Whiskey hour: The luck, and misfortune, of the Irish
At its peak, Irish whiskey ruled the world – the whisk(e)y world that is. In the mid-19th century, Ireland not only had more distilleries than Scotland, some of which among the biggest in the world, it also supplied about 70% of the world’s whisk(e)y.
So how come in the early 2000s there were only three distilleries left in Ireland, and in a lot of people’s minds Irish whiskey was nothing more than the cheap stuff that goes into Irish coffee? Weirdly enough, you might blame it, at least partially, on an Irish man. And funnily enough, his name was Coffey.
Aeneas Coffey revolutionised whisk(e)y making with his Coffey still – a still that could continuously produce alcohol, much faster, cheaper and purer than the traditional pot still process could. While the Scottish jumped at the chance, the Irish largely stuck to their beloved pot still process, betting on quality, rather than quantity and price. It didn’t help that the most successful Scottish distillers joined together into a trust and simply bought up many of the Irish distillers that could pose a serious threat.
Throw in the Easter Rising in Dublin, the Irish War of Independence, The Civil War and disputes with England – a major market for Irish Whiskey that was suddenly cut off – and you get a more than unfortunate mix of circumstances that were almost impossible to survive. The near lethal blow, however, was dealt by the Americans. Their ‘Noble Experiment’, aka prohibition, denied the Irish their biggest remaining market. The bootlegged moonshine that did make it into American glasses, falsely labelled Irish, tarnished Irish Whiskey’s reputation in America for decades. By the second half of the 20th century, its market share had shrivelled to a meagre 2%.
Obviously, this cannot be how the story of the underdog ends.
Starting in the mid-80s, the trend for high quality, pot distilled sipping whisky, full of flavour, started growing. Of course, Scottish single malt was the first category to grow. So much so that demand outgrew supply quite quickly. As a result prices surged, whiskies were released younger than they used to be, and age statements were dropped from labels. And naturally, whisky fans started looking elsewhere, too. Traditional Irish brands that held on to their production process, like the pure pot still Redbreast or the pure malt Bushmills, regained attention. New distilleries like Teeling and Waterford opened, focusing on high quality single malt whiskies. By the end of 2017, Ireland counted 18 operating distilleries, with another 10 in the pipeline.
Production increased from a mere 200,000 cases in the 80s to 7.5 million cases per year in 2015, making Irish the fastest growing segment in the whisk(e)y category.
And the future? We can’t wait to see what the young and wild Irish distillers will come up with. No doubt, there will be a whole new diversity of different distillation methods, different cask ageing, malts and grains, turf (peat) and no turf… for now, Irish whiskey presents an amazing value for money, a total bang for buck, so go and get some before everyone else does!