Background & History:

Who invented Whisk(e)y... Was it the Irish or the Scots?

No one knows, but in truth is it was probably neither. The art of distilling most certainly came north with the Celts from India.

However one thing is certain, the "uisce beatha" or "aqua vitae" distilled all those years ago tasted nothing like the modern ball of malt. Early whiskey was drunk fresh from the still and often flavoured with herbs, in more or less the way Gin is to-day.

The tradition of storing whiskey in wooden barrels is also pretty recent, but this more than anything else has had the most profound effect on the taste of the modern drink.

In all likelihood whiskey was first stored in wooden kegs so it could be transported more easily. Along the way some happy merchant discovered that whiskey that had been in a barrel for a time mellowed nicely. The wood being pourous allowed the lighter alcohols to evaporate, while the spirit extracted colour and taste from the oak, or whatever was in the barrell previously. So whiskey kept in an old sherry butt would taste a lot better than whiskey kept in an old kipper barrel.

These days for a spirit to be called "Irish whiskey", it has to be distilled from grain on the island of Ireland. Be stored in wooden casks for at least three years and be bottled at not less than 40% abv.

To-day distillers are allowed to add colour to their whiskies, most of them do though they won't admit it. The other dodgy process distillers engage in, is called "chill filtering". This polishing process removes some of the heavier "congeners" which can cloud the alcohol when cold. However doing this also removes a lot of the drink's flavour. I can think of just the one Irish whiskey that is not chill filtered... Sad but true.

Irish Distilleries:

It was Irish whiskey, with it's more refined mixture of malted and unmalted grain that caught the imagination of Victorian society.

These were the boom years when Irish sold at a premium, while Scotch was a very poor cousin. In fact some Scottish distillers shipped their whiskey to Dublin, so it could be exported as "Irish whiskey".

However to-day people think of the words "Scotch" and "Whiskey" as being interchangable. So where did it go wrong for the Irish?

There is no single factor that can be blamed for the collapse of "Irish" as a brand. Rather it was a combination of complacency, civil unrest and the isolationist economic policies of the newly independent Republic that finally drove the industry to the edge.

To-day there are just three distilleries operating in Ireland while a further three exist as museums.

Bushmills:

Ireland's oldest operating distillery, Bushmills dates from around 1784. Though now famous for its Single Malts, Bushmills only started down this road in the 1880's. Until then, in common with just about every other distillery in Ireland, they distilled Pot-still Whiskey.

In 1972 Bushmills joined Irish Distillers and is now part of the Pernod Ricard group.

 

Midleton:

In 1966 the three remaining distilleries in the Republic of Ireland put centuries of rivalry behind them and formed Irish Distillers.

The had little choice. They had seen their position on the World stage taken by the Scottish. If there were to survive at all they would have to stop fighing among themselves and tackle the export market. In 1974 Jameson and Powers quit Dublin and joined CDC in a new custom built super distillery, just yards from the old Midleton plant.

In a further compromise the whiskies themselves changed; Jameson, Powers and Paddy became pot-still blends, while Bushmills was left to carry the Malt banner. For longer than was healthy Irish Distilleries was the only game in town.

Cooley Whiskey:

In 1989 when the first raw spirit flowed from the stills, it was a dream come true for owner John Teeling.

Within three years the distillery, nestled in the Cooley mountains, had been mothballed and Irish Distillers were hovering like vultures. The nightmare was about to begin...

The story of the rise and fall and rise again of the Cooley Distillery is one of the most amazing tales in corporate Ireland. I won't even attempt to tell the story here, suffice to say that the Competition Authority put a stop to Pernod Ricard's take over, but not before they had bought 1,000,000 of maturing whiskey. Where that whiskey is now is anyone's guess.

By 1995 the coopers in Kilbeggan (right) were hard at it, as the Celtic Tiger was born and Ireland's only independent distillery was once again open for busisness.

Although Locke's Kilbeggan distillery closed in the early 50's, its warehouses are now full of maturing Cooley whiskey. It is also home to a magnificent museum to the art and craft of distilling.

 

Another museum in the Irish Midlands can be found at Tullamore. Here in a converted warehouse, you can follow the story of Tullamore Dew and Irish Mist.

The old Jameson Distillery in Dublin has also been converted into a heritage centre, as has the old Midleton Distillery in Cork.

Finally the only working distillery to accept guests is Bushmills in Co Antrim.

You can find most of the above, in my hot links...

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