The (Second) Rise of Irish Whiskey
The story of Irish whiskey is as lengthy and rich as it is riddled with disappointments and brushes with obscurity.
Currently, it’s the fastest growing spirits category in the world, though if we’d assessed Ireland’s flailing whiskey industry 50 years ago, nothing would have hinted that a recovery this triumphant would be possible.
Chalk it up to the luck of the Irish, but via increasing visibility, a swelling craft distilling movement and a global market with a bottomless thirst for premium whiskey, Irish distillers are prepped for a second gilded age.
up and down and up again
Ireland’s distilling heritage dates back at least six centuries, likely much further. In fact, whiskey is an Anglicization of the Gaelic uisce beatha, meaning the water of life. If you want to start a row, tell a Scot that the Irish invented whiskey and vice versa. Then kick back with three fingers of whiskey and watch the drama unfold deep into the night.
Some mysteries will never be solved, but this we know: at the turn of the 20th century, pot still whiskeys from the Emerald Isle were some of world’s most prized drams. But as a maelstrom of misfortunes — bureaucracy, turmoil, internal temperance movements and eventual US Prohibition, war and more war — assailed Ireland over the course of years, its once-booming industry dropped helplessly to its knees. By the mid 1960s, Irish whiskey was on life support.
Not counting the thousands of illicit poitin (that’s moonshine) operations scattered throughout its famous hills, Ireland was home to over 100 licensed distilleries in its heyday. Not so long ago, that number had withered to a floundering four (including Bushmills in the North).
The three remaining distillers in the Republic of Ireland — Cork Distilleries Co., John Jameson & Son and John Power & Son — decided that there was strength in numbers even if those were scant and amalgamated as Irish Distillers Group in 1966. The last, limping unicorn of a legacy in tatters regrouped in austerity, limiting production to a single complex in Cork: Midleton.
In 1988, Pernod Ricard acquired Irish Distillers, consciously investing in Jameson as its juggernaut. By 2004, it had become the world’s fastest growing international whiskey brand. Currently it accounts for 70 per cent of Irish whiskey sales worldwide; Jameson is the category’s phoenix.
Even if you’re not a whiskey drinker you’ve had a nip or shot of Jamo, as it’s affectionately called. Maybe you don’t remember it, but it happened. That’s assuming you live in Western civilization and occasionally partake.
Found on the speed rail of every dive, pub, cocktail bar and local in North America and beyond, it’s easy to like and easier to drink. It’s the whiskey in our ginger and in our shot glass; it’s what we order to keep our pint company, Irish-style. Jameson’s a party-starter, a nightcap, to be sipped daily or pounded on celebratory occasions. It’s the whiskey bartenders take turns pouring down each other’s throats on their nights off, for what it’s worth.
Its popular-kid-at-the-never-ending-party image aside, the brand has — considering its intent on domination, perhaps unwittingly — been hard at work blazing a trail for the second coming of Irish whiskey.
“Jameson absolutely has helped pave the way for the survival and success of Irish whiskey,” says David McCabe, International Whiskey Ambassador for Irish Distillers Pernod Ricard and tutor at the Midleton Irish Whiskey Academy.
“It has helped move the stereotypical traditionalist view that whiskey should only be drunk with a dash of water or with ice, which I believe would today alienate a huge amount of consumers from the category.”
The mass appeal of whiskey, like all beverage alcohol, is that it’s fun. Jameson, with its approachable and laidback image, embodies everything we enjoy most about drinking.
“When Pernod Ricard bought Irish Distillers, they did the right thing and backed the Jameson horse,” says Bernard Walsh, Chairman of the Irish Whiskey Association and proprietor of Walsh Whiskey Distillery, which owns brands like Writer’s Tears and The Irishman.
“It’s a brand that you could say is bigger than the category, and Irish whiskey needed that. Now it’s up to everyone else to put their money where their mouths are and really push the category forward.”
It’s independent distilleries like Walsh Whiskey, which will open its own facility in Royal Oak, Carlow, in June 2016, that will help to do just that. Especially now that the Jameson megabrand has primed consumer palates and perceptions, exposing them to the unpretentious charms of Ireland’s drams.
This time around, there’s strength in more serious numbers. The Walsh Whiskey Distillery is just one of 26 new distilleries slated to open in the next two years. Looking at a map of Ireland pinned with distilleries both existing and planned, a grateful patient undergoing a restorative acupuncture session springs to mind; a little whiskey therapy is just what Ireland needed.
part two: pot still whiskey
If bourbon is the all-American spirit and Scotland’s hallmark is single malt, Ireland’s claim to whiskey fame is pure pot still, the unctuous, fruity and generously aromatic dram that first fostered a reputation as one of the original premium spirits.
