little-known Irish whiskey facts
Irish whiskey was one of the earliest distilled drinks in Europe, from around the 12th century.
Irish monks brought the technique of distilling perfumes back to Ireland from their travels to southern Europe around 1000 AD. They met up with the Moors, a group of black men who had brought the art of creating alkool from Arabia by 900 AD. The Irish then modified this technique to obtain a drinkable spirit.
Although termed "whiskey", the spirit produced during this period would have differed from what is currently recognised as whiskey, as it would not have been aged, and was often flavoured with aromatic herbs such as mint, thyme, or anise.
In 1779, there were 1,228 registered distilleries in Ireland – though this was hacked after an Act of Parliament was introduced to calculate the taxes payable on whiskey production on the basis of apparatus capacity. By 1790, this number had fallen to 246, and by 1821, there were just 32 licensed distilleries in operation.
Once the most popular spirit in the world, a long period of decline greatly damaged the industry. Although Ireland boasted of 28 renowned distilleries in the 1890s, by 1966 this number had fallen to just two, and by 1972 the remaining distilleries, Bushmills Distillery and Old Midleton Distillery (replaced by New Midleton Distillery), were owned by just one company, Irish Distillers.
The monopoly situation was ended by the launch of the first new distillery in decades, Cooley Distillery, in 1987.
Since the 1990s, Irish whiskey has seen a resurgence in popularity and has been the fastest-growing spirit in the world every year since then. With exports growing by over 15% per annum, existing distilleries have been expanded and a number of new distilleries constructed. As of December 2019, Ireland had 32 distilleries in operation, with more either planned or under development.
According to Irish food board Bord Bia, global exports of Irish whiskey are on track to double by 2020.
This is not the first time the category has experienced a boom – it was even the most popular spirit in Scotland for a period in the 1800s.
Official records till 1600 AD are gobbledygook, as many Irish records were oral rather than written.
What started out as a religious day in homage to the patron saint of Ireland, St Patrick’s, has become an international festival celebrating Irish tradition the world over – and a fundamental part of the culture is, of course, Irish whiskey.
Prior to the growth of the Whiskey industry, the common man’s drink in Ireland was Rum!
Whiskey in Ireland does not necessarily have to be spelled with an ‘e’. After a series of spelling changes both ways, Irish distillers adopted the spelling as a point of distinction from the then low-quality blended Scotch whisky. Both spellings are still allowed under the current legislation. Plenty of brands in the past have forgone the ‘e’, and until the 1960s, both spellings were commonplace.
In 1823 Dublin was home to the five largest licensed distilleries in Ireland. At their peak, the distilleries in Dublin were the largest in the world, with a combined output of almost 10 million gallons per year.
A Scot, John Haig's cousin, Robert Stein invented in 1828, the first column still to be put to use commercially, despite certain flaws. Haig used it in his Cameron Bridge distillery.
An Irishman, Aeneas Coffey, created the first truly continuous still. He found virtually no buyers in his country, Ireland. It was an instant hit in Armagnac, France and found favour with Scottish distillers who distilled their grain whisky using his still.
Distillers in Ireland refused to accept the spirit manufactured using the Coffey still. When the Spirits Act was passed 1860/63, almost all Scottish distillers started to blend their double-distilled pot spirit with Malt whiskies to create a remarkably smooth, much lighter and flavourful whisky that sold readily across the world, competing with the triple-distilled Irish pot whisky and even beating it at times.
The Irish whiskey industry lodged a complaint that any liquor mixed with neutral grain spirit could not be called whiskey. The argument was turned down. The Irish then changed tack. They then wanted that their spirit be called the option remaining after the Scotsmen decided which spelling they were going to use and opted to use whisky in the interim.
A formal Board decided in 1909 that thenceforth, all whiskey from Scotland would be called Scotch Whisky. The Irish then reverted to whiskey, to indicate that such a whiskey was triple distilled superior Irish whiskey.
