Irish Whiskey

With Paddy's Day on the horizon, Chief Whisky Nutter Heath tells us everything we need to know (and a little more) about Irish Whiskey.

Historically there has always been an unspoken affinity between the Irish and Australians. It may be a shared, common love of making fun of the English or the happy-go-lucky, larrikin natures that seem to be prized and relatively common amongst both countries’ inhabitants. But our money is on the common love of a good (yet responsible) drink.

Irish whiskey is very popular in Australia, and the popularity and range available here is growing year on year - with St Patrick's Day soon upon us, now is good a time as any to dive in...

First things first - where did the 'extra' 'e' come from?

(or is it just me that lies awake at night wondering about this?)

Two theories seem to be the most accepted - although the second one looks more like wishful thinking:

  • Theory 1 - The 'e' is a byproduct of the difference between Scots and Irish Gaelic and the resulting translation into English. Then the Americans pinched it.
  • Theory 2 - The 'e' was introduced to distinguish Irish whiskey from the 'inferior' Scotch whisky of the 19th century - and then the Americans pinched it. Controversial obviously and undoubtedly hotly disputed but most Scots.

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Irish Whiskey - What is it?

This can be a tricky question to answer - like most whiskey, Irish whiskey is more than the sum of its parts.  The history, the people, the traditions and the world at large have all left their mark on Ireland and therefore Irish whiskey.  Irish whiskey represents all of these factors and more to most people who enjoy whiskey, but in particular, it usually brings to mind a delicate, buttery spirit - most likely due to prevalence of triple distillation and the propensity for using unmalted barley.

On the other hand, legally, Irish Whiskey is a geographical indication and a set of legal requirements that state:

  • Irish whiskey must be made from a mash of malted barley, plus other cereal grains (if desired).
  • It must be mashed, fermented and distilled in the Republic of Ireland and/or Northern Ireland to no more than 94.8% ABV
  • It must be matured in wooden vessels or casks no bigger than 700 litres for a minimum of three years in Ireland/Northern Ireland.
  • No additives may be added other than water and caramel colouring (e150a).
  • It must ‘Retain the characteristics of its raw materials’ (basically smell and taste like whiskey — amazing that this needed to be made explicit).
  • Bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV.

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The styles associated with Irish whiskey have further technical requirements which are summarised below

  • Single malt Irish Whiskey - Whiskey made using only malted barley, from a single distillery, in a pot still and aged for at least 3 years in oak.
  • Single pot still - as above but includes unmalted grain.  Most common form of Irish Whiskey until blends took over in the 20th century.  Previously referred to as 'pure pot still' or 'Irish pot still whiskey'.
  • Grain Whiskey - Whiskey made from any number of a variety of grains (or a single type) - most commonly used in blends.
  • Blended Whiskey - A mixture of grain whisky with either Irish single malt or single pot whiskies (or both).

How did it come to be? A 'brief' history

12th century AD - Irish Whiskey first thought to appear, being one of the first distilled for consumption spirits in Europe. Attributed to Irish monks who brought perfume distilling techniques back from the Mediterranean/Middle East. This 'Whiskey' would be barely recognisable to a modern Whiskey drinker, typically being un-aged and flavoured with herbs.

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Record keeping in the early days, like Scotland, was extremely spotty due to a reliance on oral record keeping as much as written, lack of regulation, illegal/unlicensed production, and general dodginess (citation needed :P)

1405 - the current earliest known written mention of whiskey in Ireland, chronicling the death of a clan leader who died 'taking a surfeit of aqua vitae'. The current earliest known written record mentioning whisky in Scotland is the best part of a hundred years more recent.

1608 - King James the First grants a licence to produce spirit to Sir Thomas Phillips of Bushmills. Old Bushmills stake their claim to having the oldest surviving licence to distil based on this. This is contested (of course). Kilbeggan, originally known as Locke's distillery was granted a licence in 1757. The point of contention lies in the fact Old Bushmills distillery and company did not register to trade until 1784....and it goes on from there

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1661 - The Crown introduce a tax on whiskey production for Britain and Ireland.

1759 - The explosive growth and demand for Whiskey, and the inevitable corner cutting that ensued prompts parliament to legislate that the use sugar, potatoes, malt or grain are the only acceptable , as well as banning some ingredients altogether. Shame Hellyers Road never got the memo...

1785 - a tax on malted barley is introduced. 'Single pot still' whiskey is born, using a combination of malted and un-malted (green) barley to minimise the taxable components used to make whiskey.

1761 - Registration for the tax introduced in 1661 becomes COMPULSORY (hahahahaa). On a totally unrelated note, a lot of 'existing facilities' for whiskey production 'miraculously' appear.

1779 - The parliament are back at it again - this time changing the excise payable to be base of potential output as opposed to actual output, payable monthly, regardless of whether the distillery actually managed to produce the calculated amount of spirit, or sell it...

This results in a decline from over 1200 registered distilleries recorded in 1779 to just 32(!) by 1821.

