First recorded and memorably described in an Irish Gaelic document as “water of life” in 1405, Irish whiskey clearly has stood the test of time from its beginnings in the 12th century and well into the 21st century. But the journey hasn’t been without its ups-and-downs.
One of the beloved tales about Irish whiskey’s history is how monks first introduced the spirit to the world. However, this is only one of many interesting facts and beautiful tales in Irish whiskey’s story over the centuries.
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Early Tales of Irish Whiskey
As word of the “water of life” began to spread, the Irish sought to protect their home brew – especially from the British – by merely speaking of it, and not documenting it in writing. For similar reasons, Irish whiskey was distilled and produced primarily in the countryside.
By the late 17th century, the growing popularity of whiskey distilling in both Ireland and Britain led to England’s Parliament wanting to earn a profit through taxation. As you can imagine, this did not curb its production. The result was poitín (also known as poteen or potcheen), or Irish whiskey distilled illegally in small pots. Recognized as a traditional Irish beverage today, poitín was essentially Irish moonshine.
The 1700s were the years when Ireland’s oldest licensed distilleries, Bushmills and Kilbeggan, came on the scene and further distinguished legitimate Irish whiskey from illegal whiskey.
But it was the 1785 Malt Tax that some say really proved to be a turning point for Irish whiskey.
The pot still Irish Whiskey we know and love today was born out of a small act of rebellion. Because the act taxed the malted barley used to make whiskey, Irish distillers decided to utilize an alternative approach to distilling, which used more unmalted grains. This method had already been in use, likely for how it added more flavor and texture to the whiskey, but the Malt Tax likely only encouraged more Irish distillers to adopt the combination of both malted and unmalted grains in their mash bills.
By the mid-1800s, Ireland was the epicenter of the whiskey world. Shortly after, and just before the turn of the century, Irish whiskey gained such an extensive reputation overseas that its sales surpassed Scotch, and it was the most widely-consumed whiskey in the United States.
Irish Whiskey’s Recent History
After a series of events, including the Irish War of Independence and American Prohibition, the Irish whiskey industry started to dwindle in the early years of the 20th century. Distillers lost much of their export market practically overnight, not to mention faced more competition at home as a vast number of distilleries closed in response to the recession and heavy taxation. An Irish temperance movement, which had been gaining momentum since the 19th century, also took a toll on whiskey consumption.
In stark contrast to Irish whiskey production in the 19th century, by the 1960s, there were only a few Irish whiskey distillers still in operation. John Jameson, Powers, and Cork Distilleries merged to form Irish Distillers and aligned their business efforts with Bushmills. By 1972, only Irish Distillers and Bushmills remained.
So how did Irish whiskey make its big comeback? With the help of John Teeling, Irish distillery Colley Distillery emerged in 1987 to challenge Irish Distillers; Teeling also later reopened the historic Kilbeggan Distillery in 2010. Then, in 1988, global spirit investor Pernod Ricard began to truly stoke the fire for Irish whiskey. Pernod Ricard acquired Irish Distillers and poured immense effort into marketing Irish whiskey, and especially the Jameson brand, to the world.
The Irish whiskey industry toiled for three more decades before seeing the fruit of its labor.
The Resurgence of Irish Whiskey
Today, Irish whiskey is the fastest-growing spirit category globally. In the U.S., Irish whiskey recorded $1 billion in sales for the first time in 2018 and is expected to surpass Scotch sales by 2030.
Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, global Irish whiskey sales reached an all-time high in 2020 with 144 million bottles sold. Then in 2021, Irish whiskey sales went on to total 14 million cases, nearly triple the cases sold in 2010. And with exports steadily increasing 15% or more every year, new and established Irish distilleries have jumped at the chance to meet the resurging demand.
Despite the odds, the Irish whiskey industry is undoubtedly resilient and shows no sign of slowing down!