Sadly, the Irish were heading for a drastic downfall, for numerous reasons:the Irish War of Independence, the subsequent civil war, and trade war with Britain (which cut off whiskey exports to Britain and all Commonwealth countries, then Irish whiskey's biggest market); WWI; prohibition in the United States (1920-1933), which severely curtailed exports to Irish whiskey's second-biggest market; widespread counterfeiting of Irish whiskeys in America and Britain; protectionist policies introduced by the Irish Free State government, which capped whiskey exports significantly in the hope of taxing domestic consumption and finally, over-expansion and mismanagement at several Irish distilleries. Together, these factors greatly hampered exports and forced many distilleries into economic difficulties and out of business, and by the early 20th century Scotland had surpassed Ireland to become the world's largest whiskey producer.
The first Irish coffee was invented and named by Joe Sheridan, a head chef in Foynes, County Limerick. A group of American passengers disembarked from a Pan Am flying boat on a miserable winter evening in the 1940s, so Sheridan added whiskey to their coffee. When they asked if they were being served Brazilian coffee, Sheridan replied “no, Irish coffee”.
Travel writer Stanton Delaplane took Irish coffee to the US after drinking it at Shannon Airport. He worked with bar owners at the Buena Vista Cafe in San Francisco to find the method of floating the cream on top of the coffee, and (so the story goes) one night sampled the drink until he almost passed out.
Jameson’s Midleton Distillery first opened with a whopping 31,618-gallon pot still (143,862 litres), which remains in situ within the historic distillery, and can be viewed as part of the tour at the Jameson Experience Midleton. The new stills at Midleton are currently the largest operational pot stills in the world.
The number of pot stills has been increased from four to seven, each with a capacity of ~80,000 litres.
Irish Distillers was formed in 1966, when a merger took place between John Power & Son, John Jameson & Son and Cork Distilleries Company. In 1988 Irish Distillers became a subsidiary of Pernod Ricard.
In June 1875, rivers of burning whiskey flowed through the streets of Dublin like lava after a bonded whiskey warehouse in the Liberties caught fire. The Great Dublin Whiskey Fire took the lives of 13 people, and 1,900 barrels of whiskey, were lost to the blaze.
This was the most disastrous blaze in Ireland (and Scotland) ever.
One of the most haunted Irish whiskey distilleries is Kilbeggan. The site was paid a visit by Derek Acorah, from Living TV’s Most Haunted, who proffered a wealth of interesting tales from the distillery’s rich history. He claimed to have connected with Matthew McManus, the man who founded the Kilbeggan Distillery in 1757; his son John, who was executed in 1798; and Flo Eccles née Locke, the last in a 120 year line of Locke’s to manage Kilbeggan before it closed.
During the show, Acorah recited several little-known facts he claimed the ghosts were telling him, much to the surprise of distillery manager Brian Quinn.
The founder of Jameson Irish Whiskey, John Jameson, was actually a Scottish sheriff clerk. He was born in Alloa in the Central Lowlands of Scotland back in 1740. He married Margaret Haig, a sister of the Haig brothers, in 1768, and the couple moved to Dublin where he established the Bow Street Distillery. Together, they raised a large family, four of whom followed their father into distilling in Ireland. In 1804 John Jameson II took over the reins at Bow Street, establishing the firm of John Jameson & Son.
The world’s most expensive bottle of Irish whiskey is a 25 Year Old Pure Pot Still Whiskey which dates back to the late 1800s. It is one of the last to be produced at Nun’s Island Distillery in Galway, which closed for good in 1913. Arkwrights Whisky and Wines store in Wiltshire is offering the bottle, on behalf of its owner, for £100,000.
A merger of John Power & Son, John Jameson & Son and the Cork Distillery Company; Irish Distillers was formed in 1966 in an attempt to reverse the decline in Irish whiskey sales. In 1972, Bushmills – the only other whiskey distillery in operation in Ireland – joined the group, and Irish Distillers became the sole producer of whiskey in Ireland for more than a decade. Now a subsidiary of French drinks group Pernod Ricard, Irish Distillers remains the largest distiller of Irish whiskey to this day.
When the triple whammy of fungal infections including the Phylloxera plague devastated European vineyards 1860-90, Irish whiskey replaced brandy to become the world’s favourite spirit.
Irish whiskey is experiencing a massive renaissance. It’s currently the fastest growing spirit category in the world. Last year there were four whiskey distilleries operating in Ireland. Today there are over 15 more distilleries either already operational, or in development.
