You know that dude sitting in the corner of the party, wearing an old letterman jacket and talking about his varsity glory days? Or the former prom queen who can’t get no respect in the suburbs, so she sometimes wears her crown in the shower? (We’d all do it if we could, come on.) Well, for a while there, that was Irish whiskey. Former leader of the pack, whiskey to the world, the Zack Morris in a beverage industry of wanna-be Screeches—reduced to almost nothing by a series of unfortunate events.
You might only know it as the Jameson you shoot before a beer—and yeah, that should change—but for a while there, centuries even, Irish whiskey was king.
Really. However much we covet bourbon today and revere, or fear, Scotch in all its delectable forms, Irish whiskey was once, well, the whiskey. For a very long time, in fact—arguably, before Scotland. Distilling was introduced to Ireland around the 600s by the Celtic Christian monks, who brought the alembic still to Ireland by way of the Middle East and Spain. The whole distilling thing took—to the point where the product of distilling was called Uisce Beatha, “the water of life”—and by 1615 the first Earl of Cork, Richard Boyle, had a diary entry referring to Irish whiskey being exported to the Colonies, possibly followed by mention of his latest crush.
Even Great Britain’s historic penchant for levying taxes couldn’t stop Irish whiskey. 18th Century Excise taxes on malted barley actually helped create the “pot still” Irish style: malted barley was taxed, so distillers started adding some unmalted barley to their alembics, yielding a lighter, greener style. In fact even amidst the flurry of taxation, Ireland would see the foundation of George Roe & Co. Distillers (1757), John Jameson & Son (1780), and John Power & Son (1791). Ireland was very good at, and very prone to, distilling.
In fact, Ireland basically owned the 19th Century as far as whiskey was concerned. Not that the century wasn’t without its hiccups. Ironic ones. In 1830, an Irishman—former Inspector General of Excise in all of Ireland, no less—invented the “column” or “patent” still, basically a tall, long still that could be continuously fed kind of like the steam engine of a locomotive, without having to be cleaned after each batch like an alembic, or pot still. Minor drawback: unlike alembic whiskey, this super efficient stuff came out clear, devoid of taste (think vodka)—what Irish distillers would later call “silent.” Needless to say, they left it alone (while distillers in Scotland took it up, but more on that in a minute).
Another problem, in 1838, the country slightly too steeped in the fruits of its own distilling, Friar Theobald Mathew takes up the cause of “total abstinence.” And like the alembic around 1200 years before, it takes. Five million (of Ireland’s then eight million) pledge abstinence. It’s like if two-thirds of America stopped watching television. Huge cultural shift. And of course there was the devastation of the 1847 Great Famine, which lost a staggering two million populace to death and emigration.
Nonetheless, Irish pluck and all, Irish whiskey owned the 19th Century, in part thanks* to Phylloxera, which wiped out Cognac vineyards and left harder drinkers looking to whiskey for a fix. Not that Scotland wasn’t rising in its distilling—just not how you’d think. Scottish whiskies, back in the day, were all about blending, using the Coffey still to create more neutral grain whiskies to blend with their malt whiskies, yielding some dangerously efficient consistency. In fact, Scotch blended whisky was producing so smoothly (so to speak) that the major Irish distilleries actually responded with a book: Truths About Whisky, which condemned the use of the Coffey still. (This would be the equivalent of a provocative celebrity Tweet nowadays, and yes, how the mighty have fallen.) They even tasked the Royal Commission with ruling whether whiskey made with Coffey still “grain” whiskies could be called whiskey. (They said aye.)
Still, stuff didn’t go roughly, precipitously downhill for Irish whiskey until the 20th Century. But then, like a snowman with a death wish, they went steeply downhill. There was the fractioning and factioning of the Easter Rising, the Irish War of Independence, and a trade war with Great Britain (which basically shut off markets to the Empire). And then America, longtime customer (three centuries strong?) goes and adopts the Volstead Act, burning orchards and chasing bootlegging gangsters to get evil liquor out of honest American mouths. Prohibition was one of the major death knells of the Irish whiskey industry, with a before and after “clang” from two World Wars. And it wasn’t just about prioritizing grain supply—during WWII, American soldiers actually got a taste for Scotch whisky (which had by then been dabbling with the pot still single malt style).
Things were so tough that by 1966, the major distillers remaining—Jameson, Power, and Cork—had to form a conglomerate, Irish Distillers, Ltd., pooling their resources and building a new distillery in Midleton in the ‘70s. (And yes, meanwhile, we all freaked out about vodka, tight pants, and, eventually, cocaine.) For Irish whiskey, the 1980s were like the end of a great party that petered out way too fast. Like so many scattered Wayne’s Worlds, the world was partying on, and Irish pot still whiskey was a remnant, a relic. Something Indiana Jones would say “belongs in a museum.”
Then again, you have a shot of Jameson in your hand. And some people (ahem) are cleverly reintroducing you to the Irish whiskey market. Why? Wherefore this “She’s All That” style comeback? Again, the only thing to blame is Irish persistence. Carrying on through profoundly disappointing times, adapting—which is to say incorporating the Coffey/column still to produce the Jameson blend we all know and love, until tomorrow—and finally, reintroducing itself, carefully, to a market suddenly re-enamored of history, place, and well-made spirits.
Not that Irish whiskey’s back on top. Scotch exports outpace Irish whiskey annually. But Irish whiskey is enjoying a minor renaissance. But not enough of one, not for what it deserves, like the high school quarterback who threw the winning touchdown pass, convinced Jesse Spano not to do drugs, and kept much of the world happily imbibed for centuries. Not enough.