Early 19th Century - Ireland become the largest producers (and consumers) of spirit in the UK. Dublin distilleries owned by William Jameson, John Jameson, George Roe and John Powers) produce the vast majority with a combined total output of 10 million gallons (roughly 45 million litres!).

1823 - Excise duties cut by 50%, restrictions on still types and sizes relaxed and excise due when whiskey is actually sold not based on potential output. This leads to an increase in legal production investment and input and an increase in quality as the whiskey can now be produced at a reasonable rate instead of rushing to meet the calculated amounts tax was based on. Distillery numbers go from 32 to just before the announcement to 93 by 1835.

1825 - Midleton unleash a 31,618 gallon (approx 144,000 litres) pot still on the world - phwoar...

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1832 - Aeneas Coffey patents the Coffey still - both of these will be covered in more depth in a future update but the effects this would have on modern whisky production cannot be overstated. Amusingly the Coffey still was not very well received in Ireland. More amusingly Aeneas Coffey's employment prior to developing his still and using to make spirit was as Inspector General of Excise for Ireland.

History is very unkind to Irish whiskey from the end of the 19th century for the next 100 odd years - contributing in differing amounts, the spectacular decline in Irish whiskey's fortunes has been blamed in part on the following significant events;

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The introduction and rise in popularity of blended whiskies (which still account for more than 90% of whisky consumed today) which were never embraced by Irish distillers in the same manner as the Scottish

The rising fortunes of Scotch whisky - off the back of improved consistency, yield and the more rapid adoption and embracing of blends.

1919-1921 - The Irish War of Independence - for obvious reasons.

1922-1923 - The Irish Civil War - see above.

1920-1933 - Prohibition (USA) - This lead to a complete collapse of the second biggest market for Irish Whiskey.

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1975 - Only two functioning Irish Whiskey distilleries remain in operation namely (New) Midleton Distillery - an amalgamation/rationalisation of John Jameson, Powers, Cork Distilleries and Old Midleton and Bushmills

Things start to look up:

1987 - Cooley distillery founded by John Teeling, installed in a converted potato alcohol plant.

1988 - Pernod Ricard takeover Irish Distillers (Midleton) and begin injecting a lot of resources into growing the category.

The (current) Major Players

Old Bushmills Distillery (1784 - Bushmills - Jose Cuervo) lays claim to being the oldest licensed distillery in the world. Makes Bushmills (surprise!) blends and single malts.

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(New) Midleton Distillery (1975 - Cork - Pernod Ricard) produces Jameson, Powers, Paddy, Midleton, Redbreast and a handful of other brands both directly e.g. Method & Madness or through third parties, for example Green Spot, sold by Mitchell & Son

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Cooley Distillery (1987 - Cooley Peninsula - Beam Suntory) - produces the Connemara, Tyrconnell, Kilbeggan and 2Gingers whiskeys (in conjunction with sister distillery Kilbeggan). Most interestingly Cooley only double distil unlike most other Irish distilleries who typically triple distil. Founded by John Teeling, the father of the current owners of Teeling Distillery.

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Kilbeggan (2007/1757 - Beam Suntory)- originally founded in 1757 but production ceased in 1954. Re-opened as a museum 25 years later, whiskey production recommenced in 2007. Produces the Connemara, Tyrconnell, Kilbeggan and 2Gingers whiskeys (in conjunction with sister distillery Cooley)

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Dingle Distillery (2012 - Dingle - Porterhouse Group) - An artisan distillery created in an old Sawmill, founded by Oliver Hughes.  3 large pot stills have been installed and a 4th smaller one is used to produce vodka and gin. Whiskeys released so far are the Dingle Single Malts and Pot Still releases.

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Tullamore Distillery (2014 - Tullamore - William Grant & Sons) - An amazing example of the belief in the future of Irish Whiskey, William Grant & Sons purchased the rights to the Tullamore brand which was previously distilled under contract at Midleton and built a pot still, malt and grain whiskey distillery to help satisfy future demand. Famous for the Tullamore D.E.W. blend

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Teeling Distillery (2015 - Dublin - Jack and Stephen Teeling) - founded after the sale of Cooley to Beam Suntory in 2011. The first new distillery to open in Dublin in 125 years, and the first to actually distil in Dublin since the last of the original distilleries closed in 1976 (Dublin peaked at 37 distilleries in its whiskey heyday). Teeling have released multiple expressions including single grain, pot still and single malts (most likely ex-Cooley stock acquired during the sale of Cooley).

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Slane Distillery (2018 - Slane - Brown Forman) - located in the old horse stables around the back of the castle, Slane is one of the newest kids on the (Irish) block, with the considerable resources from 'the house that Jack built' behind it, and the almost OTT location, this is one to watch.  They already have a core bottling on market, a triple casked blend, (un)surprisingly called 'Slane Irish Whiskey'.

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Still to come:

Smaller/upcoming distilleries

Independent bottlers / producers

Deeper dives into production methods/history/distilleries

A bunch of other stuff