Meanwhile in the US, Dead Rabbit NYC, run by Irish lads Jack McGarry and Sean Muldoon, is garnering worldwide renowned for its expertise in Irish whiskey cocktails. ‘Pot-still whiskey’ is a uniquely Irish style of whiskey, with exceptional fruit and spice characteristics, and a luxurious creamy texture. It is made by combining both malted and unmalted barley in the mashbill, prior to fermentation, and then distilling in traditional copper pot stills.
Most people think of Irish whiskey as blended, triple distilled and unpeated. While this is true of many Irish whiskeys, there are wonderful examples of fine Single Malt Irish (Bushmills 10), Single Grain Whiskeys (Teeling Single Grain), Single Pot Still (Redbreast & Greenspot), Peated Single Malt (Connemara), and double distilled Irish whiskey (e.g. KiIlbeggan).
If you want to brush up on your whiskey knowledge or just have a good day out sampling the stuff, there is a whiskey museum in Dublin on Grafton Street or the Jameson Distillery experience in Cork.
Whiskey was founded by Irish Monks, who had the time, education, and safe locations to perfect distillation.
Irish whiskey doesn’t toast it’s barley, making it smoother.
Irish whiskey uses a method called pot still where heat is applied directly to the pot. It is usually distilled three times.
According to the Irish Whiskey Act of 1980, as amended from time to time, wef 29 January 2016, production, labelling and marketing of Irish whiskey must be verified by the Irish revenue authorities as conforming with the Department of Agriculture's 2014 technical file for Irish whiskey. Irish whiskey must be distilled, aged and matured in the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland.
As of December 2019, Ireland has 32 distilleries in operation, with more either planned or under development.
The oldest known written record of ‘whiskey’ comes from Ireland in 1405 in the Annals of Clonmacnoise, where it was written that the head of a clan died after "taking a surfeit of aqua vitae" at Christmas, as against its first known mention in Scotland in 1494, the bolls of aqua vitae story.
By 1556 ‘whiskey’ was widespread, as an Act passed by the English Parliament declared whiskey to be "a drink nothing profitable to be drunken daily and used is now universally through the realm of Ireland". This Act also made it technically illegal for anyone other than "the peers, gentlemen and freemen of larger towns" to distil spirits without a licence from the Lord Deputy. However, as Crown control did not extend far beyond the Pale, a fortified area around Dublin, this had little effect.
The Pale (An Pháil in Irish) or the English Pale (An Pháil Shasanach or An Ghalltacht) was the part of Ireland directly under the control of the English government in the Late Middle Ages. It had been reduced by the late 15th century to an area along the east coast stretching from Dalkey, south of Dublin, to the garrison town of Dundalk. The inland boundary went to Naas and Leixlip around the Earldom of Kildare, towards Trim and north towards Kells. In this district, many townlands have English or French names, the latter associated with Norman influence in England.
The Pale became the base of English rule in Ireland. The Norman invasion of Ireland, beginning in 1169, brought much of Ireland briefly under the theoretical control of the Plantagenet Kings of England.
From the 13th century onwards the Hiberno-Norman occupation in the rest of Ireland at first faltered, then waned. Across most of Ireland, the Normans increasingly assimilated into Irish culture after 1300. They made alliances with neighbouring autonomous Gaelic lords.
In the long periods when there was no large royal army in Ireland, the Norman lords, like their Gaelic neighbours in the provinces, acted as effectively independent rulers in their own areas.
The Lordship controlled by the English king shrank accordingly.
The Pale is derived from the Latin word palus, a stake, or, synecdochically, a fence.
The Pale generally consisted of fertile lowlands which were easier for the garrison to defend from ambush than hilly or wooded ground. For reasons of trade and administration, a version of English became the official language.
The designation you see on Cognac labels—VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale) is a guarantee of how long a Cognac has been aged. VSOP indicates that the Cognac has been aged at least four years. The word Pale is not connected with Ireland or Irish whiskey.
Irish whiskey has a smoother finish as opposed to the smoky, earthy overtones common to Scotch whisky due in part to peating. Peat is rarely used in the malting process outside of Scotland.
There are notable exceptions to these rules in both countries. Examples include Connemara peated Irish malt (double distilled) whiskey from the Cooley Distillery in Riverstown, Cooley, County Louth; Pearse Whiskey from Pearse Lyons Distillery, Dublin; Dunville's peated from Echlinville Distillery, Kircubbin, County Down; and the as yet unreleased whiskey from Waterford Distillery.
