More intriguing facts to come later ......
Many attribute the Irish with inventing whisky and then bringing the idea across to Scotland during medieval times. There is evidence of this migration occurring, but the true origins of the whisky remain unclear (unless you are talking to an Irishman or a Scotsman ofcause!). The word whisky is derived from the Irish form of Gaelic and means 'water of life'. Ireland is currently the fourth largest producer of whisky in the world, behind Scotland, America and Japan. Historically, there were many distilleries dotted throughout the country but now only three remain – Bushmills in Northern Ireland, Cooley to the north of Dublin and Midleton down in the south. These three distilleries produce a wide range of different whiskies under old distillery names, all of which use traditional recipes from these closed distilleries.
Ireland has the oldest officially licensed premises in the world at Bushmills. Its license was granted in 1608 by King James I. The distillation of whiskey and other traditional Irish spirits, such as the powerful poitín, had been happening illegally since the time of the Norman invasion of Ireland. By the mid 1700s, there were over 1000 distilleries operating all over the country, with the vast majority being illegal. This forced the government to act and they raised taxes on alcohol and actively shut down illegal stills. By 1820, the number of distilleries had been reduced to just over 200, although only 20 of these were actually legal. A number of those affected by the mass government crack down and closures, set off for america and some were the founders of the American whiskey industry. Further distilleries closed as the richer and larger companies took over, but the industry was still booming. This was fuelled by the desire for Irish whiskey in the UK market, where during the late Victorian period it was the best selling spirit. As the British Empire expanded then so did the popularity of Irish whisky. America was a massive market and the distilleries struggled to keep their stock levels up with consumer demand.
The sales of Irish whiskey and its popularity came crashing down as the American market discovered Scottish single malts and blends. With Irish whiskey just beginning to recover from that blow, the USA prohibition act was introduced. This ran between 1920 and 1933 and was a nail in the coffin for Irish whiskey. During this time, the Scots were developing a continuous distillation process that allowed them to stockpile vast quantities of spirit and once prohibition was over in the USA, then they were able to flood the American market with scotch. The struggling Irish industry was unable to keep up or compete and nearly all the distilleries were wiped out. By the mid 1960s only six distilleries remained and exports of whiskey were virtually zero.
Rising from the ashes
In 1966, three of the remaining distilleries amalgamated to try and rescue themselves. They become midleton, building a brand new distillery in the south of Ireland in the process, which also distils vodka and gin. Later, two more collapsed leaving only Bushmills and Midleton surviving. In 1989, a business man named John Teeling launched Cooley distillery, with the goal of re-introducing some of Ireland's lost whiskies. Irish whiskey has now climbed back to where it belongs and produces some exceptional whiskies that are highly sought after and are again being enjoyed all over the world.
To discover the differences between Irish whiskey and those from Scotland and America, have a look at whisky or whiskey?