Irish whiskey, the golden nectar of the 19th century, a premium spirit enjoyed from Nun’s Island to Nairobi and Bushmills to Brisbane. It was lauded by Victorian society and the burgeoning professional classes of the industrial revolution. The impact of the railroad and steamships managed to bring Irish whiskey to the masses and was a great boon, especially to the huge Dublin distillers which expanded to dominate both the domestic and international markets. This Big Six, which included John Jameson & Son, John Power & Son, Dublin Whiskey Distillery (D.W.D.), George Roe & Co., and William Jameson & Co. were producing around five million gallons a year, a phenomenal amount when one considers that by the 1980s the whole island of Ireland was producing less than one million.
While all this was happening in Ireland, it was an Irishman that was (kind of) going to be the downfall of the island’s industry. Well, one Irishman and the stubbornness and bellicosity of lots of other Irish people. In 1830 one of the greatest innovations since the dawn of distilling was patented by Aeneas Coffey, an excise man who had joined the whiskey industry and managed two distilleries, a gamekeeper turned poacher if you will. His Coffey, or Patent, still improved on the traditional column still by forcing more vapours to remain in the still, removing the need for re-distillation and allowing for the continuous production of higher volume distillates.
This “silent” revolution (that’s a pun, bear with me) meant that all spirits could be produced in greater volumes at a fraction of the price. The Scots quickly realized that by blending this spirit with spirits of a greater age a more regulated taste could be produced, in greater volumes and at much lower costs, without a huge sacrifice in quality.
However, the title of “Greatest Spirit in the World” was a source of immense pride for Ireland and for Dublin in particular (with Guinness also rolling barrels of its special stout across the globe). They steadfastly refused to compromise on their slower, labour-intensive pot still production. Even going so far as to produce an informative pamphlet, “Truths About Whisky” where they denounced the “silent spirit” produced by the new still and further decried the “sham whisky”, corrupt politicians and fraudsters of Ireland and Scotland who were deceiving gullible drinkers by labelling the stuff as actual whiskey.
Quality assurance understandably became a major issue for the Dublin distillers and to differentiate their premium whiskey from the “upstart” Scots (and even their rural dwelling countrymen) they began to introduce an “e” to their whisky to set it apart, for as we all know extra letters means better quality!
Nevertheless, by the turn of the 20th century, though Irish whiskey was at a peak of production it has yet to return to, the global factors which would conspire in a maelstrom of disaster for the industry were already coming together. From a height of production of around 12 million cases in 1900 it was all about to come crashing down, which we’ll explore in Part 3.
In the meantime, to get a taste of that unique Dublin whiskey why not indulge with one of our excellent examples, such as this extremely rare Avery’s Single Pot Still or the revitalized Dublin Whiskey Distillery’s Heritage Edition.