An Intoxicating History
The first confirmed written record of whisky comes from 1405 in Ireland.
In the Irish Annals of Clonmacnoise in 1405, the first written record of whisky attributes the death of a chieftain to “taking a surfeit of aqua vitae” at Christmas. In 1661, noticing how well Irish whiskey was doing, and it was on Christmas Day in 1661 that the British imposed a tax on all whiskey at the rate of four pence per gallon of spirit, later specified as ‘proof spirit’. This tax slowed the legal whiskey trade dramatically, although it did encourage the production of illegal whiskey. As far back as the 1770’s there were over 1200 distilleries on the island of Ireland, although most had no licence. However, by the 1820’s the government had introduced so many taxes on whiskey that there were only 20 legal distilleries in existence, although again there were a large number of illicit stills in operation. This also brought about a new style of whiskey, Pot Still Whiskey.
One of the tax’s that was brought in was on the malted barley, so the Irish decided to create a whiskey by using part malted, and part un-malted barley. This combination created a unique and pleasant flavoured whiskey while also avoiding paying the full tax imposed. It was a great success and was often smuggled off sailing under the British radar. Next to challenge the Irish whiskey was the development of blended whiskey. Aeneas Coffey and Robert Stein created a new way of making a still that had the ability to create spirit in a faster, more economical way.
This was patented in Ireland in 1830 and made a cheaper grain spirit with less flavour. The Irish were slow to adopt the Coffey still and continued to use the pot stills, a less efficient but more flavoursome style of still. Finding no interest in Ireland, Coffey went to Scotland where his still, and the lighter more pleasant taste of whiskey it gave, was welcomed.
The next nail in the coffin of Irish Whiskey was placed when the United States closed its markets from 1920 – 1933 due to Prohibition, during this time bootleg whisky from Scotland managed to get over and when prohibition finally ended, the American palate had acquired a taste for the Scotch which began to blaze a trail throughout North America and into the British Empire. By 1948, there were only 3 distilleries left in the Irish Republic and 3 in Northern Ireland and in 1966 Jameson, Powers and CDC merged to form Irish Distillers Ltd, in an effort to stop the decline. A new distillery was constructed behind the Old Midleton Distillery in County Cork. They went on to buy Bushmills Distillery, giving them a monopoly on Irish Whiskey.
The word ‘whiskey’comes from the Gaelic uisce beatha, meaning water of life. Irish whiskey was one of the earliest distilled drinks in Europe, arising around the 12th century (see Distilled beverage). It is believed that Irish monks brought the technique of distilling perfumes back to Ireland from their travels to the Mediterranean countries around 1000 A.D. The Irish then modified this technique to obtain a drinkable spirit.
By the mid-1970s there were only two distilleries in Ireland, those of New Midleton and Bushmills, both owned by Irish Distillers. Production reached a nadir at about 400,000 - 500,000 cases per annum during the seventies, from a height of 12 million cases around 1900. The takeover of Irish Distillers by Pernod Ricard in 1988 led to increased marketing of Irish whiskeys, especially Jameson. Since the early 1990s Irish whiskey has undergone a major resurgence and has for over 20 years been the fastest growing spirit in the world. Production rose from 4.4 million cases in 2008 to 6.5 million in 2013, with growth projected to rise to 12 million cases by 2018. As of 2013, roughly 800 people were employed full-time in the whiskey industry in Ireland.