More Irish Whiskey History!
Written by Clay Gailey
March 10, 2017
The rise and fall of the “water of life,” also known as Irish Whiskey, can be traced back to the curious and exciting history of Ireland and Europe as a whole. When considering the most highly regarded whiskies of the world, Irish Whiskey falls far short of the reputation Scotch has garnered over the past century, but when looking prior to the twentieth century, Irish Whiskey was certainly king.
Likely brought to life through missionary monks immigrating into Europe, Irish Whiskey quickly gained popularity among royalty including Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) who was known to keep stockpiles at hand in her court, and Czar Peter the Great (1672-1725) who once remarked, “Of all the wines of the world, Irish spirit is the best.” Natural growth of the spirit was given a massive boon come the 1880’s when phylloxera devastated 90% of the European vines, particularly cognac crops in France, cementing Irish Whiskey’s place as the world’s most popular spirit.
With Irish Whiskey at its height in popularity at the end of the 19th century it would come as a shock that by the end of World War II the industry had been nearly wiped entirely out of existence. Several key factors and events led to the rapid decline of the once favored spirit, beginning with an unwillingness to adopt new more advantageous distillation techniques, primarily the advent of the continuous and far more efficient Coffee still, instead the Irish chose to rely on the pot still. Also given the political fever of Ireland and its revolution from 1919-1921, access to international markets had been denied almost entirely. Prohibition in the United States and a total embargo from England’s markets led to an expectedly massive downturn in the production and practice of making Irish Whiskey. Finally, the destruction of WWII dwindled Ireland’s number of distilleries from 160 in 1880 to merely two.
Today, largely with the help of a San Francisco Café, Buena Vista, and its owner, Jack Koeppler, and his love of Irish coffees have saved the industry and have even given the industry enough momentum to climb back up to the fourth most popular style of whiskey. Having been dwindled down to just three producing distilleries post WWII, Cooley, Middleton, and Bushmills, Ireland has seen a rather massive resurgence of interest in the industry gaining twelve new distilleries since 2008. These new distilleries include Blackwater, Connacht, Dingle, Echlinville (the first in Northern Ireland to be licensed in the past 125 years), The Great Northern Distillery, Rademon, Teeling, Renegade, Walsh, The Shed, and West Coast Distillers. However, It should be noted that a majority of the newer distilleries will not have a whiskey available to the public, for the Irish standard for aging is a minimum of three years. With sustained growth and interest in Irish spirits, Scotch, Bourbon, and Canadian Whiskeys will be seeing a renewed competitive spirit in the once written off libation.
Listen to our podcast on the history of Irish Whiskey!