Uisce Beatha – Water of Life”
Edited by Greg Seán Canning
Irish whiskey is one of the greatest styles of whiskey in the world, and also one of the most ancient. Unfortunately, the 20th Century saw the decline and fall of the Irish whiskey industry. In recent years Irish whiskey has begun to make a comeback. Today, Irish whiskey is the fourth most popular style of whiskey in the world behind scotch, bourbon and Canadian whiskies.
Distilling technology was brought to Ireland by missionary monks. These first distillates were called uisce beatha, Gaelic for “water of life”, which was eventually anglicized into the word whiskey that we use today.
Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) was known to be a fan of Irish whiskey and had stocks of it delivered to her court, making it a fashionable beverage in England. By the 18th Century, Czar Peter the Great of Russia (1672-1725) declared, “Of all the wines of the world, Irish spirit is the best”.
By 1755, Samuel Johnson had put the word whiskey in his dictionary, commenting, “the Irish sort is particularly distinguished for its pleasant and mild flavor”.
In the 19th Century, Irish whiskey took its place as the most popular whiskey in the world, and, in the 1880s, after phylloxera had devastated the cognac crop in France, Irish whiskey became the world’s most popular spirit.
Rapid Decline of Irish Whiskey
A number of factors at the dawn of the 20th Century almost completely destroyed the Irish whiskey industry. These factors include the following:
- The advent of the Coffey Still (a continuous still that allows the mash to flow gradually and continuously over the heat through a labyrinth of partitions) allowed competitors to produce whiskey in a more cost effective manner. The Irish were slow to adopt the Coffey still and clung to pot stills, a less efficient but more flavorful style of still.
- Additionally, Ireland’s War of Independence from 1919-1921 interrupted the distiller’s access to overseas markets, and once freedom from England was achieved, the English closed all access to their market. England had been the largest market in the world for Irish whiskey at that time.
- Next, the second largest market for Irish whiskey, the United States, closed its markets from 1920-1933 due to Prohibition. Even worse for the Irish whiskey industry was that during the Prohibition era, bootleg whiskey was often passed off as Irish whiskey, destroying its reputation and turning off an entire generation of Americans to Irish whiskey.
- Finally, World War II destroyed what was left of the Irish whiskey industry. After the war, only seven distilleries remained from approximately 160 in 1880. By the late 20th century, there were only three major distilleries left in all of Ireland (Midleton, Bushmills and Cooley).
Reemergence of Irish Whiskey’s Popularity
San Francisco’s legendary Buena Vista Cafe played a major role in possibly saving Irish Whiskey from obscurity in the United States with their famous Irish coffees. Proprietor Jack Koeppler was served an Irish coffee at Shannon Airport in 1952 and came home obsessed with recreating this drink at his San Francisco restaurant. With the help of travel writer Stanton Delaplane and the mayor of San Francisco, he finally recreated this drink successfully. With the Buena Vista serving up to 2000 Irish Coffees a day to tourists from around the country and locals, some would argue that Jack Koeppler single-handedly saved the Irish whiskey market in the United States by introducing people to the soft, sweet whiskey in his Irish coffees. Travelers would try an Irish Coffee at the Buena Vista and then return home to ask their local bartender or shopkeeper for Irish whiskey so that they could recreate the legendary Irish Coffee.
Did the Buena Vista save Irish whiskey in America? While it cannot be proven conclusively, the Buena Vista introduced the pleasures of good Irish whiskey to thousands upon thousands of people over the years. There has been a reemergence of it’s interest within the United States.
Outside of this country, Irish whiskey remains one of the most popular forms of whiskey today. This is due to the fact that Irish whiskey has seen a great resurgence in popularity since the late twentieth century. It has also been the fastest growing spirit in the world every year since 1990. The current growth rate is at roughly 20% per annum, prompting the construction and expansion of a number of distilleries.
