THE HISTORY OF SPIRITS IN IRELAND
A journey through five and a half millennia of creativity, craftsmanship and tradition.
3,500BC – Barley is cultivated in field systems in County Mayo.
c. 500BC – The Celts invent the first wooden barrels.
c. 600-900AD – Irish monks bring the art of distilling back to Ireland.
1405 – World’s earliest documented account of Whiskey. ‘Uisce Beatha’ is recorded in the Annals of Clonmacnoise, Ireland.
1661 – Charles II of England places the first tax on distilling in Ireland in an attempt to raise funds following his restoration to the throne.
1779 – The Distilling Act makes operating a distillery without a license illegal. Most distillers decide to continue operating illegally and the golden age of Poitin begins.
1790 – There are 250 licensed distilleries operating in Ireland. Estimates of unlicensed distillers range from 2,000 to 20,000.
1830 – The Coffey still, invented by Irishman Aeneas Coffey, takes root in Scotland. Irish distillers refuse to ‘adulterate’ their products for the gain in efficiency.
1860- Revenue authorities agree to allow blending of “plain British spirit” with pot still malt whiskey. Dealers are permitted to bring any spirit from any part of the UK (including Ireland at this point) to any other part and mix it in any quantity.
1948 - Only 4 are distilleries are left in Ireland. By 1988 they are all owned by one giant French multinational. Today the major Irish distilleries are all foreign owned.
1980 – Irish Whiskey Act allows blends of malt whiskey and cheaper grain spirit with the addition of E150 caramel coloring to be called Irish whiskey but must be aged 3 years in wooden barrels in Ireland.
2015 – Nephin Whiskey revives the tradition of peated single malt Irish whiskey and passes on the dying art of cooperage to a new generation.
Down through the centuries, the lands between Nephin Mountain and Lough Conn were famous for their native whiskey. The art of distillation arrived with the monks who were returning from their travels overseas. It was not long before this art was used to produce the spirit that became known as Uisce Beatha (Water of Life). The first recorded mention of whiskey in Ireland was in 1405 in the Annals of Clonmacnoise. It is clear, however, that uisce beatha was being produced long before this time.
There is a long history of barley agriculture in Ireland. One of the oldest known agricultural field systems in the world can be found along the thundering shores of Mayo’s coast in the Ceide Fields. Archaeologists have been researching these fields for decades and have found evidence of very early barley cultivation. The use of malted barley for distillation was a distinctly Irish innovation, owing to the abundance of rich agricultural land owned by the monasteries. The readily available bog land throughout Ireland made peat the natural choice for heating and drying the grain. The Spirit produced was then stored using the surplus of casks that were flooding into the country at the time from imported port, sherry and wine. At some point, it was observed that spirits that were left in the casks for longer periods of time took on a nicer quality and flavor and the tradition of aging spirits in casks was born.
Wooden casks were invented by the Celts in the first millennium BC. The innovation from hollowed out wooden bucket to water-tight, slatted barrels was possible due to the fact that the Celts were involved in thriving trade which led to an exchange of ideas, extensive wood working skills and tools. The Celts renowned love of beer and wine provided the motivation to create specific innovations for the keeping and transporting of alcoholic beverages. The Romans, who were expanding into Celtic territory by 350 BC, were the first to document these barrels. Most famously, the Gauls (as the Celts were called by the Romans), are recorded by Julius Ceasar, as using them as weapons against the Romans:
“The townsmen filled barrels with tallow, pitch, and dried wood; these they set on fire, and roll down on our works”
The Romans adopted this Celtic technology and the wooden barrel eventually replaced the amphora as the main container for transportation and by the fall of the Roman Empire, all wine was stored in wooden casks. Wooden barrels were better suited for extended trade and travel and by the 1400s coopers were in such demand to both build and repair barrels that the first cooper guilds were formed. By the time whiskey was being distilled in Ireland, all wine, other beverages and food stuff was imported in barrels, which left a surplus of them in which to store whiskey.
Upon the arrival of the Henry II forces in Ireland, Uisce beatha was Anglicized into “Whiskey” and the spirit became extremely popular abroad, with Queen Elizabeth I ordering stocks for her court. As the popularity of whiskey increased, however, so did the English desire to control it. With the arrival of the Tudors came a series of escalating acts from the requirement of a licence to distill in 1556 to the imposition of martial law in 1580 that threatened execution to “makers of Aqua Vita”. In 1661, King Charles II, seeing his opportunity to raise funds, created the first tax on the production of Irish whiskey. The new tax, like the majority of previously installed acts, was mostly ignored. So began a centuries long battle for control over Irish whiskey production and the golden age of Poitín.
As the English imposed more and more taxes on the production of whiskey, even including a tax on the malt, legally made whiskey became increasing burdensome to make. As a result, the quality of legal whiskey suffered immensely, leading it to be derogatorily referred to as “parliament whiskey”. In 1779, a new act was passed that began taxing the size of the stills rather than what they actually produced. This led to distillers either going illicit, or over producing, which lead to even poorer quality whiskey. That same year the number of legally producing stills fell from 1200 to 20.
