A legendary rival to Scotland’s most famous export, Irish whiskey has maintained centuries of rivalry with Scotch whisky, and their differences go beyond spellings and geography.
The very word ‘Whiskey’ finds its origin in the Gaelic phrase ‘uisce beatha’ and its Latin translation “aqua vitae”, the term “whiskey” is an anglicized word.
While Scottish people prefer to spell their drink as “whisky”, the Irish spell theirs as “whiskey”. The difference is not restricted just to the spelling and country of origin but spills over to the categories of tasting notes and even methods of preparation.
Scotch whisky has an earthy and smoky overtone, whereas Irish whiskey is smoother on the palate due to peat rarely added in the malting process. Unlike Scotch whisky that is distilled twice, Irish whiskey is distilled thrice before bottling, lending it the distinctly smooth finish that its famous for.
A high-selling spirit before 19th century, for a brief time Irish whiskey suffered a rough phase of reduced demand, but sprung back in the market in the late 20th Century.
Irish whiskey is considered one of the oldest distilled drinks in Europe, when Irish monks used perfume distilling method to make an alcohol during the 12th Century. Irish Annals of Clonmacnoise is the oldest record of whiskey dating back to 1405 which mentions the death of a head of the clan due to consumption of aqua vitae.
Old Bushmills Distillery is considered to be the oldest operational grant of license in the world. However, its registration after 1757 Kilbeggan Distillery makes the latter the oldest licensed distillery as well as the oldest functional copper still in the world.
In 1661, the Crown levied tax on whiskey production in Ireland and British, which further clearly defined legal whiskey from illegal whiskey.
The demand of whiskey in Ireland grew during 18th Century due to increasing population as well as reduced demand of other imported spirit. But as distillers were not focusing on whiskey quality, parliament passed the 1759 act to refrain using any constituent in whiskey production other than malt, potatoes, grains or sugar.
In 1779, another law was introduced that implied taxes on the distilleries potential productivity and not its actual turnout. In spite of these regulations, the small-scale illegal distillers could meet the growing demands for Irish whiskey while steering away from 1779 act.
In order to counter this situation, the duties were reduced by half in 1823 and the Excise Act was modified to suit legal distillation. The change in payment of duty and the removal of control on the type and capacity of stills, made it convenient for whiskey producers. Unlike the previous reform, the new act levied duty only when the whiskey was sold, allowing lesser working capital involved in stock.
In the early 19th Century, Ireland conquered other spirit markets in United Kingdom to become the largest producers in the nation. Dublin was the largest spirit market comprising the four distilling giants William Jameson, John Jameson, John Powers and John Roe. These distilleries produced the single or “pure pot still” whiskey by distilling malted and unmalted barley in pot stills. This was mainly to reduce the quantity of malt to avoid 1785 tax on the malt. But soon, Scotch whisky took precedence over Irish whiskey leading to shutting down of Dublin’s largest distilleries.
The dwindling of pure pot still whiskey was a result of many factors, one of them being the introduction of Coffey still by Aeneas Coffey. This continuous distillation process proved to be cost effective and less time consuming compared to the traditional pot stills.
Coffey still was only used by the smaller distilleries as the larger and prominent four establishments criticized the method and the quality of whiskey rendered through Coffey stills. This made Coffey turn to the Scottish distillers to use his still.
Ireland’s Great Famine during 1840s and the subsequent abolishment of Corn Laws allowed cheap American corn to be imported in Britain and Ireland. This was used to produce a neutral spirit in Coffey still. The neutral spirit and the traditional spirit from a pot still were blended to make a less expensive blended whiskey. This less intense blended whiskey became a huge hit in Britain. With the growing differences between Coffey still distillers and Irish distillers, a royal commission finally stated in 1909 that spirit distilled from traditional or Coffey still can be defined as whiskey.
The demand for Irish whiskey gradually decreased with the numerous wars, the cease of whiskey exports to Britain and commonwealth countries, prohibition era in United States, fake whiskeys produced in Britain and America, and the Irish Free State Government policies to imply taxes on domestic consumption. All this led to diminishing export and forcing many distilleries to shut down. By mid-1970s, Old Bushmills Distillery and New Middleton Distillery were the only two surviving distilleries.
But towards 1980s, Irish whiskey industry resurfaced with establishment of new distilleries as well as reopening of defunct businesses.
Before exploring the prominent Irish whiskey names, one must understand the different types of Irish whiskey.
Based on the grain used and the distillation method, the Irish whiskey is divided into following categories:
The Irish whiskey is the European Geographical Indication (GI) under Regulation (EC) No 110/2008, where the production, maturation, labelling and advertising of Irish whiskey is defined as per Department of Agriculture's 2014 specifications for Irish whiskey.
As per this, Irish whiskey must be distilled in Ireland and made of malted cereals with or without addition of whole grains cereals. With a minimum alcoholic percentage of 40, the whiskey should have no additions apart from water and caramel colouring. Colour, taste and aroma of the ingredients should not be changed. The elements of single malt, single pot still, single grain and blended whiskey have also been mentioned in the specifications.
For the labelling, only spirits that meet pre-requisites will be defined as Irish whiskey. Age of the youngest constituent in the drink will be used as the age statement. The traditional spelling is “whiskey” but Irish whiskey may be packaged as “Irish whiskey”.
Ireland has 18 functional distilleries as recorded by Alcoholic Beverage Federation of Ireland in 2017.
By 2016, 8.7 million 9-litres cases of Irish whiskey were sold. The Irish whiskey industry provides employment to 750 people and supports 4200 jobs in agriculture and other economic sectors. And by 2020, Irish whiskey production is expected to surpass its historic milestone of 12 million cases. The Irish whiskey has successfully managed a massive foothold in the worldwide spirit market, in spite of its Scottish rival.