Key regulations defining Irish whiskey and its production are established by the Irish Whiskey Act of 1980, and are relatively simple (in contrast with those for Scotch and Bourbon whiskey). These regulations can be summarized as follows:
- Irish whiskey must be distilled and aged on the island of Ireland; that is, either in the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland;
- The contained spirits must be distilled to an alcohol by volume level of less than 94.8% from a yeast-fermented mash of Irish grown cereal grains (scarified by the diastase of malted barley contained therein, with or without other natural diastases) in such a way that the distillate has an aroma and flavor derived from the materials used;
- The product must be aged for at least three years in wooden casks of a capacity not exceeding 700 litres (185 US gal; 154 imp gal);
- If the spirits comprise a blend of two or more such distillates, the product is referred to as a “blended” Irish whiskey.
There are several types of whiskey common to Ireland, including those referred to as “single pot still”, “single malt”, “single grain”, and “blended”.
However, in contrast to the Scotch Whisky Regulations of 2009, the Irish Whiskey Act of 1980 does not actually contain a definition of the terms “single malt Irish whiskey” or “single grain Irish whiskey” or specific rules governing their production, so the exact definitions of these terms may not be clearly established.
Types of Irish Whiskey
Irish whiskey comes in several forms. If the whiskey is continuously distilled from un-malted grains, it is referred to as grain whiskey. This lighter and more neutral spirit is rarely found on its own and the vast majority of grain whiskey is used to make blended whiskey, a product made by mixing column still product with richer and more intense pot still product.
Irish whiskeys made in a pot still fall into two categories:
- Those made entirely from malted barley distilled in a pot still are referred to as single malt whiskeys, a style also very commonly associated with Scotch whisky.
- The second style of Irish pot still whiskey is single pot still whiskey, made from a mixture of malted and un-malted barley completely distilled in a pot still. This latter style has also been historically referred to as “pure pot still” whiskey and “Irish pot still whiskey”, Older bottlings often bear these names.
Regardless of whether the blended whiskey is made from combining grain whiskey with either single malt whiskey or with single pot still whiskey, it is labelled with the same terminology.
Traditionally, Irish whiskey is triple distilled in copper pot stills versus the usual practice of double distillation for Scotch whisky. Additionally, Irish whiskey is generally not exposed to peat smoke as are many Scotch whiskies.
Examples of Irish Whiskeys
The following are examples of the different types of Irish Whiskeys:
- Blends: Black Bush, Bushmills Original, Clontarf, Inishowen, The Irishman Potstill, Jameson, Paddy, Kilbeggan, Locke’s Blend, Midleton Very Rare, Millars, Powers, Tullamore Dew, Writer’s Tears
- Single pot still: Green Spot, Jameson 15yr Old Pure Pot Still, Redbreast (12, 15, 21 years)
- Single malt: Bushmills (10, 16, 21 years), Connemara Peated Malt (Regular, Cask Strength and 12 years), The Irishman Single Malt, Locke’s Single Malt (8 years), Tullamore Dew Single Malt (10-year), Tyrconnell
- Single grain: Greenore (8, 10, 15, 18 years), Teelings Single Grain.
What is Poitín
Poitín (pronounced put-cheen) is a traditional Irish distilled beverage, mostly produced in remote rural areas, away from the interference of the law (Irish moonshine). Poitín was traditionally distilled in a small coper pot still and the term is a diminutive of the Irish word pota, meaning “pot”. It is traditionally distilled from malted barley, grain, treacle, sugar beet, potatoes or whey. Alcohol volume could reach 95% volume. Legal production (40%-90% ABV) was allowed for export in 1989, and local consumption in 1997. Needless to say, the illegal moonshine remains the most popular among locals.
