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Irish whiskey: a distilled history

Irish whiskey: a distilled history
14 March 2019

It’s had its ups and downs over the years, but after hitting rock bottom in the 1970s the Irish distilling scene is well and truly in its ascendancy

The whisky industry may be cyclical by nature, with distilleries in Scotland being closed, mothballed or brought back to life, depending on the fluctuations of consumer preference and market demands from decade to decade.

But the change in fortune that hit Irish whiskey over the course of a century was so momentous it was enough to see this once world-dominating industry almost disappear entirely.

In the early 1900s there were as many as 37 distilleries operating across Ireland, and for every case of Scotch, international London merchants were shifting three of Irish whiskey. Its distinctive – and at that time, desirable – character came from the inclusion of raw, unmalted barley in its mash bill, distilled in pot stills to produce a spirit known as “pure pot still” whiskey. It had a reputation as the best that you could buy, prized for its robust flavour, strong spicy notes and full-on fragrance.

Aeneas Coffey, with the continuous still that bears his nameIrish exciseman and future distiller in his own right, Aeneas Coffey, with the continuous still that bears his name.

And this is where the Irish industry sowed the seeds of its own downfall, due in no small part to an invention by one of the country’s own – Irish exciseman and future distiller in his own right, Aeneas Coffey. His continuous still was widely adopted by distillers in Scotland, who embraced the ability to produce cheaper grain whisky to make up the bulk of their smoother blends that started to take hold in the marketplace.

Meanwhile in Truths About Whisky, their essay of 1878, a group of Irish distillers railed against the output from Coffey’s continuous stills as “good, bad or indifferent; but it cannot be whisky, and it ought not to be sold under that name”.

Truths About Whisky
Truths About Whisky

Their point of principle in defence of a purer and bolder form of whiskey may have been honourable, but in the meantime the Scottish blenders began to consolidate their place in the international market. By the time Prohibition ended in the US in 1933, blended Scotch was there to satisfy the rising demand. Irish whiskey also suffered a backlash for its association with poor quality spirit that had been given spurious Irish names to shift it in the country’s speakeasies.

That same year, (Diageo forerunner) DCL chief William Ross declared that “Ireland is an irrelevance”, and further decades of decline proved him right: by the mid-1970s there were only two distilleries operating in the whole of Ireland.

Thankfully, the story doesn’t end there, and with the rising interest in single malt whisky, by the late 1990s Irish whiskey began a long-overdue renaissance. As in Scotland, blends might bankroll the industry, but there is now increasing awareness and appreciation of single pot Irish whiskey, and a boom in older distilleries reopening, along with new brand-new ventures across the country.

It’s only taken about 100 years…but Irish whiskey is back, and more dynamic than ever.

A blast from the past

We’re delighted to bring members in Hong Kong a bottling from distillery 51 that, at a staff tasting at The Vaults, was rapturously received for its intense fruity and floral notes.

But this is also an Irish whiskey with a difference – it’s a single malt, using 100 per cent malted barley, unlike the pure pot still Irish whiskey that uses unmalted barley. And even for this established distillery, this bottling is an unusual expression, having been distilled twice instead of the usual process with a three-time distillation.

The distillery’s pot stills are relatively small with long slender necks, which produce higher levels of reflux and a smoother spirit with strong estery characteristics. “An intense floral hit”, “majorly fruity” and “full-bodied and complex” were some of the reactions. As one of our ambassadors (who just happens to be from Northern Ireland) said: “Even a Scotch whisky snob would be blown away by this.”

Now, we know you’re not snobs. Be prepared for taste of Ireland at its best.