There are a whole range of stereotypes about Ireland. Some are close to the mark, such as the green fields, misty rivers and the welcoming nature of the people. Others are not so, like the idea the country is overrun with fantastically wealthy, rainbow-dwelling leprechauns, in fact these sprightly little people are actually quite few!
Another common understanding is about the great appreciation Irish people have for enjoying a good drink in fine company, or “having the craic” as we would say ourselves. While internationally, thanks to a variety of reasons, Guinness is known (and marketed) as the Irish beer, though when it comes to what truly stands out as the national drink of Ireland it can only be whiskey.
Ireland’s association with whiskey dates back to around the 12th century AD (though some accounts have added its introduction to St. Patrick’s long list of accomplishments in the 5th century!). The concept of distillation was brought back by monks from pilgrimages to Europe and the Middle East, though that was initially for perfumes, the holy men found a much more exciting use for the process. Thus, uisce beatha was born (meaning “water of life” in Irish Gaelic, along the lines of the Latin aqua vitae), with the first written record appearing in the Annals of Clonmacnoise in 1405.
Never being known for having great weather for the growing of grapes, Ireland’s climate and fertile areas are ideal for high quality barley. The Irish took to the spirit like ducks to the rain and by the late 18th century there were over 1,200 registered distilleries in the country, with thousands more illicit “poitín” stills in operation. Its potency and ease of transportation made it a favourite around the country and the drink of choice when it came to celebrations and bestowing of blessings, upon all the living and the dead.
Tightening of British dominion over the island, namely the actual enforcement of taxes, led to the development of Ireland’s emblematic Pure Pot Still form of whiskey. This involved the use of unmalted barley in the mash make-up, in order to avoid the dreaded Malt Tax.
During the 19th century Irish whiskey wasn’t just a home favourite, but was in fact the most popular whiskey in the world, second only to rum in terms of global drinks sales. However, the near-on full collapse of the Irish whiskey industry in the first part of the 20th century reduced the number of distilleries in the country to two by the 1970s.
Despite that, the drink maintained its place in Irish hearts as the true representative of the island. References to it are littered throughout the island’s literature with GB Shaw describing it as “liquid sunshine” and James Joyce (whose father owned a distillery himself) being captivated by “the light music of whiskey falling into a glass”. Throughout the land whiskey was, and still is, a great part of lore and traditions: Redbreast was known as “the priest’s bottle”, given their taste for the divine; a bottle of Paddy could be found in every house in the country for “medicinal purposes”; Powers was the first in the world to introduce miniatures, Baby Powers, supposedly to make it easier for housewives, barred from pubs, to sneak a drop for themselves; not to mention (literally) what someone’s choice in whiskey might have once said about their politics.
The new resurgence of Irish whiskey globally might be taking the spirits world by storm, but it will come as no surprise to the people of the island, as we have always known there is whiskey in our blood.