The number of distilleries in Ireland are increasing each year, partially due to the increase of interest in Irish Whiskey throughout the world. Below are descriptions of eight whiskey distilleries in Ireland:
- Midleton – Located in County Cork at the southern end of Ireland, the Midleton Distillery produces Jameson, Midleton, Powers, Paddy’s, Redbreast and Green Spot as well as contract whiskies like Tullamore Dew. In 2013, Midleton doubled its capacity and passed the Master Distiller baton from the legendary Barry Crockett to Brian Nation. This distillery fuels the remarkable volume growth in Irish whiskey (via Jameson) while simultaneously releasing some of the best whiskeys in the world (most recently Redbreast 21 year old).
- Bushmills – Located in Northern Ireland, the Bushmills Distillery produces Black Bush and Bushmills Irish whiskies as well as contract whiskies like Slieve Foy.
- Cooley / Riverstown – Located on the Cooley Peninsula in County Louth, the Cooley Distillery produces Tyrconnell, Kilbeggan, Connemara and Greenore as well as a wide range of contract whiskies like Michael Collins. It was converted in 1987 from an older potato alcohol plant by John Teeling. Once, Ireland’s only independent distillery, it was purchased by Jim Beam in 2011. Following that purchase, Two years later, Suntory acquired Beam Inc., parent company of Kilbeggan and maker of Jim Beam bourbon.
- Kilbeggan – When Cooley was independent, Kilbeggan was their small, experimental distillery that was building up a stock of all sorts of interesting spirit like pot still, rye and so on. Beam renamed the whole company after Kilbeggan and tasked the distillery with producing a standard malt that could be vatted into the signature blend along with the far greater volumes produced at Riverstown.
- Dingle – Distilling since the end of 2012, it produces not just whiskey, but vodka and gin too. The gin (also launched in the US) has been very well received and may kindle an interest in craft Irish gins.
- Echlinville – Distilling since June of 2013, they acquired a defunct but well-known Belfast whiskey brand, Dunville’s. This additional product will assist them as their own whiskey matures (their other brand is the jokey Feckin Irish Whiskey).
- Alltech / Carlow – They began distilling November 1st, 2012 on Carlow Brewing Company premises. Since then, they moved to James’s Street in Dublin in 2014.
- West Cork Distillers – West Cork Distillers are well known for their innovative brown spirit drinks (like Drombeg, Lough Hyne and Kennedy) but they are also producing a whiskey spirit that is maturing in first-fill bourbon and sherry casks.
In addition to the above 8 distilleries, there are many more that have recently opened in Ireland or are planning to do so in the near future.
Explanation of the different Types of Irish Whiskey
- Irish Pot Still Whiskey – Pot Still Whiskey is more than whiskey made in a pot still. It must contain a minimum of 30% malted barley, and a minimum of 30% unsalted barley. Up to 5% can be other Irish grown cereals such as oats and rye. Irish Pot Still Whiskey is usually batch distilled in large pot stills, but doesn’t preclude small stills. However, large stills contribute to a unique range of reflux ratios that lead to the formation of a distinct flavor and aroma profile in the spirit.
- Irish Malt Whiskey – Irish Malt Whiskey specifies 100% malted barley, peated or un-peated. The malt comes from “dedicated malting companies”. This last statement may become falsified when at least one of the new distilleries begin malting their own barley.
- Irish Grain Whiskey – Grain whiskey may include no more than 30% malted barley (it always has some to provide the necessary enzymes). It also includes whole un-malted Irish grown cereals, usually maize, wheat or barley. It’s distilled entirely in column stills, which may comprise either two or three columns. The exception to that rule is for one component of Jameson Black Barrel, which gets a first pass through a pot followed by another through two columns. Jameson describes this in marketing as a small batch grain whiskey. Should they ever bottle it on its own, they will not be able to label it Irish Grain Whiskey.
- Irish Blended Whiskey – This is a blend of two or more of the preceding three types of whiskey. No proportions are mandated. The most interesting implication of this definition is that it relegates Writers Tears and certain Irishman bottlings to the blended category. The typical blend is deliberately lightened with grain whiskey, but these combine pot still and malt whiskey only. This implies more of a flavor punch so it feels slightly unfair to class them as blends.
Sources of Information