The Irish may have been the first distillers in the British Isles and, for a brief period in the 19th century, Irish whiskey reigned supreme over its Scottish rival. Boom was followed by bust – and near extinction – but today the good times are back, with distilleries popping up all over the Emerald Isle.
For an industry that, until recently, had only three operational distilleries, Irish whiskey offers a richly varied array of styles and production methods. Double distillation, triple distillation – and a unique style of pot still whiskey that owes its genesis to a tax dodge.
Whether or not the Irish brought distillation to the British Isles – and they probably did – there’s no doubt that Ireland ruled the whisky world in the 19th century. Their secret was the use of huge pot stills, with John Jameson one of the pioneers, which gave their whiskeys unmatched consistency. Unfortunately, it didn’t last. The Scots fought back, buying and closing distilleries, war and independence followed, and political measures brought the industry to its knees, leaving just one company standing: Irish Distillers Ltd; and two distilleries: New Midleton in Cork and Bushmills in the far north.
Since those dark days, brighter skies have returned, thanks to the global success of Jamesons, a new owner for Bushmills and Tullamore Dew (which now has its own distillery), and the emergence of new players.
That started in 1988 with the birth of Cooley to break the IDL monopoly – the company has since been sold to American-owned Beam, which was itself acquired by Japan’s Suntory in early 2014 – and the renaissance has continued with more producers entering the industry and plans for several new distilleries in the pipeline. Irish whiskey is back.