In 1608, King James I granted a licence to Sir Thomas Phillips, a landowner in Bushmills, County Antrim. It is through this licence that the Old Bushmills Distillery lays claim to being the oldest surviving grant of licence to distill in the world. However, the current Bushmills distillery and company was not registered to trade until 1784.
The Kilbeggan Distillery (formerly Locke's Distillery), founded by the McManus family in Kilbeggan, County Westmeath, had been licensed and distilling since 1757 (not counting the period between 1954 and 2007) to lay claim to the title of the oldest licensed distillery in Ireland.
Kilbeggan also has what is believed to be the oldest operational copper pot still in the world, over 250 years old.
In 1661, the Crown introduced a tax on whiskey production in Britain and Ireland. Therefore, in theory, all whiskey distillers in Ireland were to register and pay taxes.
Although Crown control now extended far beyond the Pale, there is limited official record of whiskey distillation during this period.
One reason for this is that, until 1761, registration was done on a voluntary basis. Therefore, as registration entailed paying a tax, it was much avoided for obvious reasons.
Another reason is that those tasked with enforcing the law were frequently local landlords, and, if their tenants were the illicit distillers, it was not in their best interests to enforce the law.
It is known, however, that more distillation occurred than is officially recorded, as when registration later became compulsory, several registrations detail the use of existing facilities.
For many years following its introduction, whiskey produced by registered distillers was known as "parliament whiskey", while that produced by illicit producers was, and still is referred to as Poitín, a Gaelic term meaning "small pot" (often anglicised as poteen) in reference to the small pot stills used by the illicit distillers.
However, although traditionally the product of illicit production, many legal varieties of Poitín have come to market in recent years.
Irish whiskey must be made from a mash of malted cereals with or without whole grains of other cereals and which has been:
- saccharified by the diastase of malt contained therein, with or without other natural enzymes;
- fermented by the action of yeast;
- distilled at an alcoholic strength of less than 94.8% alcohol by volume in such a way that the distillate has an aroma and taste derived from the materials used and only plain water and caramel colour is added to it;
- subject to the maturation of the final distillate for at least three years in wooden casks, such as oak, not exceeding 700 litres (185 US gal; 154 imp gal) capacity
- retain the colour, aroma and taste derived from the production process referred to above
- have a minimum alcoholic by volume content of 40%
Individual technical specifications for the three varieties of Irish whiskey, "single pot still", "single malt", "single grain", plus "blended" whiskey (a mix of two or more of these varieties) are also outlined in the technical file. The use of the term "single" in the aforementioned varieties being permissible only if the whiskey is totally distilled on the site of a single distillery.
A Blend means the Irish whiskey comes from two or more
distillates, i.e. separate batches of whiskey.
In Irish whiskey talk, single malt, etc. isn’t defined as it is with
Scotch whiskey, nor does a blend indicate presence of grain whisky.
Jameson, the largest selling Irish whiskey, and the pride of Ireland was actually created by John Jameson, a Scottish businessman and distillery manager. Written records of Irish whiskey in the Annals of Clonmacnoise dating back to 1405, stating “A.D. 1405. Richard Magrannell Chieftain of Moyntyreolas died at Christmas by taking a surfeit of aqua vitae. Mine author sayeth that it was not aqua vitae to him but aqua mortis.”
Along with Black Bush, the quintessential Northern Irish blend, Bushmills also has a range of excellent single malts. .”
And it doesn’t stop there – if you find an old, anonymous Irish single malt, there’s only one place it could have come from: Midleton. .”
Midleton is Ireland’s biggest distillery and is best known as the maker of Jameson. Irish Distillers, the company that owns Midleton, rose out of the ashes of the whiskey industry in the 1960s. The Cork Distilleries Company, John Jameson & Son and John Power & Son merged and focused on developing one distillery that could meet all of their whiskey needs – Midleton. .”
Along with Jameson, Midleton also makes Powers and Paddy (the big-name whiskies of John Power & Sons and Cork Distillers respectively), and both Redbreast and the ‘Spot’ whiskeys: Green Spot, Yellow Spot and Red Spot. Until recently, Midleton was the only distillery in Ireland, if not the world, making pot still whiskey, and it’s thanks to them that the style didn’t entirely disappear during the 20th century. .”
