Irish Whiskey.
The Spirit of the Emerald Isles

Scotch whisky is no longer king. Where not long ago 20 cases of it sold for every single case of Irish, in the first six months of 2012, Irish whiskey outsold single malt Scotch on the US market for the first time since the 1930s. Jameson has recently ranked amongst the top 30 of the world’s biggest selling drink brands, as well as been the world’s fastest growing drink brand, with a sales increase of 750 percent since the late 1980’s.

Despite the success, the whiskey scene in Ireland is still nothing like what it used to be.  In 1887, the country boasted twenty eight whiskey distilleries, of which half a dozen were in Dublin, a couple in Belfast, and the rest scattered around the country, from Antrim to Cork. Just over a century later, with the exception of the illicit 'poteen', still made today but now in the family kitchen using town gas rather than in a secluded cove over a wood fire, the production of Irish whiskey is almost exclusively concentrated in the hands of one multi-national company. 

A History of Distilling in Ireland

The Irish claim (with some justification), that they actually invented whiskey and say it was a particular gift to them from St Patrick or missionary monks during the seventh century. The Irish then kindly exported their knowledge to the rest of the world. Certainly, the Scots most likely learned about distilling from the Irish (though they are loath to admit it). Although historical details remain obscure, it does seem reasonable to believe that Irish monks were distilling aqua vitae ["water of life"] ,primarily for making medical compounds, but these first distillates were probably grape or fruit brandy rather than grain spirit.  Barley-based 'whiskey' (the word whiskey itself derives from 'uisce beatha', the Gaelic interpretation of 'aqua vitae') first appears in the historical records in the mid-1500's when the Tudor kings began to consolidate English control in Ireland. From this it may be conjectured that the Irish were the first to use cereals as a base for making spirit. 

Indeed, by the middle 1500's, so much whiskey was being consumed by the Irish that the government passed a law against drunkenness, and the makers of whiskey were deemed undesirable.(Even Queen Elizabeth I was said to be fond of it and had casks shipped to London on a regular basis).  As in Scotland and other whiskey producing countries, it was realised that the only way to curb whiskey production and consumption was to tax it: In 1661 the then Government introduced a tax of 4 pence on each and every gallon distilled. This imposition had the same effect as it did in Scotland, with the immediate commencement of the production of'poteen'(the Irish version of moonshine). The tax failed to slow down the growth of the industry and so by 1785 it was increased to one shilling and tuppence. The last straw for some distillers was in 1815 when the tax was levied at a crippling six shillings. It was this which drove many to produce there goods illicitly and by the end of the 18th century it is thought that there were over 2,000 stills in operation around the country.  Some decided to distill legally and attempted to raise the capital to set up larger distilleries. Of these, by far the most successful were the four big Dublin distillers:  John Power, John Jameson, George Roe and William Jameson. 

Under British rule, Ireland had become export oriented and along with grains and assorted foodstuffs, Irish distillers continued to produce large quantities of pot-distilled whiskey for export into the expanding British Empire. Irish whiskey out-sold Scotch whisky in most markets because it was lighter in body. It is said that in the late 19th century over 400 brands of Irish whiskey were being exported and sold in the United States. This happy state of affairs for Irish distillers lasted into the early 20th century when the market began to change. The Irish distillers, pot still users to a man, were slow to respond to the rise of blended Scotch whisky with its column-distilled, smooth grain whisky component. When National Prohibition in the United States closed off Irish whiskey's largest export market, many of the smaller distilleries closed. The remaining distilleries then failed to adequately anticipate the coming of Repeal (unlike the Scotch distillers) and were caught short without adequate stocks when it finally came. The Great Depression, trade embargoes between the newly independent Irish Republic and the United Kingdom, and World War II caused further havoc among the distillers. Most of the 20th century saw the closure of once great distilleries: Allmans, Dunville, Old Comber to name only a few.

Old Bushmills, the world's oldest functioning distillery, first licensed in 1608.  

