Ireland is the birthplace of whiskey. The Irish invented the drink, gave it its name, shared it and the knowledge required to produce it with Scotland, and continue to make some of the best examples of whiskey in the world today. From origins roughly one thousand years ago to today, the Irish have made whiskey that goes far beyond being a simple beverage. Irish whiskey is a part of the history, the culture, and the life of Ireland. Irish whiskey has held strong to tradition and its distillers have suffered for it. But the drink that started it all has rebounded, is no longer an endangered species, and continues to go from strength to strength. The story of Irish whiskey is a long and proud one, going back almost to the beginnings of distillation itself; a story that, while it looked for a while like it would have a sad ending, has recently gotten a lot better.
The art and practice of distillation have Arabic roots as does the word alembic and, indeed, the word alcohol itself. According to Anistatia Miller and Jared Brown in “Spiritous Journey: A History of Drink,” the alembic still was invented by an Arab alchemist named Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan in the 8th Century A.D. Hayyan was not trying to create whiskey, but a medicinal elixir instead, as Islam prohibits the consumption of alcohol. The practice and methods of distillation were soon passed to Europe, where they were further developed by Monks who spread the art as they spread Christianity in a sort of ironic package deal. The religious origins of distillation help make sense of the vocabulary used to describe its product. The Arabs called it al kol, which means “the spirit” and the Europeans gave it the Latin name of “aqua vitae,” which means “the water of life;” both terms provide some good imagery to accompany the message of Christian missionaries. The Latin name also gives a clue to how distilled beverages became viewed as medicine in the Middle Ages, a time when water could kill you a lot sooner than liver disease or high blood pressure would. The Irish translated “aqua vitae” into their language of Gaelic and called it “uisce beatha”, from which the English word “whiskey” is derived.
While it is not known exactly when the Irish began making whiskey, it was likely before the beginning of the 12th Century. According to Gavin D. Smith, there is evidence that King Henry II of England and his troops enjoyed Irish whiskey when they invaded Ireland in 1170. It is also known that the skills to make whiskey were brought to Scotland by missionaries who, according to George N. Bathgate in “Whisky: Technology, Production, and Marketing,” began distilling in the West of Scotland in the Middle Ages. Miller and Brown show that the written record of distillation in Ireland dates to 1320, more than 170 years before the first written proof of whisky distillation in Scotland – when Bishop Richard Ledred included a description of the distillation process in the “Red Book of Ossory.” However, Ledred describes a process of distilling wine, which would produce brandy and proves that uisce beatha, or aqua vitae, was not always something that would be recognized as whiskey today.
The definition of whiskey, and regulations concerning its ingredients and permissible practices in making it, would take centuries to finalize. In the meantime, the Irish naturally began making whiskey from grain simply because grain was available; grapes do not grow well enough in Ireland for wine production. Over time, barley became the grain of choice. Additionally, the move from early, crude clay stills to metal, eventually copper, stills would have also taken decades if not centuries of development through trial and error or happy accident. Smith writes that copper is essential to quality whiskey because it removes sulphur compounds and creates a lighter and cleaner whiskey. The process whereby this works and the importance of metals in chemical reactions was not understood until the 20th Century, yet distillers had long known the importance of a copper still. Contact with copper is extremely important and is the reason for one of the key technical differences between Irish whiskey and Scotch: triple distillation. Bathgate points out that Irish pot stills, and the batches they produce, are considerably larger than those used by Scotch distillers. As a result, less of the whiskey comes in contact with the copper during distillation. To address this problem, Irish stills are fitted with purifiers that return the condensate to the still to get more contact with the copper. This practice creates a distillate divided by alcoholic strength between weak and strong spirits, which at this point in the process are call “feints.” The weak feints are sent to another still and redistilled, resulting in another division between weak and strong feints. The remaining weak feints are recycled and the strong feints from the first two distillations are combined for a third. This process removes many congeners and produces a whiskey that, as a result, is often lighter and smoother than single malt Scotch, which is nearly always distilled only twice. The results of the third distillation on the taste and drinkability of the whiskey were noted by Samuel Johnson in his famous 1755 dictionary. Johnson wrote, “The Irish sort is particularly distinguished for its pleasant and mild flavour. The Highland sort is somewhat hotter.” The hotness that Johnson described was the result of congeneric elements that provide flavor, but can also give the drink some harshness. According to Ross Aylott’s chapter “Whisky Analysis” in “Whisky: Technology, Production, and Marketing,” Irish whiskey has roughly one fourth of the congeneric elements of single malt Scotch. Even without the scientific data of Aylott’s charts and analysis, the whiskey drinker can arrive at that fact on the first sip.
