For many years irish whiskey has sat in the shadow of its scottish rival, but now a new book aims to restore the irish spirit to its rightful place as one of the great tipples of the world. gary law delves into 'the whiskies of ireland' to discover some of the intriguing lore surrounding this alluring amber liquid
The word whiskey comes from the Irish phrase uisce beatha, meaning 'water of life.' In Latin, water of life translates as aqua vitae, which was the name given to an ancient drink made from wine or brandy. In French, water of life is eau de vie, which is the name of a spirit made from grapes, while the Scandinavian word aquavit describes a spirit flavoured with herbs.
It's now generally accepted that Irish whiskey is spelt with an 'e' while Scotch whisky is spelt without one. But it was not always so. The last Irish whisky to be spelt without the 'e' was Paddy, produced by Cork Distillers before it became part of the Irish Distillers Group in 1966.
The first ever Irish whiskey patent - a producer's guarantee of a monopoly to supply a particular area - was granted to Charles Waterhouse in Munster in January 1608. Four months later, a similar patent was granted to Sir Thomas Phillipps to distil in Co Antrim, and it is from this 'grant of licence to make aquavitae' that the Old Bushmills distillery claims its ancient heritage, even though the distillery itself wasn't registered until 1784.
In the late 1700s, a new system of whiskey taxation dramatically reduced the number of distilleries in Ireland. The Government decided to tax producers according to the size of their whiskey still rather than the actual amount of product they produced, which meant that distilleries had to pay a fixed charge no matter how much whiskey they sold. As a result the number of distilleries slumped from 1,228 in 1779 to just 246 the following year.
The introduction of this crippling tax meant that the production of illegal poteen boomed. Meanwhile, the increasingly rare legal spirit became known as 'parliament whiskey' and distilleries turned it out as quickly and cheaply as possible in a desperate attempt to make a profit. Soap was added to the drink to help speed up production, although not surprisingly the result tasted vile. Ironically, illegal poteen became a higher quality drink that the legal spirit.
In 1822 there were only 40 legal distilleries operating in the whole of Ireland. In contrast, it was reckoned that in Donegal's Inishowen peninsula alone there were some 800 illegal stills secretly making whiskey.
The traditional method of making whiskey is in a copper 'pot still'. The spirit is made in batches in copper pots that have to be filled, heated, cooled, emptied and then filled again. The result is known as pot still whiskey.
An alternative, and less time-consuming, method of producing whiskey was devised in 1830 by a former excise man called Aeneas Coffey. He created the 'patent' or 'column' still which meant that alcohol could be produced continuously without any breaks for emptying and refilling. At a stroke, distillers could produce in a week what formerly took them up to nine months to make.
The introduction of the Coffey still resulted in the number of working distilleries in Ireland decreasing by half during the years 1840-1860. However, annual output remained the same at around seven million gallons.
Thanks to the Coffey still, the Waterside Distillery in Londonderry became the largest in Ireland, turning out two million gallons of the stuff in the 1830s. The distillery had been acquired by a spirit merchant called Andrew A Watt and immediately he went into partnership with the nearby Abbey Street Distillery. At the turn of the century Watt joined forces with Avoniel and Dunville's Irish Distillery in Belfast to create the United Distillers Company Ltd - for a time the largest producer of whiskey in the British Isles.
Andrew Watt's Tyrconnell brand of whiskey was particularly popular in the United States and early films of baseball games at Yankee Stadium in New York show the ground ringed with hoardings advertising the 'Old Tyrconnell'. Today the rights to Tyrconnell are owned by the Cooley Distillery in Co Louth and a new single malt bearing this name is currently on the market.
At the turn of the century, a bitter battle for domination of the whiskey market developed between traditional producers of pot still spirit and distillers who adopted the Coffey method. The clashes of claim and counter-claim led to the setting up of a Royal Commission in 1908 to determine the legal definition of whiskey. For seventeen months the commission debated the pros and cons of the new whiskey, and in the end it was 'unable to recommend that the use of the word whiskey should be restricted to spirit manufactured by the pot still process.'
Worldwide sales of Irish whiskey peaked in 1901, when 10 million cases were sold around the globe.
During World War One, in an attempt to curb rising consumption of the spirit, it was decreed that whiskey could not be sold straight from the still but had to be matured for three years. The regulation is still in force today.
Belfast whiskey merchants Mitchell's were one of the first to introduce the idea of giving whiskey a brand name, and they scored considerable commercial success with a spirit called 'Cruiskeen Lawn'.
Irish coffee was invented by barman Joe Sheridan at Shannon aerodrome in the 1940s. A San Francisco Chronicle journalist sampled one during a stopover in the early 1950s and brought the recipe to the United States. The drink became a big hit and, before long, more Irish whiskey was being drunk in San Francisco than in the whole of Ireland.
Coleraine Distillery was particularly famous for its HC brand, so called because it was supplied to the House of Commons at Westminster. In 1947 the distillery merged with nearby Old Bushmills and, from 1954 onwards, Coleraine supplied the basic grain whiskey for Old Bushmills blends.
Malt whiskey is whiskey which uses only malted barley in its production. Barley is malted by soaking it in water until it begins to germinate and produce enzymes which convert the starch in the seed into sugar. A 'single malt' is simply a malt whiskey from a single distillery.
Grain whiskey is produced by the Coffey still method and is usually made from maize rather than barley. It has a lighter flavour than malt or pot still whiskey.
Most Irish whiskey goes through the distillation process three times, whereas in Scotland the norm is for the spirit to be distilled twice. Irish distillers maintain that the triple distillation gives their product a smoother flavour than Scotch.
After whiskey is distilled it is stored in wooden barrels, most of which have already been used to store another spirit, such as bourbon, sherry or port. It is reckoned that around 50 per cent of a whiskey's flavour depends on the barrels used. A pale coloured whiskey will probably have been stored in a bourbon cask, while darker whiskies will most likely have been matured in sherry or port casks.
In the first year of storage, the casks will absorb around three percent of the new whiskey and a further two per cent will annually evaporate through the wood. Poetically dubbed the 'angel's share', this evaporation means that around four million bottles of whiskey disappear into the atmosphere every year.
A glass of whiskey will be made up of 40 per cent pure alcohol and almost 60 per cent water. The flavour elements, called the 'congeners', account for perhaps only 0.1% or 0.2% of the total volume of liquid.
The world's largest selling Irish whiskey is Jameson's, which was established in Dublin by a Scottish Presbyterian in 1780. The biggest selling whiskey in Ireland is Power's, whose distillery was initially established directly across the road from Jameson's in 1791.
Today, most of the distilleries that were once fierce commercial rivals - Bushmills, Jameson's, Power's and the Cork Distilleries Company - are part of the Irish Distillers group, which is a subsidiary of the French drinks giant Pernod Ricard. The most prominent independent operation in Ireland is the Cooley Distillery in Dundalk, which produces Kilbeggan, Tyrconnell and Connemara whiskies.
Taken from The Whiskies of Ireland by Peter Mulryan, published by the O'Brien Press, price £16.99