Gradually the distilleries were shut or amalgamated until the creation of the Irish Distillers Company (IDC) in 1966, itself a merger of three of the biggest surviving distilleries: John Jameson, ironically founded by a Scot of that name, John Power, founded by an innkeeper, and Cork Distillery, itself a grouping of the five remaining Cork distilleries, and whose labels included Paddy's Murphy's and Dunphy's. The group acquired the jewel in its crown, Old Bushmills in 1972. (This distillery lies on the road between Royal Tara of the Kings and Dunseverick Castle in Country Antrim in the north and was first licensed in 1608, making it the oldest operating distillery in the world).
Thankfully, the IDC were careful to preserve the identity of each of the whiskies within the group, as each had its own strong following, in many cases on a regional basis as old loyalties die hard.  In 1975, the IDC opened a new mammoth distillery at Midleton, near Cork, and all of the other distilleries in the Republic were closed down with the production of their brands being transferred to Midleton. For a 14-year period the Midleton plant and Bushmills in Northern Ireland were the only distilleries in the country. This sad state of affairs ended in 1989 when a potato-peel ethanol plant in Dundalk was converted into a whiskey distillery. The new Cooley Distillery began to produce malt and grain whiskeys, with the first three-year-old bottlings being released in 1992. The opening of Cooley distillery marked the beginnings of a resurgent global interest in Irish whiskey. The possible opening of a new distillery, Coola Mills in Westmeath, the breaking of the million case barrier for Jameson and the imminent launches of Midleton1973 and Cooley's 12 Year-Old Connemara Single Malt, all heralded the start of a new golden age for Irish whiskey.

In spite of their efforts, the IDC did not remain in Irish hands for long. In just a few years, the huge Seagram's group had bought it out. Initially Seagram's kept production active at the Bushmills, Midleton and Coleraine distilleries although Coleraine was put to rest in 1978. The remaining two distilleries, Bushmills and Midleton produced 15 whiskey brands, yet the Irish whiskey industry now held only one percent of the global whiskey market. Seagram's were not happy with their investment and started getting rid of some of their shares in the late 1980's. The French company Pernod Ricard seized the opportunity and made an offer for the remainder of Seagram's shares. Seagram's accepted the £4.5 million bid and the Irish whiskey industry passed to Pernod Ricard who remained Ireland's only whiskey producer until 1989 when John Teeling founded the Cooley Distillery - currently Ireland's only independent Irish whiskey distillery.

The Irish Whiskey Act

By law, as set out in the Irish Whiskey Act, 1980, to be called Irish Whiskey, the whiskey has to be distilled from native grains in Ireland, stored in wooden casks for at least three years and must be distilled at an alcoholic strength of less than 94.8%, such that the distillate has an aroma and flavour derived from the materials used. To lay aside any arguments, we have reproduced the act itself below:


Irish whiskey.  1. -
(1) For the purposes of any statute or instrument made under statute spirits described as Irish whiskey shall not be regarded as corresponding to that description unless the requirements regarding spirits contained in subsection (3) of this section are complied with as regards the spirits.
(2) For any of the purposes mentioned in subsection (1) of this section spirits described as blended Irish whiskey shall not he regarded as corresponding to that description unless-
( a ) the spirits comprise a blend of two or more distillates, and
( b ) the requirements regarding spirits contained in subsection (3) of this section are complied with as regards each of the distillates.
(3) The following are the requirements referred to in subsections (1) and (2) of this section regarding spirits;
( a ) the spirits shall have been distilled in the State or in Northern Ireland from a mash of cereals which has been-
(i) saccharified by the diastase of malt contained therein, with or without other natural diastases,
(ii) fermented by the action of yeast, and
(iii) distilled at an alcoholic strength of less than 94.8% by volume in such a way that the distillate has an aroma and flavour derived from the materials used,
( b ) the spirits shall have been matured in wooden casks-
(i) in warehouse in the State for a period of not less than three years, or
(ii) in warehouse in Northern Ireland for such a period, or
(iii) in warehouse in the State and in Northern Ireland for periods the aggregate of which is not less than three years.
(4) For the purposes of subsection (3) of this section the alcoholic strength at which spirits are distilled shall be ascertained in the same manner as that in which such ascertainment is for the time being arrived at for the purposes of customs and excise.

Making Irish Whiskey at Cooley's Distillery

Irish whiskey is made from water, grain (usually barley) and yeast. From these simple ingredients, one of the world's most  fascinating whiskies is distilled, famed for its marriage of full flavour with mellow smoothness. Yet Ireland's whiskeys are also quite diverse, with many different styles produced; pure pot still, pure grain, single malt, combinations of any two or three, double distilled, triple distilled, peated or unpeated. The variety of tastes and styles are as varied and fascinating as any in the whisky world. The following is an outline of Irish whiskey production as followed at the modern Cooley's distillery [right], the only remaining distillery that is still Irish owned. (Note: The procedure will vary slightly from distillery to distillery). At Cooley Distillery two types of whiskey are distilled: malt whiskey (made up of 100% malted barley, water and yeast); and grain whiskey (made up of maize, malted barley, water and yeast). 

