The hidden secrets of Irish Whisky

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

Today, Irish whiskey is back on the rise with four distilleries in production, the famous Midelton, Bushmills, Kilbeggan and the relatively new Cooley plus four more under development. Together, these four distilleries control 95 per cent of whiskey sales; the balance comes from independent bottlers. Half of these impressive sales are dominated by whiskey giant 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 Originally made in Dublin, Ireland’s past whiskey capital, it moved to Cork in southern Ireland in 1976. Tullamore Dew, another big name in the whiskey industry has no current distillery, sourcing its whiskey from Midelton. This is set to change in the near future, with a new distillery being built outside Dublin, Tullamore. Then comes Bushmills, the world’s oldest distillery first licensed in 1608 in Antrim, 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 flavor. Resulting in a signature spirit that is lighter, fruiter and sinfully easy to drink.

The leading Irish brands are blended whiskies, using a high proportion of Irish pot still mixed with Irish grain whiskey. Premium Irish blends such as Bushmills Black Bush and Midelton Very Rare are higher in pot still whiskey and a few pure pot still whiskies such as Redbreast are being imported. There is now single malt Irish whiskey, peated whiskey and even poteen (little pot), the original unaged pot still spirit once made by the illict farmer-distiller.

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) it 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?

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