So there Irish whiskey was, facing into the millennial century with the wind in its sails, a product recognized as an unchallenged global leader and trade routes and revenue only expanding. So what could go wrong?
Well as we’ve already explored in Part 2, the Coffey Still was to be the primary driver of downfall, hanging over the stubborn industry and its deeply held traditions like the Sword of Damocles. While Scotch was making huge improvements in its production capacity, and its cheaper whiskies gaining great footholds around the world, Irish whiskey producers firmly clung to the idea that any deviation from the laborious pot still process was akin to blasphemy.
Despite their completely objective, fair and balanced objections, as laid out in Truths about Whisky, in 1909, the Royal Commission investigating these complaints delivered a verdict that the grain spirit coming from Coffey Stills could indeed be classed as whiskey.
This was soon followed by World War I and restrictions on using barley and coal for anything other than the war effort and necessary sustenance. During this period, the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin lit the touch paper for what would become the Irish War of Independence from 1919-1921, bringing with it quite considerable constraints between Irish producers and their imperial overlords in London.That revolution labelled Irish whiskey as a “rebel” product, affecting its consumption at the far-flung outposts of the British Empire; it would not have done, for example, for the House of Commons to continue to serve whiskey to MPs made by people who clearly resented and denied their authority.
That was a story that was to run over the next few decades, but the next major hammer blow to Irish distilleries was the introduction in America of the Volstead Act in 1920. Commonly known as Prohibition, this ban on the sale and consumption of alcohol (except in extremely rare circumstances) obliterated Irish whiskey’s second biggest market at the stroke of a pen. Coming at such a crucial time, and with America being a largely pro-Irish market independent of the clutches Britain’s punitive trade restrictions, the 1920s was a decade long death-knell for the majority of Irish distillers.
Combined with the Wall Street Crash and subsequent Great Depression from 1929-1932, one by one the remaining Irish distillers folded, with 12 of 23 closing between 1920 and 1930. Not only did Prohibition cause a massive loss of revenue, the widespread counterfeiting of “premium” Irish whiskey, by adding colourants as awful as varnish and creosote to pure alcohol, caused grave damage to the image previously held by the whiskey as a reliable and expertly crafted spirit.
The fun wasn’t over for the embattled distilleries however, as the nascent Irish Free State embarked on a retaliatory trade war with Britain over legacy issues and the re-ordering of the two nations’ relationship. This effectively completely closed the whole of the British Empire as a market for Irish whiskey.
In line with the new Irish government’s teething problems with regards to international markets, they had in 1926 increased the minimum maturation period for Irish whiskey from three to five years. A noble gesture for fans of whiskey quality and taste, but not very beneficial to producers looking to up production. Such a need arose in 1933 with the revocation of American Prohibition, the canny Scots with their ubiquitous continuous stills were able to considerably upscale production to meet demand, the pot-still-fanatic Irish with their half-decade bonding periods were not so flexible.
The subsequent difficulties and devastation of World War II brought further problems and, despite the best efforts of distilleries to belatedly modernize, there were only six distilleries remaining by 1966. Then three Irish distillers (Jameson, Powers and the Cork Distilleries Company) formed a Noah’s Ark of Irish whiskey and moved their combined production to the New Midleton Distillery. With the joining of Bushmills in 1975, then the only other distillery on the island, Ireland’s whiskey industry had fallen to the lowest of lows.
From such a proud and glorious history to succumb to such devastation, it is a testament to the character of the island and the deep-felt love of the Irish people for its whiskey producing heritage that the industry has been resurrected to the level it is today, and is again giving whiskey lovers the world over the opportunity to taste Ireland’s “liquid sunshine”, as GB Shaw so elegantly put it!
To taste some of the rare whiskeys that survived that fallow period for Irish distilling why not try an original Gilbey’s Redbreast from Jameson’s Bow Street Distillery, a bottle of Paddy from the Old Midleton distillery, or to get a taste of the arts that have brought Irish whiskey back to the world a Jameson Blender’s Dog, celebrating the intricate art of their Master Blender, Billy Leighton.