Producing Malt Whiskey via Pot Stills
Barley is first steeped in water to germinate. Starches in the sprouting grains are gradually converted into natural sugars. After 7 - 14 days green malt goes to kiln for drying. The heat halts the growth, and the barley is then ready for mashing. Mashing involves the dried malt being ground into coarse flour or grist, which is mixed with hot water as it pours into the mash tun. After mashing, the sweet sugary liquid is known as wort. Yeast is added to the wort and fermentation begins. The living yeast feeds on sugars, producing ethanol and other alcohols. Large volumes of carbon dioxide gas are also produced and the wash froths violently. After about 2 days, fermentation dies down and the wash contains about 8% of alcohol by volume.

The wash is distilled twice, first in a wash still to separate the alcohol from water, yeast and other waste matter. The distillate from the wash still known as low wines then goes to a spirit still. The more volatile compounds are distilled off first. Then only the heart of the run, which is about 66% alcohol by volume, is collected in the spirits receiver. The more oily compounds are collected separately at the end of the distillation.

During distillation, the pot still is heated to just below the boiling point of water, so that the alcohol and other compounds with a lower boiling point vaporise first and pass over the neck into either a condenser or a worm(a large copper coil immersed in cold running water). The shape and size of the pot stills affect the character of the individual whiskey. Smaller stills with larger necks produce more refined whiskies as in the case of Cooley whiskies.   

Producing Grain Whiskey Distillation in Columns Stills
In this process,  the maize grain is first mashed or milled into a flour. Water is then mixed into the flour to make a slurry. It is then pumped through a pipe and heated to 155 C for half an hour. The slurry is then cooled and the malted barley is added (about 10-12% of quantity of maize). Once the malt is added, the sugary liquid or wort is cooled and put into the fermentation tanks for a minimum of 48 hours. After fermentation, two separate distillation columns are used to produce a spirit of 94.6% alcohol which has the exact balance to produce a flavoursome grain whiskey.

After distillation, tankers take the new spirit from the distillery in Cooley to the old Locke's distillery in Kilbeggan, Co. Westmeath. This is where the warehousing, filling and coopering facilities for all Cooley whiskies take place. The spirit is placed into oak barrels, the majority of which are first-fill ex-Bourbon barrels. These are used in some cases up to three times for maturation and deliver a vanilla-rich character to the spirit. Each barrel is specially numbered according to the production year, the contents of the barrels being either malt or grain whiskey along with their respective batch numbers, the number of the malt barrels and grain barrels themselves, and finally the litre quantity. Whiskies are aged for a minimum of 3 but usually 5 years in the 200 year old stone warehouses at John Locke's. These warehouses are cool, moist and dark and ultimately produce a different whiskey than whiskey which is matured in a concrete modern structure. During maturation, the whiskey becomes smoother, more flavoursome, and draws its golden colour from the cask. A proportion of higher alcohols turn into esters and other complex compounds, which subtly enhance each whiskey's distinctive characteristics. About 2% of whiskey evaporates from the cask each year.

The master blender from Cooley carefully selects the casks of whiskies to ensure that the final product is well balanced, smooth and unique. Cooley produces flavoursome whiskies which are generally sweet,  and mature more smoothly than most whiskies. All Cooley whiskies are chill filtered before bottling except for Connemara Cask Strength. The purpose of chill filtration is to increase the clarity of the whiskey by removing compounds such as charcoal, pieces of wood and fatty acids which tend to cause cloudiness.

Why Does Irish Whiskey Taste So Different?

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, Irish whiskey is undeniably big business. Yet it remains attached to some small minded misconceptions. Is it really different at all?

Almost anyone could be forgiven for making the naive generalisation that “Irish Whiskey is smoother than Scotch”. That’s because the vast majority of Irish Whiskey made and consumed (around 90%) is of the blended kind - mostly unpeated and triple distilled. Just like their blended Scotch counterparts, these are inherently smoother and lighter in style. “Smoother & Lighter” is also the message that leading marketers of Irish Whiskey have been ramming into our heads since the 1960’s.

If you’ve only experienced entry level Jameson’s or Tullamore Dew, you’re not going to have much perspective on the matter. But even seasoned whisky drinkers remain ignorant of key facts. Like most other whisky producing countries, there’s more than one category been made in Ireland. Apart from the blends, there are Grain, Single Grain, Single Malt, and Single or Pure Pot Still whiskies. One of these styles is unique to Ireland. Ironically, it's the very preponderance of blended Irish in the market that has been the primary cause behind several Irish Whiskey misconceptions. Here are three. There are others.

