A Spirited Tale from Ireland

Irish whisk(e)y was once an export powerhouse. From the late 18th century, the Irish distillers controlled 90% of global whiskey exports. That’s until the Scots started to expand their industry and make their export assault in the second half of the 19th century. Would you believe that back then Australia was Britain’s largest export market for Scotch from the 1870s until World War II?

We like our whiskey – it’s been our favourite spirit every year for over 130 years.

The 20th century brought shocking decline for the once great whiskey nation, with rock bottom being around 1974 when only two distilleries remained.

Today – thankfully – Irish whiskey is back on the rise. According to the Irish Whiskey Association, the number of operational distilleries in Ireland was at 18 at the end of last year and there are also plans for a further 16 distilleries.

The biggest Irish whiskey producer is Jameson, whose rich heritage dates back to 1780. Originally made in Dublin, Ireland’s past whiskey capital, it moved to Cork in southern Ireland in 1976 and the brand has been investing in its production ever since. Tullamore Dew, another big name in the whiskey industry, was without a distillery for over 60 years, sourcing its whiskey from Midleton until 2014. That’s when parent company William Grant & Sons reopened the distillery just outside of Tullamore – another positive sign for the industry. Then comes Bushmills, the world’s oldest distillery first licensed in 1608 in Antrim in Northern Ireland.

What makes Irish whiskey so special? Apart from the image of dewy green fields and cosy nights by the fire, the whiskey making process is a skilled and precise business. Irish whiskey became famous for its quality and consistency when other whiskies were unpredictable or just plain unpleasant.

The secret to their success is the Irish use unmalted barley with malted barley, cured in smokeless kilns to prevent ‘peet-reek’. They triple distil in large copper pots, then blend this pot still whiskey with grain whiskey. The use of unmalted barley was due to draconian malt laws, passed by the English in the late 18th century, heavily taxing all brewers using malted barley. As all whiskey is distilled from beer, the Irish combined the two barleys with triple distillation to create their distinctive Irish pot still flavour.

The result is a signature spirit that is lighter and oilier, fruiter and sinfully easy to drink.

The great whiskey debate: Where did whiskey originate, Scotland or Ireland?

Ireland is most likely the first country to begin distillation of grain cereals to make the ancient aqua vitae, a Latin term meaning ‘the water of life’. Aqua vitae was a clear liquid of concentrated ethyl alcohol, not at all different from vodka today, just a whole lot rougher. These were the proto-whiskies, raw spirit made from a crude still, spending little or no time in wood. More like methol.

It must be understood that spirit from the still cannot be called whiskey. To be defined as whiskey, the new make (or in America, white dog) must spend a number of years in an oak container to mellow and colour the spirit into what is worthy of being designated whiskey.

It was medieval monks and alchemists who were the first experimental distillers to produce aqua vitae. Gaelic Irish for aqua vitae is uisce beatha, the Scots Gaelic uisgebaugh – uisge is the phonetic origin of whiskey. The Irish monks began distilling sugar-rich beverages including wine, honey and ale to extract the ethyl alcohol. They then compounded them with herbs, spices and sweeteners to administer as medicine.

While Ireland is the most likely origin for whiskey, the first written record of whiskey is attributed to Scotland. The 1494 Exchequer roll for King James IV recorded aqua vitae was ordered from the Lindores Benedictine Abbey in Fife. Friar John Cor was instructed to produce said aqua vitae from eight bolts of malt, which would be an unpalatable 1500 bottles of raw spirit today. Scottish lairds and gentry became early beneficiaries of ageing whiskey. Their butlers (from bottlier) would top up the wine casks with raw whiskey that they later refilled into bottles or decanters. Thus, the production of whiskey had begun.

So while the Irish can take credit for originating whiskey (and what a fantastic discovery that was), the Scottish are responsible for its popularity in Australia. Call it a tie?