Distilled from both malted and unmalted barley, Walsh refers to the creation of Irish pot still whiskey as “a kind of happy accident,” a style born from pushback against government taxation on malted barley.
“The Irish were never terribly happy having to pay tax, especially tax imposed by a concrete power,” Walsh laughs. So distillers found ways around it, skirting the ballooning excise on malted barley by including a portion of the unmalted grain in their mash bill.
“The inclusion of unmalted barley is a unique feature of pot still Irish whiskeys. You won’t find it in any Scotch whisky, bourbon or Japanese whisky for example,” McCabe explains.
“The use of unmalted barely is considered to impart a creaminess and mouth-coating texture to the overall taste of the whiskey.”
Inefficient because it clogged up equipment, this mix of unmalted and malted barley nonetheless became Ireland’s stubborn signature. Distilled three times in old fashioned pot stills, it was full, smooth and consistently well made — exactly what the drinking public of the 1800s wanted to drink.
But in the midst of its success, the Irish whiskey industry made a catastrophic miscalculation that wouldn’t manifest until generations later. When Aeneas Coffey, ironically an Irishman, presented the nation’s whiskey titans with his brand-new patent for the continuous still in 1830, they scoffed at a design they felt would strip pot still whiskey of its guts. So, Coffey took his invention to the Scots, who jumped on the cheaper, quicker and generally more efficient distillation method.
“At that stage, Irish whiskey was seen as a premium spirit; quite aromatic because of the copper pot distillation. The column still was the opposite, pure and not as aromatic,” explains Walsh. “So the whiskey barons of the day conspired to keep the column still out of Ireland.”
When Prohibition dried up its biggest export market, it was too late for Ireland to catch up to the light-bodied, inexpensive blended whiskies flooding the market from Scotland. An alarming number of Irish distilleries shuttered, and some say that by the 1970s, production of pure pot still whiskey had halted completely.
Luckily, pure pot still and pot still blends are what the Irish whiskey renaissance promises to return to whiskey lovers of the world — a demographic that seems to double up daily. Premium brands like Red Breast, Green Spot and Writer’s Tears are championing the old Irish style, and the international market is ripe for quality, top-tier whiskeys.
Even Jameson, a light, crowd-pleasing blend, carries the quintessentially Irish style in its DNA.
“You can pick the pot still out of Jameson easily,” says Jim Murray, author of the Whisky Bible who has penned two books on Irish whiskey. “It’s the hard streak that goes right down the middle. You’ll find that Jameson is a mix of hard and really soft — and that hardness is the pot atill.”
But Ireland’s distillers aren’t set on simply reviving their past. Whether small and independent like the Walsh Distillery, the four-year-old Dingle Distillery or Teeling, which in 2015 became the first distillery to open in Dublin city in 125 years, or larger than life like Midleton, Kilbeggan or Bushmills, they’re united in a plan to push the category forward through innovation.
Walsh hints at an interesting loophole: similar to many world whiskeys, Ireland’s must be aged for a minimum of three years; but unlike most whiskeys, Ireland is not legally limited to oak casks. This opens up an exciting realm of experimentation with various kinds of wood and finishes. He’s is also interested in exploring Irish terroir.
“I love what Scotland’s done with the regions,” says Walsh, who plans to introduce new brands with the opening of his distillery. “If we can do something similar with Ireland — it will take a long time — but we’d love to be able to start to show some regional variances.”
The big guy, Midleton, has built a micro-distillery in order to experiment with various cereal grains and resurrect old whiskey styles. Irish Distillers Pernod Ricard has also offered technical assistance to fledgling distilleries in order to help guide and maintain Ireland’s renewed reputation as a country that makes exceptional whiskey, according to McCabe.
Since 2003, annual exports of Irish whiskey have rocketed 220 per cent and show no signs of slacking. The Irish Whiskey Association, formed in 2014, has a set a goal: to hit 12 per cent market share by 2030; currently, that number is at four per cent. Ambitious to be sure, but all things considered a target of 300 per cent growth over three decades seems … pretty likely, actually.
“With the addition of new distilleries opening up in Ireland, I think we are on the way to becoming a great whiskey producing nation once again,” says McCabe. “We were once and we will be again!” Considering the statistics, it’s impossible not to be optimistic.