People who love Irish whiskey, one of the most popular distilled spirits in the world, claim it has a perfume of its own. That is not coincidence.
Jameson’s, Tullamore Dew, Bushmills and other stellar examples of the art of distillation on the Emerald Isle owe the popularity and longevity to a bunch of Irish monks about a thousand years ago.
Drinks and taxes
The monks had just returned from a trip to the Mediterranean where they discovered a means of distilling perfumes. With just a tad of tweaking, experimenting and, of course, much tasting, Irish whiskey was born.
But the beverage of Blarney has not had an easy life to get where it is in the 21st century.
In its early stages, whiskey making was the Irish equivalent of moonshining — kind of like Dublin meets Dawsonville. Many small, family-operated stills produced large quantities of the stuff. The first licensed distillery appeared in 1608.
Soon the government discovered money could be made from this water of life. (The word “whiskey” derives from a Gaelic term, “uisce beatha,” meaning “water of life.”) So excise taxes were put into place.
The illicit distillers were enraged and nasty battles ensued between the moonshiners and the excise men.
The whiskey makers had good reason to be angry. The revenue agents had the authority to seize the whiskey, the equipment used to produce it and even horses and vehicles used to transport it.
But the taxes stayed, and by the late 18th century more than 2,000 stills were in operation. Many of those were considered illegal. However, less than a century later, the number had dwindled to 28, with “The Big Four” companies in Dublin dominating the industry.
Methods to the madness
The quality of Irish whiskey was largely attributed to the pot still method by which it was produced.
A pot still is a huge, onion-shaped copper contraption. Historically, the Irish used only malted barley for their whiskey. But when the British imposed taxes on the malted barley, producers began to use other grains in addition to the barley to cut costs.
During this period, Irish whiskey production eclipsed what was being produced in Scotland and was considered superior in quality. But things were about to change.
Ironically, it was Irishman Aenas Coffey who helped tip the whiskey war scales to the side of the Scots. Coffey developed a new kind of still: the column still. It was larger, more efficient and less expensive to use than a pot still.
He introduced it to his countrymen as a way to modernize the distillation process. But he was soundly rebuffed. Irish traditionalists wanted nothing to do with this new-fangled machinery. They derided the product of the column still as “silent spirit.”
So Coffey sailed to Scotland and introduced the Scots to his invention. They embraced it.
As a side note, it was about that time that Irish producers introduced the extra “e” to the word “whisky” as a way of showing the difference between Irish whiskey and Scotch whisky.
Social, economic disruptions
The Scotch whisky was not the only new idea to take a bite out of the Irish whiskey’s profits.
Irish whiskey took a big hit from a church-generated campaign of “total abstinence” during the mid-19th century. Distilleries shut down, pubs closed and, unlike Prohibition to come later in the United States, people actually consumed substantially less alcohol.
The Great Famine in Ireland decimated the nation’s economy, with millions of Irish emigrating away from the collapsed agricultural economy and the threat of starvation. That hit the distilleries hard.
Then conflicts with England disrupted trade. Punitive tariffs were imposed by both sides. Since Britain was the biggest importer of Irish whiskey, the industry took yet another body blow.
Still Irish whiskey was considered worldwide to be superior to the Scottish product. But gains made by the Scots using the column still, and new techniques for making whiskey, were bringing the Highlands producers hot on the heels of the Dubliners.
In 1909, the Royal Commission on Whisky and Other Potable Spirits ruled grain whisky produced from the column still actually was legitimate whisky. The “silent spirit” was silent no longer. Scotch began to pull ahead.
More troubles vexed the Irish. The War for Independence from England, including the bloody Easter Rising, stifled the industry. And in America a festering temperance movement erupted into the infamous Volstead Act, which installed Prohibition as the law of the land from 1919 to 1933.
America at that time was the largest consumer of Irish whiskey. Irish producers balked at proposals to deliver the product to America by way of bootleggers, so that market went down the drain.
The period roughly from the late 1920s into the 1960s was a gloomy time for Irish whiskey. The Great Depression, World War II and an uneasy economy whittled the number of distilleries.
But a comeback was close.
Emerald Isle resurgence
In 1966, the remaining distillers united forming Irish Distillers Group. And in 1987 a new independent facility, Cooley Distillery, was established near the city of Dundalk.
The Irish don’t like to talk about this, but Irish Distillers is now owned by a French multinational company.
Today, Irish whiskey is immensely popular. And a few premium whiskies are made in the pot still method; drinks such as Redbreast, Green Spot and Powers.
Never tried Irish whiskey? You are missing a treat. The best way to enjoy this hearty drink is with either a small splash of cold water, or a single ice cube. And toast those intrepid Irish monks.
Then you will understand why Irish eyes are smiling.
Randall Murray is a Gainesville-area resident. Have a question about wine or other alcoholic beverages? He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears on the first Wednesday of the month and on www.gainesvilletimes.com.