Distilling Comes to Ireland
The art of distillation, or using heat and condensation to extract parts of a liquid, for perfumes and oils, goes back to Mesopotamia and could possibly pre-date the Great Pyramids. In the latter half of the common era's first millennium, the technique moved west from the Middle East as Moors migrated through Europe. Missionary monks ultimately brought the process to the shores of Ireland.
Water of Life
This is where the science found its true purpose when the Irish monks got hold of it to make aqua vitae, Latin for water of life. In Gaelic that's uisce beatha. Upon enough imbibing of the fermented liquid, that term slurs into the word "whiskey." This is an example of an early copper alembic still they would have used.
The Irish and Scots both claim provenance when it comes to making whiskey (spelled whisky in Scotland). A Scottish scroll references the aqua vitae in 1498, while the Annals of Clonmacnoise (a paper-based Irish version of Wikipedia) mentions a chieftain drinking himself to death on Christmas, marking the first, but certainly not last time an executive embarrassed himself at a holiday office party.
License to Distill
Queen Elizabeth I took a fancy to the spirit in 1541 and in 1608 King James granted the Antrim region in Northern Ireland a license to distill whiskey. Old Bushmills Distillery, which started up in the area in 1784 and has distilled almost every year since, commemorated the event with a 400th Anniversary blend in 2008.
By the late 18th century, the island about the size of Indiana had more than 1,200 distilleries, ranging from rural moonshiners to large volume operations. In the 19th century, despite taxation and the Great Famine, the resilient industry supported 90 commercial distilleries.
Aeneas Coffey revolutionized whiskey distilling in 1822 when he came up with a more efficient way to recirculate vapors in the analyzer column, while the spirit moved to the receiver. The result was a smoother, more potent whiskey. It also produced a higher yield and required less fuel.
At first his fellow Irishmen rejected the innovation for lack of flavor, but later adopted the process to remain competitive in the global market, as Scotland and America used Coffey stills.
Following Ireland's war for independence from the British empire, along with a serious demand disruption from American teetotalers in the 1920s, Ireland began to lose grasp of its golden, malty goose. A crippling trade war with Britain, dropped the number of commercial distillers dropped to three. Three more remained in the north. [Pictured: Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin]
Live Together, Die Alone
Irish Distillers Limited
In 1966, the nation's three distillers, Cork Distilleries Company, John Jameson & Son and John Power & Son, merged to form the Irish Distillers Limited. By 1972, Bushmills also joined. In 1975, operations in Ireland were moved to one site, the Midleton distilleries complex in Cork. Bushmills continued to operate in Northern Ireland, still part of the United Kingdom.
Buyout and Rebranding
Irish Distillers Limited
Pernod Richard bought IDL in 1988 and began a rebranding campaign. They now have a 70% market share.
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Then the Cold war thawed to open new markets (Russians as far back as Peter the Great have loved the heart-warming spirit) and fickle Americans again began to crave market leader Jameson neat, on the rocks and in their coffee. The U.S accounted for Irish whiskey has been the world's fastest growing spirit since the 1990s. In roughly the last decade it has grown by about 131%. Like American manufactuers, they too are worried about a skills gap.
In the last seven years, they have invested $242 million to increase production capacity. In 2017 they doubled the number to stills to six. This introduced key efficiency-geared engineering changes, such as recovering energy from a heat pump and pushing it back into the distillation column, that allowed the distillery to double capacity. They also reduced C02 emissions by 40%.
The Great Whiskey Boom
Jameson is still by far the most popular product, and arguably the reason there even is an Irish whiskey renaissance. But the ubiquitous blended whiskey has been the foot in the door allowing new innovative distillers to enter the market. From 2014 to 2018, the number of distilleries jumped from four to 18.
In 2016, Walsh Whiskey opened a $28 million distillery that makes grain, single malt, and single pot all in one room, a first for the industry. (I tried their Writers Tears, which I would must rather taste after getting chewed out by my boss.)
Keeping Up with Demand
William Lavelle, head of the Irish Whiskey Association, says there should be 30 distilleries by 2020 to meet international demand. In 2014, Ireland exported six million cases of Irish, and the industry goal of 12 million cases by 2020 is "on target and being exceeded," Lavelle says. The 2030 goal is 24 million.
Spreading the Wealth
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And like any homegrown industry, the ramifications are far-reaching.
“The growth of the Irish whiskey industry is good news not only for the distillers, but for business owners in supporting industries, including tillage farmers and maltsters," Lavelle said. “The challenge is making sure that supply meets demand, and that producers across industries have the means to work together.”