By the mid 18th century, Irish whiskey had become the most popular spirit in the world, and most of it was being produced illicitly. This whiskey became known as poitin, Gaelic for “little pot”, describing the smaller stills that could be easily dismantled and were highly portable. The English response was an increasingly complex web of legislation including the placement of uniformed constables at stations within each barony (famously called the “old Barnies”) and the draconian communal fine system. Finally, this escalated into the creation of a militarized detachment of excise men who were sent out on armed raids to bring the “poitin men” to justice. This was not an easy job as the communities and landlords where poitin was being produced were eager to defend the poitin men and clashes between excise men and mobs, armed with anything from farming equipment to fire arms, were more akin to minor skirmishes resulting in deaths on either side.
But perhaps the biggest blow dealt to Irish whiskey was the invention of the coffey still by Aeneas Coffey in 1830. These patented column stills could produce spirit much faster than the traditional pot still and at much larger quantities, but resulted in a flavorless spirit that removed all traces of the barely from which it was produced. The small impurities that are specific to barley distilled in a pot still, are what gives whiskey it’s character and, without these subtle impurities, the spirit that came to be called “silent spirit” or simply “grain spirit” failed even to improve upon aging. The Irish distillers, who were know for the superior quality of their product, rejected these new stills adamantly. The technology was then exported to Scotland, where, in the 1850s, Andrew Usher of Edinburgh experimented blending the new cheap, flavorless spirit with pot stilled whiskey. This was the beginning of the Blended whiskey revolution, a revolution that nearly spelled the end of Irish whiskey.
The blended whiskey trade boomed in the latter 19th century. Because the spirit lacked any flavor or character, it could be distilled from even cheaper ingredients, including corn, potatoes and other grains. In 1860, revenue authorities agreed to allow the blending of “plain British spirit” with pot still malt whiskey. Dealers were permitted to bring any spirit from any part of the UK (including Ireland at this point) to any other part and mix it in any quantity. This left Irish whiskey in a precarious position. In 1823, the English government, realizing that the war on poitín was only harming legal producers, passed an excise act that made it easier to register a still. Many of the distillers went back to producing legally and the Irish whiskey industry began to take off. A lot of innovation happened around this time in improving the traditional pot stills and in 1825, Middleton began using a 31, 500 gallon pot still. All Irish whiskey was sold by the barrel and the majority of it was exported. Producers of grain whiskey began buying up barrels of pot still Irish whiskey, mixing it in small amounts with grain spirit, bottling it and selling it labeled as “Irish Whiskey”. Irish distillers were incensed and complained repeatedly to the UK Government to label pot sill and blended whiskey differently. But by 1890, the only thing parliament could decide on was that whiskey was “a spirit consisting of alcohol and water”.
The 20th century began with a peak in legal production of Irish whiskey with 30 distilleries producing 9.9 million US gallons of whiskey that year. From that point, the century unfolded with a series of disastrous events that nearly wiped out the entire Irish whiskey industry. In 1901, there was a general economic downturn that left many distillers with whiskey they couldn’t sell. Then, in 1914, WWI hit. Important politician, David Lloyd George, saw alcohol consumption as a hindrance to the war effort and waged his own war on the entire liquor industry. His Liquor control board of 1915 successfully curbed public drinking and led to an even greater downturn in whiskey sales. 1916 brought the Irish rebellion and the resulting trade wars and 1917 saw the wartime barley restriction order that restricted barley use to food only. By the time the war ended, the Americans had begun the age of prohibition, which made the importation of whiskey illegal. In 1926, the new Irish Government, in an attempt to further differentiate Irish whiskey as a quality product, increased the bonding age from 3 years to 5 years. Unfortunately, the timing of this new law was disastrous. The Americans had a law that forbade the sale of any imported alcohol that could not be sold in its country of origin. By the time prohibition in the US ended, in 1933, the Irish had no whiskey available for export.
As a newly independent country, Ireland had a desperate need for more and more revenue. Between the years 1900 and 1969, the duties on Irish whiskey increased by 2, 600 percent. One by one, the Irish distilleries closed down. By 1966, the few remaining distilleries merged into the United Irish Distillers and all production of Irish whiskey in the Republic was moved to a new, state of the art, distillery in Middleton. By 1972, all Irish whiskey both North and South was foreign owned. In a bid to continue production, the industry that had bet it’s future on pot still whiskey and adamantly fought for its purity, adopted the patent still. In 1980, the Irish Whiskey Act allowed blends of malt whiskey and cheaper grain spirit with the addition of E150 caramel coloring to be called Irish whiskey.
In 2015 the vast majority of Irish Whiskey sold was now blended whiskey from distilleries owned by the French, Japanese, Mexicans and British. A new plethora of "brands" had emerged which were bottling of bulk whiskey bought from these distilleries under different names. Recently. a resurgence in independent Irish distilleries has been underway and many of them concentrating on making whiskey of the quality Ireland was once renowned for. With exports growing by 12% year on year, the future looks bright for Irish whiskey.