Irish whiskey is going through an unprecedented boom across the world which has seen it consistently claim the title of fastest growing spirit in the world in recent years. This is nowhere more prevalent than in America, where between 2002 and 2015 it grew by a massive 642%. Of course, this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise considering the great historical connections between the two countries, with more than 40 million Americans claiming Irish heritage.
This isn’t the first time that Irish whiskey has held such prominence Stateside however, though to investigate the foundations of this great bond over a beautiful liquid, we must go back more than three centuries to the first great wave of Irish immigrants to the shores of North America.
These men and women were from Ulster and fled Ireland for varying reasons including the constant rebellion of the Gaelic Irish and the religious discrimination from the British state (they were mainly Methodists and Presbyterians who weren’t looked on favourably by the ruling Anglican church). Whatever their reasons they brought with them the fine Ulster tradition of whiskey distilling, which can be attested to by the royal charter for such in Bushmills in 1608.
These Scots-Irish settled in Pennsylvania and Maryland, later moving to Tennessee and Kentucky and laying the foundations of those states’ considerable whiskey heritage.
The next great influx from Ireland came following the Potato Famine of the 1840s when millions of Irish left their own shores for a better life overseas. While not necessarily getting heartily involved in the distilling process itself, mainly dwelling in urban areas such as New York, Boston and Chicago they did considerably increase the thirst for their native spirit in their new home.
Other Americans were more than happy to get on the bandwagon and Irish whiskey, which by the end of the 19th century was the most popular brown spirit in the world, became widely lauded for its guaranteed quality and complex character.
It was these attributes however that would also eventually lead to its downfall in America. Following the trade problems of the First World War from 1914-1918, Irish whiskey (and indeed all alcohol producers) were hit with the hammer blow of the Volstead Act in 1919. This introduced the Prohibition era in America, famed for its underground drinking and underhand gangsters.
Irish whiskey being as popular as it was, it was the most obvious choice for counterfeiters to reproduce. Recipes abound for the time for “Irish whiskey” which included adding creosote and wood varnish to pure ethanol. While it may have been initially popular, word soon spread that premium Irish whiskey was actually the drink to avoid at your local speakeasy. By the time Prohibition was lifted, Irish whiskey was already in a downward spiral it wouldn’t reverse for at least 50 years and Scotch had supplanted it as the world’s favourite imported whisky.
This has all begun to change recently though, as America has started to remember its great love for Irish whiskey. This is especially obvious on St. Patrick’s Day (March 17th) when the whole country, and plenty of the rest of the world, decide to become Irish for the day.
This coming St. Patrick’s Day be sure to get a taste of real Irish tradition with some of the finest examples of the spirit, such as the Barry Crockett Legacy from Jameson, a Bushmills 21 or the finest version Ireland’s only peated single malt, Connemara 22.