Former whiskey world power

Irish Whiskey - a Giant Returns

In the last century, it seemed as if there was only one direction for Irish whiskey: downhill. But now the former world whiskey power is well on its way to regaining its former greatness - even if its neighbour from Scotland will hardly be able to be toppled from its throne.
Like an allusion to the former greatness of the Irish whiskey industry. The Giant's Causway in Northern Ireland.

A comeback can only be celebrated by those who, after a lull, are able to build on the success of days long gone. Thanks to growth figures in the multi-digit percentage range and the number of distilleries that have started operations in recent years, it should not have escaped anyone's notice that the future of the still booming whisk(e)y category is not only Scottish and American, but also Irish.

Two world wars, in between Prohibition in the USA. Most exporting spirits producers were put to the test several times within a short period of time in the last century. But the stumbling block placed in the path of Irish whiskey producers was much greater than anywhere else.

Like everywhere else, grain became scarce during the wars and alcohol was misappropriated for the military. Ireland was not able to recover during the "interwar period" either, because although the country gained its independence with the Irish Revolution in 1921, a civil war followed.

This was associated with economic tensions with Great Britain - and thus also with the associated Commonwealth states, which at the time comprised about a quarter of the earth's land area and a quarter of the world's population. As a result, the worldwide demand for Irish whiskey imploded.

Turning point for the Irish

Scotch whisky in comparison got back on its feet much more quickly after the setbacks. With the blends, Scotch also had a long-established, cheaper and thus more competitive style of whisky. Meanwhile, the consolidation and bankruptcy of Irish whiskey distillers continued until in the 1970s the number of distilleries could only be counted on one hand - although you only needed two fingers to count them.

Only about 35,000 to 45,000 hectolitres of whiskey were produced annually in those years, all from Irish Distillers Limited (IDL), a merger of John Jameson & Son, The Cork Distillery Company and John Power & Son, which would later swallow Bushmills in Northern Ireland.

But with the commissioning of the new Midleton Distillery by IDL (the old distillery was owned by the Cork Distillery Company and now serves as the Jameson Experience Midleton), a modern distillery was started which is still the largest on the island. It has column stills for the production of grain whiskey as well as various pot stills, including wash stills with capacities of up to 75 000 litres.

This is a size that is difficult to grasp, and not only by Swiss standards, since most distilleries in this country only hold between 150 and 300 litres. In Scotland, too, we are mostly familiar with "smaller" wash stills, which have only about a third or a quarter of the capacity of the pot stills in Midleton.

Further signs of the rebirth of Irish whiskey became apparent at the end of the 1980s. With Pernod Ricard, an international corporation took over the Irish Distilleries and made Jamesons the epitome of Irish whiskey worldwide.

Shortly before, entrepreneur John Teeling set about breaking the monopoly of the Irish Distillers. He acquired a state-owned distillery in the north of the Republic, founded the Cooley Distillery there and took over the portfolio of the Kilbeggan Distillery, which closed in 1954. The distillery in the small town of Kilbeggan of the same name served only tourist purposes for decades until the distillery resumed operations in 2007.

Sustained start-up boom since 2010

Half a century ago there were only two distilleries, ten years ago four, today over thirty-five - and it is quite possible that in ten years we will be talking about a good sixty Irish distilleries. And yet the number of whiskeys available from Ireland is still relatively small.

Most Irish brands still come from Midleton Distillery (Jameson, Red Breast, Powers, Green Spot), Bushmills and Cooley (Connemara, Tyrconnell, Locke's). Because it takes time and patience for the new distilleries to bring their home-distilled whiskeys to market. The distillate has to rest in wooden barrels for at least three years - and since Ireland is not exactly known for its tropical temperatures, it can be a few years more.

Since it is still best to pass the time with a drink in hand, many of these distilleries also have an unaged product on offer.

This is the path chosen by The Shed Distillery, which opened in 2014 and has already built up a following with its successful Drumshanbo Gunpowder Irish Gin before bottling its first single pot still whiskey in 2019. Glendalough is also already present on the market with a gin as well as distilled whiskeys from other distilleries.

Selling whiskeys from other distilleries under their own brand is a path that distilleries like Roe & Co or Teeling have also taken. Teeling was founded in 2015 by John Teeling's sons, who in turn had opened the Great Northern Distillery after selling Cooley to Jim Beam (today: Beam Suntory). With the sale, Teeling secured part of the stock of the Cooley Distillery, which is why Teeling was able to take off directly as a whiskey brand.

In the wake of the Irish whiskey boom, a traditional Irish spirit category that is hardly known in this country is experiencing a revival: Poitín. The moonshine of the Irish, mostly based on grain, potatoes or sugar beet molasses, was distilled illegally for centuries, primarily in rural areas.

Only brought out of illegality in 1997, Irish Poitín even received the protection of a protected geographical indication in 2008. Poitín offers Irish distillers another opportunity to expand their range with a traditional spirit to complement gin and whiskey.

Irish Whiskey and its categories

Besides the many similarities between Irish Uisce beatha and Scottish Uisge beatha, there are some differences, the spelling being the least of them. With the pot still whiskey style, the Irish have a category that does not exist in Scotland.

Unlike Scottish single malts, which are made from 100 per cent malted barley, Irish distillers must use at least 30 per cent malted and at least 30 per cent unmalted barley for their pot still whiskeys. Up to 5 per cent of other grains such as oats or rye are also permitted.

"Irish whiskey is back, even if Scotch whiskey is unlikely to be knocked off its throne any time soon."

The category became popular when the British imposed a tax on malted grain and the Irish slowly got used to this lighter whiskey variant - and stuck to it even after the tax was abolished again.

Like their Scottish neighbours, the Irish also produce malt and grain whiskeys. While the former, like pot still whiskeys by the way, are distilled at least twice, but usually three times, in pot stills, the distillation of grain whiskey is done with coffey stills in a continuous process.

Although this was made suitable for the industry by a native Irishman (Aenas Coffey), it was fatally ignored by Irish distillers for a very long time. A gift that the up-and-coming blended Scotch whisky industry accepted with a kiss of the hand.

The term single on the label of an Irish whiskey means the same as in Scotland, namely that it has been explicitly produced with whiskeys from only one distillery. And yet, as mentioned above, the liquid in the bottle may not come from the still of the distillery on the label. This is most likely to be the case with single malts that are over ten years old and marketed by a distillery that has only been around for a few years.

When it comes to barrel ageing, the Irish have been able to learn a lot from the experimental Scots. At the same time, Irish distilleries enjoy additional freedom in this area. Besides oak, the Irish can also choose barrels made of other types of wood.

For example, Teeling experimented with a finish of Brazilian Amburana wood for a limited bottling. In most cases, however, used ex-bourbon, sherry, port or Madeira casks are used. Whiskeys with a finish in beer barrels or Virgin Irish Oak are also already available.

Boom or bubble?

Irish whiskey is back, even if Scotch whiskey is unlikely to be toppled from its throne in the foreseeable future. But there is much to suggest that the whiskey in our glass will be Irish more often in the future. The young generation enjoys discovering new things and it doesn't always have to be Scotch or single malt.

The variety of Irish whiskey has grown strongly in the last ten years and will increase again in the 2020s. Thanks to those distilleries that will soon be bottling their first self-distilled whiskeys, thanks to those distilleries where the stills will only come on stream in the next few years, and thanks to the big players who are likely to continue to expand their ranges in the future.

This article appeared in
Issue 1-2021

BAR NEWS magazine as single issue

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