Cooley, the distiller that heralded the Irish whiskey renaissance. Founded in 1987 by John Teeling as Ireland’s third distillery, Cooley was previously a plant making alcohol from potatoes. Teeling added whiskey column stills, following them with pot stills a few years later to create a distillery that could make all the whiskey styles he needed to make a range of Irish whiskeys: Kilbeggan grain (formerly known as Greenore), Kilbeggan blended whiskey and Tyrconnell single malt. The distillery also makes Connemara single malt – a rare peated Irish whiskey. .”
After Cooley’s emergence as a large player and the subsequent rise in popularity of Irish whiskey around the world, it was only a matter of time before smaller producers started to appear. Dingle was the first of that wave. .”
Dingle’s first spirit emerged from its stills in November 2012, and the last 6 years have seen a number of small batch releases of both single malt and pot still whiskey – the first pot still whiskey to be sold in Ireland for years that wasn’t made by Irish Distillers. .”
The distillery’s releases are small – a few hundred bottles drawn from a handful of casks – and they sell out quickly, but they are worth seeking out to see how this pioneering distillery is continuing to develop and refine its style. .”
Of all the distillers in this list, Dublin Liberties is the newest – the distillery opened last week. Based in the heart of Dublin, the distillery doesn’t have any whiskey of its own yet – Irish spirit has to be aged for at least three years before it can be called whiskey – but the company has launched a range of blended whiskies, also called Dublin Liberties, selected by master distiller Darryl McNally, formerly a distiller at Bushmills. .”
Pearse Lyons, who passed away in 2018, was an Irish businessman, brewer and biochemist who worked his way through the brewing and distilling industry in the 1970s. In 1980 he founded Alltech, a biotech company specialising in animal feed. He couldn’t stay away from the drinks world, and in 1999 opened the Lexington Brewing company, with Town Branch Bourbon following in 2011.
St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated on March 17. It honours the death of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland.
This religious feast day has transformed over the centuries and evolved into a global celebration of the Irish culture. But many just use the day as an excuse to party hard-- decked out in green, of course.
The exact origin of the first Irish whiskey ever produced is unknown but is said to have originated in Ireland during the Middle Ages.
The oldest known written record of whiskey is from the Irish Annals of Clonmacnoise of 1405, which reveals that Risdard MaGranell, the head of Clan Moyntir-eolas died after "taking a surfeit of aqua vitae at Christmas, which for him was aqua mortis."
The first whiskey distillery licensed in the British Isles was Bushmills, in Northern Ireland in 1608.
The estimated number of illegal distillers in Ireland before 1823 was 8,000, essentially due to their relatively difficult-to-hide-in landscape.
The alcohol of choice in Ireland up to 1870 was imported Rum.
In 1779, London saw that the Irish were doing well but not paying taxes as mathematically judged. They levied a presumptive tax in 1780 on arbitrarily assessed distillery output based on their apparatus worked in 2x8-hour shifts across 200 days. By 1781, the 1,228 registered in Ireland distilleries reduced to 246 and by 1821, just 32.
Jameson is the best-selling Irish whiskey in the world. It is the only Irish whiskey in the top 100 most popular liquors in the world, according to data from 2014. Jameson whiskey came in at number 41.
Jameson sells more Irish Whiskey than all other Irish producers.
In 1828, a Scotsman, Robert Stein, John Haig’s cousin, invented a column still for a competition launched by Napoleon to build a gadget that would speed up distillation for brandy and Armagnac. It worked continuously, but only for 24 hours. Downtime for repair and a change of filters took up the next 24 hrs.
Haig installed one in his Cameron Bridge distillery to produce grain whisky.
Two years later, an Irishman Aeneas Coffey devised and patented a column still which worked non-stop, much to the delight of the French.
The spirit produced in Ireland was scoffed at by all Irish distillers—who used triple distilled pot still whisky—as undrinkable, a product of “ingredients of the most deleterious character”.
Scottish grain whiskey distillers and Gin makers imported this Irish still and used it copiously. This already successful Irish apparatus was to become a mega-success in Scotland when blending of malt and grain whiskey was allowed 1860-63.
