History of Irish Whiskey

Friday, February 22nd, 2013 | By

We can’t have a talk about Ireland without a mention of the history of Irish whiskey.  If you perused our top 10 list of Irish drinks, you probably noted Irish whiskey appeared several times.  It’s part of the Irish coffee recipe, Bailey’s cream liqueur, and, well, quite a few mixed drinks.  No matter which way you look at it, you have to assess the history of Irish whiskey to truly appreciate its origins.

It is believed that Irish monks first developed Irish whiskey, which requires distillation to achieve it’s smoother finish.  Actually, monasteries played the most significant role in the development of most alcoholic beverages.  While alcohol was consistently valued throughout history for its medicinal purposes, the development of distilling alcohol, such as is required with Irish whiskey, took much longer.

Simply, during wars and religious raids, monasteries were safe from the majority of conflict.   Their safe state allowed them to experiment with distilling and growing methods for grains used in fermentation.  There is no additional information to track the exact history of Irish whiskey, we just know it probably started with monks … so thank them.  Profusely.  Profusely thank the monks for the deliciousness that is Irish whiskey.

Let’s jump forward a few hundred years.  While Irish whiskey was very popular in Britain during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, that didn’t exclude the Irish whiskey distillery from suffering prosecution.  In 1779, an estimated 1200 Irish whiskey distilleries existed in Ireland, today there are only four current Irish whiskey distilleries still operating.   As unlicensed establishments who didn’t pay taxes, they attracted the attention of government officials.   Effectively, a government tirade began to eliminate those Irish whiskey distilleries not officially paying taxes.   By 1822, only 20 legal distilleries were left in Ireland.

Irish whiskey was also affected by the Temperance Movement, also called the Total Abstinence Movement, encouraging everyone to abstain from alcohol consumption.   With competition fierce, Jameson and Powers were able to grow their distilleries while smaller companies got choked out.   Britain, however, continued to support Irish whiskey.  By 1900, Irish whiskey was the most popular drink in Britain.  This popularity couldn’t save the Irish whiskey industry from setbacks, though.

First, the U.S.  announced prohibition.  Then Scotch blended whiskey came onto the market.   Financially unable to compete, Irish whiskey distilleries continued to close.  By the time the U.S. lifted it’s liquor ban, it was too late.  Irish whiskey producers couldn’t keep up with the sudden demand.  By 1960, Irish whiskey export almost didn’t exist.   It forced three Irish whiskey distilleries, Jameson, Cork Distillery and Powers, to join.  They formed Irish Distillers (IDL), one large Irish whiskey company.

A few years later, Seagram’s, the large alcohol conglomerate,  purchased both IDL and Bushmills, the only two distilleries which had remained in Irish hands.  Seagram’s didn’t keep their failing investment, though.   In 1981, it was sold to Pernod Richard, a French company.   Irish whiskey did finally fall back in Irish hands in 1989 when Cooley Distillery was opened.   Today, Cooley Distillery is Ireland’s only independently owned distillery.

There are four Irish whiskey distilleries in operation today: Bushmills, Midleton, Kilbeggan and Cooley.   In 2007, Kilbeggan Distillery reopened it’s doors.  Their Irish whiskey is just becoming available now which is why you may not have heard a lot about this new venture. As one of the main sponsors of Tenon Tours’ Boston Irish Pub Challenge we’ll make sure to keep you updated on Kilbeggan’s entry back into the market!  

If you have the chance, try to visit at least one during your trip to Ireland, its the best way to truly thank the monks for their contribution to the history of Irish whiskey.

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  1. Hi E.M, Kilbeggan seems to be a sign of the resurgence of Irish whiskey, but whether it’s Jameson, Kilbeggan, or Bushmills, it’s important to know your capacity. I was at a Fleadh in Tullamore and witnessed some rookie whiskey lovers turn red to green to pale white. Their night didn’t end well. In Galway on the other hand I shared a bit of Jameson with some young musicians who where nice enough to invites us into their group. One portion consumed, one returned in favor, it was a beautiful bit of fun.
    Thanks for the update on the Irish whiskey industry,

  2. John says:

    Jim Beam bought Cooley (which owns Kilbeggan) in 2011 – sadly there are no interdependently Irish owned whiskey distilleries left that I know of.

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