Whiskey Dossier: Ireland  

The First Millennium Scots-Gaels who inhabited Ireland were known to be avid and adept brewers of dark ales made from oats and barley. Once distillation was introduced to the island, circa 1050-1100 A.D., some brewers became distillers as well. There exists a vague if tantalizing passage from the reports of English soldiers who occupied parts of 12th century Ireland under the command of England’s King Henry II. The reports spoke of the Scots-Gaels producing a strong beverage made from “boiling”, implying distillation. It stands to reason that the Scots-Gaels were likely boiling their ales in crude pot stills to produce crystalline uisge beathas.

Whatever the situation, by the 1500s distilling was widespread in Ireland. By the mid-18th century, there were as many as two thousand pot stills operating throughout the island. During the 1800s, Irish Whiskey was considered the international gold standard and was admired worldwide. North America evolved into Ireland’s prime export destination as drinkers of Irish descent in Canada and America yearned for a taste of their beloved Eire.

Trouble for the Irish distilling industry began first with the outbreak of World War I, which closed down shipping lanes in the northern Atlantic Ocean because of U-boat activity, and then came the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil War. Once the domestic hostilities abated in 1923, America was in the throes of Prohibition as dictated by the 18th Amendment, which made the production, sale, and transportation of alcohol illegal within the U.S. Prohibition ran from 1919 to 1933 when it was repealed by the 21st Amendment. This infamous “double whammy” effectively shut down Ireland’s main Whiskey export market and virtually destroyed the entire Irish Whiskey trade in the process.

Then came the Great Depression followed by World War II. By the end of the Second World War, Americans had largely forgotten about Irish Whiskey and turned instead to American-made blended Whiskeys and Bourbon, as well as Scotch Whisky.

At present, there are a dozen distilleries on the island, with as many as six under plan right now. The good news is that Irish Whiskey is currently on the rebound as sales increased 538 percent just in the U.S. market from 2002 to 2014. Not bad.

>> Irish Whiskey Varieties
There are four basic types of Irish Whiskey.

  • Pure Pot Still Whiskey. Made from 100 percent barley, which is both malted and unmalted, and distilled in one pot still. A variety that is unique to Ireland, Pure Pot Still Whiskey is very potent and robust.
  • Single Malt Whiskey. This type is made from 100 percent malted barley in a pot still in a single distillery and is known for its distinctive flavors.
  • Single Grain Whiskey. Produced in column stills, Grain Whiskey is made from wheat or corn and is normally lighter than Single Malt or Pure Pot Still Whiskeys.
  • Blended Whiskey. This variety is a combination of Grain and Single Malt Whiskeys.

All Irish Whiskeys by law must be aged for a minimum of three years in barrels. A distinguishing characteristic of Irish Whiskeys is that most are distilled three times to promote extra smoothness and drinkability.

>> Irish Whiskey Production
To be legally labelled as Irish Whiskey, the Whiskey must be distilled and matured in the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland.

The Whiskey must be distilled from a yeast-fermented mash of cereal grains to an alcohol by volume degree of lesss than 94.8%.

Irish Whiskey must be matured in wooden casks not exceeding 185 gallons for a minumum of three years.

If the spirits are made up of a marriage of two or more such distillates, the product must be referred to as Blended Irish Whiskey.