Irish whiskey is one of the oldest styles of whiskey known to man, and arguably one of the best. Yet during the last century a number of factors led to its decline in popularity. The 21st century has brought a resurgence of demand for Irish whiskey, and it now falls in fourth place for the most popular style, trailing behind scotch, bourbon and Canadian whisky.
Missionary monks are thought to be the first to bring distilling to the island of Ireland, decades before the technology reached other parts of Europe. These first distillates were called uisce beatha, a Gaelic term for “water of life”. Over time, that phrase was changed to the easier whiskey, but the meaning still holds significance today.
During Queen Elizabeth I’s reign during the 16th century, barrels of Irish whiskey were brought to her kingdom to be drunk by her court. This made it fashionable to be found drinking Irish whiskey in England for the next 300 years. Even in the 18th century, Russia’s Peter the Great admitted that “of all the wines of the world, Irish spirit is the best”.
When the word whiskey was added to “The Dictionary of English” in 1755, Samuel Johnson made special note that “…the Irish sort is particularly distinguished for its pleasant and mild flavor”. It was the most popular whiskey in the world during the 19th century, and became the most popular spirit when French Cognac grape crops were destroyed by disease during the 1880s.
It was the introduction of the Coffey Still that started the decline of the Irish whiskey industry. The competition was able to make their spirits quicker, and at a lower cost, while the Irish distilleries still relied on the slower (yet more flavor-producing) pot still.
Then there was Ireland’s fight for independence at the beginning of the century. Once independence from England had been achieved, the distilleries in Ireland lost access to their largest market at the time. This was devastating for the industry, especially after prohibition was declared in the United States. Not only did this halt sales to the “new world” for over a decade, bootleggers were passing off cheap whiskey as being Irish. As a result, an entire generation of spirit lovers became wrongly turned off to the real thing.
The final blow to Irish whiskey was World War II, when over 150 distilleries were destroyed or had to shut down. Now, only Midleton, Bushmills, and Cooley remain, making Irish whiskey the way it has been for centuries.