Another key difference between Irish whiskey and Scotch is found in the malting process. In malting, grains are steeped in water and then must be dried. The drying process is called kilning. Scotch distillers kiln their malts by burning peat, a process that creates quite a bit of smoke. This process gives Scotch whiskies a unique, smokey flavor. Irish distillers, by contrast, dry their malts in a closed kiln. The difference is akin to the difference between a smoker and an oven – or as Hank Hill would say, “Taste the meat, not the heat.” This difference is immediately noticeable and goes a long way toward determining an individual’s preference between Irish and Scotch. Bushmills is the only Irish distiller that kilns their malt the Scottish way, and even then, they only do it part of the time, allowing their whiskey to retain its Irish character. The lighter and less smokey flavor of Irish whiskey appeals to a broad base of drinkers and made Irish whiskey extremely popular, until it was challenged and overtaken by Scotch.
In “Irish Whisky, A 1000 Year Tradition,” Malachy Magee attributes the dominance of Scotch to one thing: blending. Blending played a large part, but the reality is more complex. The dominance of Scotch whisky over Irish whiskey for the last hundred years is due to a variety of reasons. First is the age old enemy of whiskey and distillers everywhere: taxes. Bathgate points out that taxes on Irish whiskey in the 18th and 19th centuries were higher than those imposed in Scotland. While the blame for high taxes in the 18th and 19th Centuries can be placed on English shoulders, the Irish continued to raise taxes on themselves after independence. Magee writes that even as recently as 1980, the Irish government raised taxes on Irish whiskey, hampering the whiskey’s ability to compete in the export market, but also, inexplicably, making it less competitive than other whiskeys in Ireland itself. As everywhere else, high tax rates create a climate in which people risk legal trouble to avoid paying the taxes. In the world of whiskey, such people build their own stills. In Ireland there is a culture that regards whiskey as part of the fabric of life, to the point that making one’s own is considered in something like the same regard as hunters and fishers consider catching one’s own food. While Scotland and the American South certainly have their own rich histories of illegal distillation, the presence of the moonshiner in those places has largely disappeared in modern times and become a part of folklore. In Ireland, where homemade whiskey is called poteen, there is, according to Bathgate, still an active culture devoted to making one’s own just as fishers continue to catch fish when they could simply buy fish at the store. While this probably has little impact on whiskey sales today, the continued practice of making poteen points to cultural contributions to Irish whiskey’s decline in the 20th Century: atavism, and a love of traditional ways bordering on hidebound conservatism. The Scottish are stereotypically known for, among other things, business acumen. It was, after all, a Scotsman named Adam Smith who first defined and celebrated capitalism. Ireland is better known for a different mindset. Erin’s writers like W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, and Flann O’Brien have produced work of a different sort from “The Wealth of Nations.” The Irish resisted the Reformation and remained Catholic, they resisted English influence and ultimately achieved political independence, and they have maintained their own traditional language to an extent that the Scottish have not. At every turn, the Irish seem to resist change. This resistance has enabled Irish culture to survive in the face of a bigger, more powerful neighbor when a great many cultures, people, and languages did not survive, but instead disappeared or were watered down and marginalized by English dominance. However, when it comes to marketing whiskey, the poetic, atavistic, soulful Irish missed the boat and let the Scottish run away with the industry. The Irish distillers resisted blending.
In the 19th Century, enterprising people like John Dewar and Alexander Walker were blending malt whisk(e)y with grain whisky and marketing it as Scotch or Irish, just as rectifiers were doing with bourbon in America at the same time. This practice incensed distillers of both Scotch and Irish, but while the Scottish distillers were able, quickly enough, to come to terms with blending and learn to make money from selling to blenders, the Irish fought; they wanted to outlaw blending. The Dublin distillers considered the blending of their whiskey with grain whiskey by others and then selling the result as Irish Whiskey to be a threat to the integrity of their products, their brands, and to the identity and integrity of Irish whiskey itself. According to Magee, a politician named William O’Sullivan took up the distillers’s cause in Parliament. A legal war between the distillers and the blenders was begun and reached to the highest levels of government, just as the war between distillers and rectifiers and makers of Canadian Whisky raged in Washington D.C. at the turn of the 20th Century. O’Sullivan brought the distillers’s concerns to Parliament in 1875. A final decision to ultimately end the question of what constitutes whisk(e)y in the UK was not made until 1909. The decision favored blenders. In America, the decision favored the distillers, possibly because it was largely a fight between Kentucky and Canada, and protecting the brand identity of bourbon was in the American government’s interest as whiskey is a tremendous source of tax revenue. Similarly, it should not be surprising that a court in London ruled in favor of English and Scottish blenders over the interests of largely Irish distillers. From that moment on, the whiskey landscape became a different place. Blended whisk(e)y sales eclipsed all other types of the drink almost overnight and the Scottish capitalized on it. Soon enough, events would occur that would make it even more difficult for Irish whiskey to compete for its place in the world. As whisky blenders began to take over the market, the world went to war. And the Irish started one of their own.
Up Next: The Irish War for Independence, Irish Whiskey’s struggle to survive, its revival, and its place today.