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Irish Whiskey: A Short Introduction

July 20, 2018 by Jon-jon Bauyon



Once the powerhouse and most popular spirit in the world, Irish whiskey demand has declined from 19th century onwards and it greatly damaged the industry. We are looking at thirty distilleries that soon became just three for the last century. However, from late 20th century, it re-gained it's popularity and became the fastest growing spirit in the world with a yearly import sales increase of 15 percent. On top of that, existing distilleries has decided to expand to accommodate the growing demand, not to mention the new upcoming distilleries. 

Irish whiskey is known to have smoother finish due to lack of smoky and earthy overtones compare to the neighbouring Scotch as they rarely used peat in the production. 



The Coffey Still 

The design was to be improved and patented by an IrishmanAeneas Coffey. Educated at Dublin's Trinity College, Coffey had ample opportunities to observe all manner of still designs because he had worked for a quarter of a century as an excise tax collector. He knew how much could be produced in a given period of time. He also knew that the new continuous stills had a flaw. To obtain a higher proof spirit, receiving vessels had to be changed so multiple distillations could take place.

Nearly every liquor producer in Europe and the Americas embraced Coffey's new continuous column still. Cuban rum, gin, vodka, blended Scotch whisky, and blended Irish whiskey all gained new stature as output went through the roof and the character of the spirit became smoother and generally more palatable. Within five years of receiving his patent, Coffey had enough orders to warrant the establishment of Aeneas Coffey & Sons in London, a company that remains in operation today under the name John Dore & Co Limited. He closed Dock Distillery four years later and devoted all of his time to building and installing stills in distilleries owned by others. At the time, Irish distillers were the dominant force in global whiskey production. Unfortunately for Coffey, his invention was shunned by the Irish who considered the whiskey produced from his still as bland and tasteless.They decided to persevere with their famous pot still whiskey and Coffey was forced to look overseas and to Scotland in particular.

Licensed Distillation: The Beginning

In 1608, King James I granted one such 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 distil in the world. However, the current Bushmills distillery and company was not registered to trade until 1784 which allows the Kilbeggan Distillery (formerly Locke's Distillery), founded by the McManus family in Kilbeggan, County Westmeath, which has 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.

Expansion and Reform

In 1823, the authorities, acknowledging the problems with the licensing system, cut the duties by half, and published an Excise Act which significantly reformed the existing legislation, making legal distillation much more attractive. In particular, the reforms removed the need for distillers to rush production in order to produce as much (or more) whiskey than duties would be paid on, leading to improvements in fuel efficiency and product quality, as distillers could operate the stills at a more appropriate pace. In addition, restrictions on the type and capacity of stills used were removed, granting distillers more freedom to tailor their equipment.Another significant reform, was a change to how duty was paid. Previously, duty was charged monthly, based on still output, meaning that distilleries paid tax on whiskey before it was sold. However, under the reforms, duty was to be paid only when the whiskey was actually sold, making its storage in bond more attractive, as less of the distillery's working capital would be tied up in stock.

The Distilleries

According to the Alcoholic Beverage Federation of Ireland (ABFI), as of August 2017 there are 18 whiskey distilleries in operation in Ireland. However, many of these are recently established and have not yet aged their own spirits for sale as whiskey. Here are some of the most famous around.

Old Bushmills Distillery

Through a 1608 licence to distil, lays claim to be the oldest licensed distillery in the world. Produces a range of blends (Bushmills Original, Black Bush) and single malts (Bushmills 10, 16 and 21 year olds). Previously owned by Pernod Ricard, and Diageo, since 2014 it has been owned by Jose Cuervo.


Midleton Distillery

Produces Jameson, Powers, Paddy, Midleton, Redbreast, and others, including the independently sold rarity Green Spot. Owned by Pernod Ricard since 1988.


Kilbeggan Distillery

The distillery re-opened in 2007, 54 years to the day after it closed, and 250 years after it was first established. A sister distillery of the Cooley Distillery, both were bought by Beam Suntory in 2011.


The Decline

In addition to the introduction of blended whiskey, and the Irish distillers' failure to account for its appeal to changing tastes, there were a number of additional issues which placed further pressure on the Irish distillers: 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); 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 significantly capped whiskey exports 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.


Production reached a nadir at about 400,000–500,000 cases per annum during this period, down from a height of 12 million cases around 1900. However, the late 1980s saw the beginnings of a long and slow resurgence in the Irish whiskey industry, with the establishment of the Cooley Distillery in 1987, and Pernod Ricard's takeover of Irish Distillers in 1988, which led to increased marketing of Irish whiskeys, in particular Jameson, overseas. Since then Irish whiskey has undergone a major resurgence, and for the past twenty years, has been the fastest growing spirit in the world, with annual growth of approximately 15–20% per annum. In 2010, the Kilbeggan Distillery, which had closed in 1954, reopened, bringing the number of operating distilleries up to four. By August 2017, this figure had grown to eighteen, with at least sixteen more in the planning stages. As of 2016, sales of Irish whiskey stood at 8.7 million 9-litres cases, up from 4.4 million cases in 2008, with sales projected to exceed 12 million cases (its historical peak) by 2020, and 24 million by 2030. As of 2017, roughly 750 people are employed on a full-time basis in the whiskey industry in Ireland. In addition, it is estimated that the industry provides support to a further 4,200 jobs across agriculture and other sectors of the economy.

Any views or opinions in the post are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.

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