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Irish Whiskey, A History Lesson Everyone Will Enjoy

Sun, Dec 04, 22

The Beginnings of Irish Whiskey

The Irish can claim they were the first distillers of the British Isles. It can also be said that during the 19th century Irish Whiskey reigned supreme and was the most popular spirit in the world. This fact is even more interesting considering there were about 28 distilleries in Ireland at the time. The big four were located in Dublin. Sadly, Irish Whiskey’s hay-day came to an end as other spirits gained popularity. Thankfully today Irish Whiskey is on the rise and it has seen extensive growth every year. With new distilleries being opened this fragrant light bodied whiskey is more popular than ever.

Let’s take a look at the beginnings of Irish Whiskey. Believed to be one of the earliest distilled drinks in Europe, historians believe it was being produced during the 12th century. Irish monks brought the art of distilling back to Ireland from their travels to the Mediterranean where they learned to distill flowers and herbs to make perfume. The monks tweaked what they were taught to produce a drinkable spirit that was then flavored with herbs. That is not the only difference to what we recognize as Irish Whiskey today. These first spirits were not aged.

Fast forward to the early 1600’s and we find the start of licensed distillation. Bushmills can lay claim to being the oldest surviving licensed distillery in the world. The introduction of licensed distilling wreaked all sorts of havoc. There were many more illicit distilleries than licit ones during this time. Because of this many tax reforms came about, and plenty of laws passed to try to appease the distillers and the government.

Jumping to the Early 1800’s Ireland was the largest spirit market in the United Kingdom. Dublin being the largest city in Ireland at the time was home to the five largest distilleries. At their peak, they were producing 10 million gallons of whiskey per year combined. The four largest distilling firms of John Jameson, William Jameson, John Powers, and George Roe, known as the big four, used pot stills to produce their whiskey.

Evolution of Pot Stills

Pot stills were the traditional still used by all the distilleries. Called single pot or pure pot stills these large copper vessels were used to distill a mix of malted and unmalted barley. Enter the Coffey Still. This continuous running still was detrimental in helping in the decline of Irish Whiskey. The Coffey still was much easier to run than the traditional pot still. Pot stills need to be run in batches and require a lot of fuel to make work. Coffey stills also produce a clean or neutral spirit. Many of the big distillers scoffed at this, they did not think a tasteless spirit could be called whiskey. John Jameson tried a Coffey still and decided it was not for him. He thought the product it produced was inferior to what was already being made at his distillery. With many of the Irish distilleries passing on the Coffey still the technology was brought to Britain and Scotland where the Gin and Scotch producers were much more receptive. It can also be noted that people’s tastes were changing. Blended whiskeys were becoming much more popular.

Irish Whiskey Returns

Irish Whiskey’s popularity finally came to a halt in the early 1900’s. The Irish distillers did not pick up on peoples changing tastes and there was a short time when Irish Whiskey was being forged abroad. Thankfully that all changed around 1990 when Irish Whiskey started to rise to the top again. This was due to global marketing campaigns which put Irish Whiskey back in consumer’s hands.

Irish Whiskey comes in several forms, depending on the grain used and the distillation process. Irish Whiskey produced in a pot still falls into two categories, single malt and single pot still. Single Malt Irish Whiskey is produced only from malted barley and distilled exclusively in a pot still. These can be double or even triple distilled. Some examples of Single Malt Whiskey are Bushmills 10, 16, 21, year and the Irishman Single Malt Whiskey. Single pot still whiskey is a mixture of malted and unmalted barley distilled in a single pot still and is done within a single distillery. This was the most common style of Irish whiskey until blends were introduced in the early 20th century. Some examples of single pot still whiskey are Green Spot, Middleton Barry Crocket Legacy, and Redbreast 12, 15, and 21 year.

Grain whiskey is produced from continuous distillation in a column or Coffey still. This can be produced from a variety of grains and produces a lighter spirit that is neutral in taste. Rarely is this found on its own and is used in blends. The most common single grain whiskey found is from Kilbeggan.

Blended Whiskey is a mixture of the aforementioned styles. It does not matter if the grain whiskey is blended with the single malt or single pot still, sometimes all three are used. Jameson, Bushmills, Middleton Very Rare, and the Irishman are examples of a blended Irish Whiskey.

Share Your Newfound Knowledge on St. Patrick’s Day

With St. Patrick’s Day coming up and this new-found knowledge on Irish Whiskey the question becomes what to do with it. Well if you are a bourbon or scotch drinker try diving into one of the single pot still offerings. They offer a complex and robust flavor that will feel familiar. If you are just getting into whiskey than a nice blend or single malt will make a fantastic choice. The single malt will offer a lighter feel on the palate. The Irishman Single Malt is one of my favorites. But what if you are not sure you like the taste of whiskey at all. Cocktails are the best way to introduce yourself to a particular spirit. Here is my current favorite cocktail using Irish Whiskey which is a riff on the classic whiskey sour.

The Irishman Secret Sour

1.5 oz. Irishman Founders Reserve 

.75 oz. Dry vermouth

.5 oz. Fresh lemon juice

.5 oz. Grapefruit juice

.75 oz. Simple syrup

1 dash Orange bitterslive streaming film Before I Fall online

1.5 oz. Club soda


Add first five ingredients to a shaker and fill with ice. Shake, and strain into a Collins glass filled with fresh ice, then top with club soda. Garnish with a lemon twist.

Sláinte,Anthony Dichiara
Spirits Manager