While St. Patrick is credited with a great many feats during his time in Ireland, like spreading Christianity; showing how the simple shamrock could represent the complex triumvirate of Christian theology; and driving all the snakes from the Ireland (and all evidence they ever existed there!); introducing whiskey to the island, despite well-intended legends, probably wasn’t one of them. That honour should instead go to later Irish monks venturing to Europe and the Middle East on pilgrimage and bringing back the novel process of distillation. So, in a roundabout way, St. Patrick brought Christianity, which brought monks, which brought whiskey, maybe it is actually thanks to him after all.
Whoever’s idea it was, the Irish took to the practice of spirit making with gusto. The original process had been used for making perfumes, but in Europe the fortifying effects of distillation were used to create strong alcohol. In France and Italy, grapes were used for their aquavit, but given Ireland’s climate, barley and other grains were deemed the most suitable source of natural sugars for yeast to feed on. The name used in the native Gaelic of the island was “uisce beatha” meaning “water of life” (the same as aquavit) which, passing through a variety of forms in English including usquebath and iskie, came to be the whisk(e)y we know and love today.
The first written record of whiskey in Ireland comes from the Annals of Clonmacnoise, which describe a Celtic chieftain in 1405 dying after imbibing “a surfeit of aqua vitae” at Christmas (or “aqua mortis” as it proved!), an event which did little to dissipate the fondness for a drop on a cold winter evening. From that time, and well on into the 16th century, references become commonplace, with documents recording orders for malt and whiskey, as well as regulations governing its sale.
By the early 17th century, licences were being granted to lords and landowners, giving them sole control of whiskey production in their areas (which is where Bushmills’ “1608” claim arises from). There followed a boom in Irish whiskey production and it is estimated that there were anywhere between 1,200 and 2,000 distilleries in the country by the end of the 18th century. However, the criminalizing of unlicensed distilleries in 1779 and a 500% increase in taxes between 1785 and 1815, due to the Napoleonic Wars, caused many operations to close or go underground. Most of the unlicensed distillers would make their spirit by “moonshine” to avoid the smoke being noticed by the feared Excise men.
While making it very difficult for the producers of the time, these regulatory and financial attacks did have the effect of creating Ireland’s unique and definitive style of whiskey production, the pure or single pot still. This came about due to an imposition of greater taxes on malt, so to avoid this, distillers used a mashbill of malted and un-malted barley to cut down on costs and a new style was born.
Noting the considerable problems being inflicted upon the industry, the government introduced swingeing changes in the Excise Act of 1823, cutting duties in half and introducing a range of other changes to make distilling a more promising venture for entrepreneurs or unlicensed producers looking to come in from the cold. The upshot was immediate and Ireland went from having 32 licensed distilleries in 1821 to 82 just six years later in 1827. This birth of a national industry came just at the right time and, on the coat-tails of Britain’s global empire building, Irish whiskey became the second most popular spirit in the world (after rum).
Throughout the 19th century, with the whiskey trade booming and distilleries ever increasing their production and storage capacities, it might have seemed like Irish whiskey’s time at the top would never end. Join us later for Part 2 to find out what happened next… (Spoiler: Not good things!)