. But the Irish were resourceful people and used only as much barley malt for whisky production as was absolutely necessary. The remaining ingredients were wheat or corn, which was imported from America thanks to the good relations with emigrant friends. The Irish blended whiskey was born. Distilled as a blend in pot stills, it quickly conquered the hearts of the people. America and England were the main selling countries in the mid-19th century.

The decline of Irish whiskey

The decline of Irish whiskey began with the production of cheap blends in the new Scottish distilleries from about 1840 onwards. A strong headwind blew against the Irish on the world market. Moreover, the Irish were particularly fond of their own product. The hopelessly meagre life and perhaps also the nature of the Irish led to quantities of whiskey drunk, the lore of which seems adventurous today. In the heyday of Irish whiskey, it is said that more than 100 litres of whiskey per head of the adult male population were drunk per year. No matter how much it really was - drunkenness, infirmity and quick death were common. Be it because of the poor living conditions or because of excessive whiskey consumption. Many families lost their breadwinners this way. Women and the Puritan church in particular campaigned against whiskey consumption, which ultimately led to Prohibition in America from 1919 to 1933.

Today, Ireland still has the highest alcohol tax in the EU, along with Sweden. It was even raised again in the new millennium. The many thousands of small private distilleries were quickly decimated by the disappearance of the English and American whiskey markets. The large distilleries, which also quickly switched to inexpensive whiskey from distillation columns, were nevertheless unable to keep up after Prohibition. Ireland's de facto withdrawal from the Commonwealth in 1937 brought them high import duties on the world's most important markets, which the Scots did not have to pay.

The number of distilleries therefore declined steadily. Only the largest survived. Famous distilleries like Tullamore and Kilbeggan had to close in the mid-1950s. In 1966, a handful of remaining distilleries united under the common umbrella of the Irish Distillers Group at the single site of Midleton in the south of Ireland.

Bushmills, the second distillery in the north, joined in 1970. The big brands like Powers and Jameson, for which Dublin was so famous on the east coast, had to close their distilleries. Many brands died out and only a few could continue to be produced according to the same recipe but on foreign distillation equipment in Midleton. In this way, at least a small part of the former whiskey world power was able to survive.

But the biggest loss hit Ireland in 1988, when Irish Distillers Ltd. was sold to the French company Pernod Ricard. Not a single Irish whiskey distillery was in national hands any more. Even the Paddy and Powers brands, synonymous with Irish whiskey par excellence, were suddenly owned by foreigners! What looked bad, however, became a salvation for the Irish whiskey industry. Pernod Ricard was able to expand its business internationally and today Irish whiskey is in better shape than it has been for a long time.

In 1989, the time had finally come. With the founding of the Cooley distillery on the border with Northern Ireland, there is once again a genuine Irish whiskey distillery. After two decades of production, this distillery offers Connemara, Tyrconnell and Locke's single malts and blended whiskeys from mild to smoky from its own production. Business is so good that they even set up two pot stills again in Kilbeggan in 2009 for malt whiskey production. Long live Ireland!

Details about the terrible famine and the wave of emigration can be found on the internet at:
http://www.angelfire.com/bc/barbara/irland.html.

Old Midleton Distillery
Signpost at the Old Midleton Distillery