The original whiskey, from Ireland, Irish whiskey is typically much smoother than it’s Scottish and American counterparts. Its story is one of great popularity shattered by a series of unfortunate events.
So what makes it Irish Whiskey?
Like other whiskeys, in order to be called Irish whiskey, there are a few rules. Unlike bourbon, rye and Scotch, the rules for Irish whiskey are a little more simple:
- Irish whiskey must come from Ireland
- The whiskey must be distilled less than 94.8%
- The whiskey must be aged for at least 3 years in wooden casks
In contrast, most Scotch is double distilled and Bourbon/Rye are often only distilled once.
Irish whiskey is known for its smooth flavor, thanks to often being triple distilled. Most Irish whiskeys are blended, such as Jameson, although some are single malts or pot stills.
A few definitions:
- Single malt – like it sounds, all the whiskey in the bottle comes from one distillery and contains a single type of malted grain, usually barley.
- Pot still – also like it sounds, is a pot shaped still that is heated from below. These can be small enough to fit on a stove, to large pot stills used in modern distilleries.
- Poteen – also called Potcheen or poitin. These are all names for unaged Irish whiskey.
It is important to note that while most often known to be smooth and triple distilled, Irish whiskey has a vast range in flavors just like other whiskeys, with some Irish whiskeys being more smokey and others being a bit harsher on the tongue, thanks to being distilled only once or twice.
What about Irish Whiskey in Cocktails?
Irish Coffee is probably the most famous “cocktail” with Irish whiskey in it. To make one, add an ounce or two (to taste) of Irish whiskey to a cup of coffee, add some sugar and top with fresh whipped heavy cream. A soothing libation for a cold winters night.
Contrary to the implication of its name, Irish coffee was actually created in San Francisco, not Ireland. That being said, I find it hard to believe that someone in Ireland hadn’t put whiskey in their coffee before this drink came about.
While there are not as many COCKTAIL recipes that call for Irish whiskey, this spirit makes a great substitute for other whiskeys when in the mood for something typically lighter in flavor.
The first to make whiskey in Ireland were likely missionary monks in the 11th century. As discussed previously, whiskey is essentially distilled and aged beer, which is exactly what these monks did to create the first Irish whiskeys.
It is highly likely that the first whiskey ever produced was Irish whiskey. Initially, the spirit was known as uisce beatha, Gaelic for “water of life,” which somehow was eventually adapted to the word whiskey. Like bourbon, Irish whiskey was at first unaged, and clear, known as Poteen. Eventually, the Irish began aging their whiskey, leading to the great popularity of Irish whiskey and its smooth flavor.
The phylloxera epidemic in France serendipitously helped Irish whiskeys popularity, wiping out most of the vineyards and making Cognac scarce for many years. The phylloxera epidemic also led to the addition of rye to the Sazerac.
The growth of the Irish whiskey market was consistently expanding and by the late 1800s, Irish whiskey was the most popular spirit in the world. There were a total of 28 legal distilleries and thousands of illegal distilleries at this time. Of the legal distilleries, some had outputs of up to 2 million gallons of whiskey a year. To put that number in context, the average distillery in Scotland produced only 1/20th of that volume of whiskey.
Unfortunately, Irish whiskeys domination of the whiskey market did not last much longer. Multiple factors played a synergistic role in the downfall of Irish whiskey in the early 20th century. The first was a blunder by the Irish distillers. They refused to adopt an Irish invention, the Coffey still, a continuous still, instead sticking with the less efficient but more flavorful (supposedly) pot still.
The next series of events disrupted Ireland’s export of whiskey. A trade war with Britain led to a significant loss of sales due to lack of importation of Irish products, including whiskey into one of its main revenue sources. The next major blow was prohibition in 1920, which crippled Irelands other major source of income from Irish whiskey. Many distilleries shut down permanently, while others barely stayed afloat, producing whiskey infrequently throughout the years.
Things got much worse. The only original distillery to survive was Bushmill’s distillery. Some of the other distillers joined forces and opened new distilleries. Until recently, there were only 3 active distilleries in Ireland: Bushmill’s, Cooley and Middleton, which produce over 140 brands of Irish whiskey. Recently, the Kilbeggan distillery reopened. A few other smaller distilleries have been cropping up in Ireland, such as Tullamore Dew.
The (re)opening of distilleries in Ireland as of late, speaks to a renewed interest in Irish whiskey. Part of Irish whiskeys more recent rise back to favor is likely due to the rampant popularity of the Irish Coffee, which pairs Irish whiskey with coffee, sugar and whipped cream.