1: Irish Whiskies are always triple distilled (and so lighter in flavour). Not all of them. (What is true is that the more times one distills, the spirit tends to retain less of the congeners (or flavouring elements), so the whiskey seems lighter to the palate). Some Irish distilleries double distill, not triple (likewise some Scotch distilleries employ three distillations, rather than the more common two). Don't let anyone try to tell you that all Irish whiskey is triple distilled, and all Scotch is double distilled; both are incorrect.

2: Irish Whisky is never peated. According to Jim Murray, author of “Classic Irish Whiskey’, this is firstly historically inaccurate. “As much of Ireland is covered in peat, it’s hardly surprising that in the 19th Century, smoky whisky from inland distilleries was not uncommon. Like Scotland.” Secondly, in the present day, there has been a quiet resurrection of this arguably ‘Traditional’ Irish style. If you’re partial to smoke, try ‘Connemarra’ at Cask Strength.

3: Irish Whiskey is never a Single Malt. It’s true that the market for Irish whiskies that aren’t blends is relatively small. But some of the more exciting Irish releases of the last few decades have been Single Malts (Connemara, Knapogue Castle). Like their Scotch equivalents, these are produced entirely from malted barley distilled in a pot still. A delightful Single Grain Whiskey now sells under the Greenore label.

There are other subsidiary and less prevalent Irish Whiskey myths - such that, all Irish is matured in Sherry casks (not true). Or that Ireland predates Scotland in whiskey production (unclear). However, there’s really only one answer to the question “Is Irish really different at all?” The point which clearly differentiates some Irish from whiskey produced anywhere else in the world is straightforward: The only whiskeys that are emphatically and uniquely Irish are of the ‘Pure Pot Still’ variety (also referred to as Single Pot Still).

In Scotland, a practice of using malted and unmalted barley in order to pay less tax on malted grain had persisted for some time. When this ceased in Scotland, the Irish carried it on. Irish Pure Pot Still whisky is simply that - made from a mixture of malted and unmalted barley, completely distilled in a pot still. They can be good - at times astoundingly so. In fact, if you want to try some of the UK’s most brilliant new drams, you cannot go past the likes of Redbreast or Greenspot. It’s not just our opinion, but one resounded amongst whisky writers around the globe. (Jim Murray and John Hansell - of maltadvocate - are in rare agreement here).

Irish Pure Pot Still whiskies are not only a category to themselves, they are amongst the hidden gems of the whisky world, and by world standards, remain relative bargains to boot.

Irish Whiskey Cocktails

The Irish Coffee

Joe Sheridan, a barman at Foynes 'Flying Boat Terminal' (now known as Shannon International Airport) in Ireland, originally prepared this drink. Sheridan had a habit of greeting weary travelers sneaking into war-torn Europe on seaplanes from the United States with hot coffee laced with Irish whiskey and topped with lightly whipped Irish cream.

 50ml Irish Whiskey
 90ml Fresh Coffee
 25ml Brown Sugar Syrup
 2.5cm Whipped Irish Cream

Method: Combine the whiskey, coffee and syrup in a tody glass. Ladle 2.5cm of cream on top.
Variations include: Cafe Amore: Amaretto and brandy. Calypso Coffee: Rum and Kahlua. Jamaican Coffee: Rum and Tia Maria. Kioke Coffee: Brandy and Kahlua. Mexican Coffee: Tequila and Kahlua.
- recipe taken from The Craft of the Cocktail, Dale DeGroff 2003

Black Manhattan
45ml  Irish whiskey
15ml  sweet vermouth

Method: Fill mixing glass with ice.  Add whiskey and sweet vermouth. Stir. Strain into a chilled martini glass or a rocks glass filled with ice. Garnish with a cherry.

Irish Fix
60ml Irish whiskey
45ml Irish Mist Liqueur
30ml pineapple juice
15ml lemon juice
½ tsp sugar syrup

Method: Fill mixing glass with ice. Add whiskey, Irish Mist, pineapple juice, lemon juice and sugar syrup.
Shake. Strain into a rocks glass filled with ice. Garnish with a lemon slice.

Nutty Irishman
15ml Irish whiskey
15ml Frangelico
60ml cream

Method: Fill mixing glass with ice. Add whiskey, Frangelico and cream. Shake.
Strain into a rocks glass filled with ice.

Notes partially sourced from