A Brief History of Irish Whiskey

Gather 'round, lads and lassies, today we'll be talking about Irish Whiskey. In this episode of "A Brief History of Booze", we will tell you a story about monks who drank perfume, outlaws who flipped the King, a killer inventor, and the letter “e”. This is the tumultuous tale and a brief history of Irish Whiskey.

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Gather 'round, lads and lassies. Let us tell you a story about monks who drank perfume, outlaws who flipped the King, a killer inventor, and the letter “e”.

This is the tumultuous tale and a brief history of Irish Whiskey.

You probably heard the word “Whisky” comes from the Gaelic word “Uisce Beatha”, which means “water of life”. You’d think it was the Scots who started this beautiful madness, but it was actually the Irish: Irish Whiskey was mentioned almost a century before the Scottish one, namely in 1405, when a clan leader in Ireland died because he “took a surfeit of aqua vitae” on Christmas, may he rest in peace. But Irish “uisce” had been around for centuries at that point.

It’s actually one of the earliest distilled drinks in Europe – one of the O.G.’s of Booze, if you will. See, in the 12th century, Irish monks learned how to distill perfumes, and when one of them got drunk on Chanel No.1, they realized fun was to be had. Now, anything can be booze if you’re crazy enough, but the Irish decided to tweak the process and the recipe, and came up with potable Spirit. One downside, though: their insides no longer smelled like a rose garden.

By the 16th century, Ireland was swimming in Whiskey, so the King wanted a cut and introduced licenses. The first Irishman to get the license to kill – pardon, to distill, was Sir Thomas Phillips, the landowner in the town of Bushmills, in 1608. After him, a number of lucky lads got licensed, while others ignored the Mobster King. Legally, there were two sorts of Whiskey: the “Parliament Whiskey” - the legal one - and “Poitin” - the not so legal one. Fun fact: Poitin means ‘small pot’ in Gaelic as the outlaws used small pots to make Whiskey.

In the 18th century, demand for Whiskey skyrocketed. Whiskey-makers naturally started diluting their stuff to earn an extra buck, so new laws were introduced, saying: “Thou shalt not cut your booze.” Hardcore government control followed, and as a result, many distilleries were closed. While there were 1,228 distilleries in Ireland in 1779, only 32 remained by 1821.

To reverse the effect, reforms and lower taxes were introduced and soon, the Whiskey economy exploded: everyone in the British Empire drank it, and Dublin became the Silicon Valley of Whiskey. 10 million gallons was the yearly tally by 1823. Even the Scots were impressed, but at the same time wanted to get in the game – which became possible after one killer invention:

The famous Coffey still. In 1832, Irish inventor, Aeneas Coffey, came up with a column still that enabled continuous, faster and more efficient production of Whiskey. It was what Henry Ford’s assembly line was to cars or what drinking hats are to – well, drinking. The Irish, however, resisted the novelty, scoffing at its product, grain Whiskey. Yet the Scots embraced the still wholeheartedly and started producing with it. Since it was cheaper, it soon took a huge chunk of the market share from the Irish.

Here is when the difference in spelling came. The big distillers of Ireland decided a distinction should be made between their pure Irish Whiskey and the disruptive Scottish product. Until then, everyone called the amber Spirit “Whisky”, but to set them apart, the Irish added the “e”.

In addition to the rising popularity of Scotch, the Irish War of Independence and civil war broke out. Plus, America decided Prohibition was a good idea. Whiskey consumption and production plummeted, so the global behemoth had to abdicate, giving its mantle to Scotch, which is arguably still the King.
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