Irish distillers were using triple distilled pot still whiskey from very finely cut hearts and higher ABVs (55-65%) to rule the global market till ~1900 AD. The slight nip on the nose and palate due to higher ABVs made all the difference.
Irish whiskey outsold Scotch 4:1!
Bushmills was around at the same time Shakespeare was — and that puts things in perspective. Bushmills' name is a blend of the local water source, the River Bush, and the mills that grind their grain. Although fire destroyed a lot of the original distillery in 1885, they're still in the same place.
Legal Irish whiskey was called “Parliament,” whereas illegal Irish moonshine was called poitín.
The poitín men would set up stills in remote areas of the country and make their own version of whiskey, which was, of course, a major target for the authorities.
The revenue department even had an armed division of men who were tasked with finding the stills, which some poitín distillers took full advantage of. When their equipment would wear out or break, they'd report the location to the authorities. Then, they'd collect the reward money for turning in an illegal still and buy new equipment with the cash.
Poitín was outright illegal from 1661 all the way up until 1997. Some Irish whiskey distilleries still make it — in a more legal capacity than the good ol' days.
The first shipment of Jameson hit American shores in 1869, but during World War I, merchant ships crossing the Atlantic were prime targets.
The old part of Dublin is called The Liberties as it's the home of Guinness' St. James's Gate brewery. The brewery was built in 1759, and the timing is no coincidence. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, The Liberties was the beating heart of the city's brewing and distilling operations. In addition to Guinness, many businesses, like Jameson and Powers, called The Liberties home.
In fact, the entire area was filled with malthouses, mills, and so many other distilleries it was nicknamed the Golden Triangle.
The Liberties went from having 35 working distilleries (and as many breweries) to none, as the industry struggled. Even the big three — Jameson, Powers, and Roe — packed up and moved away, leaving Dublin with no whiskey-making facilities.
In 2015, Jack and Stephen Teeling opened their new distillery, Teeling, just a stone's throw from where their family's original distillery of the same name, which was founded in 1782, once stood.
The Teeling Whiskey Distillery today is the first new distillery in Dublin for over 125 years.
Jameson, the largest selling Irish whiskey, and the pride of Ireland was actually created by John Jameson, a Scottish businessman and distillery manager.
Matthew McConaughey, Bob Dylan, Drake and Conor McGregor are all celebrities that have their very own whiskey brands. McConaughey owns Longbranch Bourbon; Dylan owns Heaven’s Door Bourbon; Drake owns the Virginia Black Canadian whisky brand and Conor McGregor owns the Proper Twelve blended Irish whiskey brand.
The Old Bushmills Distillery is best known for its signature style of smooth, malt-rich spirits. It is situated on the northern Irish coast, and is recognized as one of the country’s oldest working distilleries.
Dunphy's is an Irish blend made by Midleton, originally for the US market, but now available mainly on this side of the pond. It was first produced back in the 1950s, with mixing and Irish coffee very much in mind.
By the 1960s, following decades of crisis, the market for Irish whiskey was decimated, with only two distilleries, John Power & Son, and John Jameson & Son, operating in Dublin, alongside Midleton distillery in Cork. Midleton, the heart and home of single pot still Irish whiskey, was only distilling for three weeks a year.
The first step toward recovery was setting up a new distillery in 1975, the New Midleton, built to a really superior technical design with the idea that it would be able to produce the different styles of whiskey that had traditionally been produced by the three firms, but in one location.
While the demand for traditional single pot still whiskey remained low, and production was focussed on Jameson (a blend of pot still whiskey and grain whiskey), the distillery did keep producing single pot still whiskey in the background through the 1980s. There was no market for it, but they just had this belief that its day will come.
Jameson's popularity opened the door to the other brands when the time was right. Midleton Very Rare was launched in 1984, and that was a real luxury Irish product. People thought it was mad, they had forgotten that Irish and luxury could be used in the same sentence. But the game changed totally in 1988, when Irish Distillers merged with Pernod Ricard - overnight that provided the one thing that Irish Distillers were missing - a worldwide distribution network.
Since then the market for single pot still Irish whiskey has grown through popular brands like Redbreast, Crafted at Midleton. In August 2021, Redbreast 12 Year Old was awarded the highly coveted World Whiskey Trophy at the International Wine and Spirit Competition.