The word whiskey is derived from the ‘Uisge Beatha’, meaning water of life in the tongue of the ancient Celts. You’d be forgiven for thinking that whiskey originated in Scotland but history suggests otherwise, alluding to the fact that it was originally distilled in Ireland. Irish monks are reported to have learned the secrets of perfume distillation in the Far East and built upon this knowledge to craft a drinkable product around the turn of the first millennium A.D. It is a widely held belief that it was the Irish monks who first taught the Scottish how to distil the precious liquid; the fact the Scottish vehemently deny this doesn’t stop it from most likely being true! Bushmills is the oldest surviving distillery in the world having been granted a license in 1608, lending some credence to the Irish’s claim as to being the true innovators behind whiskey distillation.
Irish whiskey is traditionally triple distilled and with the exclusion of peat in the distillation process. This generally creates easier drinking whiskies that are fruitier and lighter bodied than the heavy smoke laden drams of the Scottish Highlands and Islands. This is not always the case as all whiskeys from the Cooley distillery are double distilled; Tyrconnell, Connemara and Greenore are all fine examples. Interestingly, Connemara is the only peated whiskey to come from Ireland and Greenore is only one of two grain whiskey commercially available from any Irish distillery, the other being Teeling. Triple distilled offerings originate at the Bushmills distillery and include Bushmills Black Bush, Bushmills Original and Bushmills 10 Year Old. Legendary brands like Jamesons, Redbreast, Green Spot and Paddy are all produced at the Midleton distillery.
Like Scotch, Irish whiskey also has certain perquisites that must be met in accordance with the Irish Whiskey Act Of 1980. The first stipulation is an obvious one; the whiskey must be distilled and aged in Ireland, be that Northern Ireland or the Republic Of Ireland. Secondly, the distillate must be under 94.8% and created from cereal grains from a yeast fermented mash; this must be matured in wooden barrels for a minimum of three years. The only other rule is that if two or more of the produced distillates are mixed together, the resultant spirit must be called a blended whiskey.
There are several variants of Irish whisky, namely single pot still, single malt, single grain and blended. Unlike the Scotch Whisky Regulations Act 2009, the Irish Whiskey Act 1980 does not provide implicit definitions or even guidelines as to what these terms consist of. You can see the individual pages for a description of these terms by following the links above.
Irish whiskey was the most popular spirit in the world, selling over 12 million cases a year at the beginning of the 1900’s. That was until the Prohibition Era in the US severely hampered the export revenue of Irish and Scottish distilleries, forcing many to close. The War of Independence and resultant Civil War in Ireland meant that Britain enforced a trade embargo preventing them from trading with any Commonwealth country. The results were disastrous, with Irish distilleries closing in droves until only two remained in the seventies. Luckily, global drinks giant Pernod Ricard purchased both of these in 1988 and undertook an aggressive marketing campaign that put Irish whiskey back on the map. Since the early 90’s, Irish whiskey sales have risen exponentially every year up to the present; this has made Irish whiskey the fastest growing spirit globally for over 20 consecutive years. It’s predicted that sales will reach their previous zenith of 12 million cases in 3 or 4 years time.
There are only four distilleries in Ireland that are producing whiskey of sufficient age to sell although there are several others planned, under construction and currently aging their whiskey for sale. Three distilleries available to buy today are the previously mentioned Cooley, Midleton and Bushmills. The fourth is Kilbeggan, which has only been in operation since 2007 and has just bought their whisky to market in their own right. Previously, Kilbeggan whiskey was produced at the Cooley distillery.
It’s worth noting that the Irish spell whiskey with the addition of the letter ‘e’ before the ‘y’ as opposed to the traditional spelling of ‘whisky’ used when referring to Scotch. This is also true of the majority of American whiskies. The spelling was changed in the late 1800’s when Irish whiskey was at the peak of its popularity, probably to help distinguish it from the particularly poor quality Scotch that was about at that time.