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History of Irish Whiskey

The word 'whiskey' (or whisky) comes from the Gaelic uisce beatha, meaning water of life. This gives you an idea of the importance of whiskey to Irish culture. Whiskey (we spell it with an 'e' in Ireland!) was first invented by medieval Irish monks, who regarded it as a medicine - hence 'water of life'. Irish whiskey has gone on to have a fascinating history of legal and illicit distilling, of growing to become one of the most popular alcoholic drinks in the world only to fall far behind its Scottish and American rivals. In the twenty first century Irish whiskey distilleries are once more among the best in the world, carrying on the proud Irish tradition of triple-distilling to create the purest whiskey taste there is.


Medieval Medicine

The exact origins of Irish whiskey are lost in the mists of time. It is believed that the technology of distillation was learned by Irish monks when they traveled in continental Europe where distillation was used for creating perfumes. The monks brought the techniques back to Ireland and turned them to creating medicinal drinks rather than perfume. Whiskey probably developed from applying the process of distillation to the drink of barley beer which was common in Ireland at the time. What we do know for sure is that by the twelfth century medieval Irish monasteries were producing uisce beatha and it was used as a cure for a variety of illnesses, including smallpox and colic. There is an old Gaelic proverb which translates: "What whiskey does not cure cannot be cured". To this day an Irish person will happily prescribe you a glass of hot whiskey with whole cloves floating in it if you are suffering from any kind of flu or winter chill.

Here is what Robert Swinhurst an Anglo-Irishman of the 17th century had to say about whiskey (it's quite a list!) :

"Being moderatlie taken, saith he, it sloweth age, it strengneth youth, it helpeth digestion, it cutteth flegme, it abandoneth melancholie, it relisheth the heart, it lighteneth the mind, it quickeneth the keepeth and preserveth the head from whirling, the eies from dazeling, the toong from lisping, the mouth from maffling, the teeth from chattering, and the throat from rattling; keepeth the stomach from wambling, and the heart from swelling, the bellie from wirtching, the guts from rumbling, the hands from shivering and the sinews from shrinking, the veines from crumpling, the bones from aking, and the marrow from soaking. "

But while the secrets of distilling whiskey had remained with the monks during the middle ages, in 1541 King Henry VIII of England (and Ireland) ordered the dissolution of the monasteries. This had a huge impact on life in Ireland at the time, and in terms of the history of Irish whiskey, it marked the beginning of a new, more commercial era of distilling. As the monasteries were gradually shut down and the monks killed or scattered, whiskey came to be distilled by the wider population.

Bushmills was the first legal whiskey distillery in the world

Bushmills was the first legal whiskey distillery in the world

First legal licences - and the illegal trade

The first recorded legal license to distill whiskey was granted in 1608 by King James the first of England to an Englishman who had been granted large tracts of land in the north of Ireland as part of the Ulster plantation. His name was Sir Thomas Philips and he went on to make a good business distilling whiskey at Bushmills in county Antrim and in the nearby town of Coleraine. Both these whiskey brands have a long and lively history. There is still a distillery at Bushmills today, and it rightly claims to be the oldest legal distillery in the world.

Of course many people in Ireland would have been bemused to hear of the English king granting someone a license to do what was already a widespread practice. The Irish have a long and venerable tradition of home brewing and of distilling poitin (moonshine) from leftover potato-skins. The habit of personal, illicit distilling of whiskey continued in Ireland into the nineteenth century despite government attempts to regulate the trade and impose excise duties. It took a long time for these laws to take effect.

For example in the Coleraine area on the north coast of Ireland where there were already well-established legal distilleries, from 1821 to 1824 there were 242 successful prosecutions brought against illicit distillers from nearly 1,000 illegal distilleries. The Irish were very attached to the idea of distilling their own whiskey and this practice only declined from the mid-nineteenth century on. Even today it is still possible to know someone who knows someone who can get you a bottle of home-made moonshine. But you didn't hear that from me!

Traditional pot still at the Jameson distillery

Traditional pot still at the Jameson distillery

Irish distilleries and the global trade

Gradually, as the competition from small-time illicit distillers subsided a few large distilleries came to prosper and to export their whiskey around the world. Brand names such as Jamesons, Tullamore, Bushmills, Coleraine, Paddy Irish whiskey emerged in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. A change in trade laws in 1780, allowing Ireland to trade openly with the British empire made these whiskeys into global brands.

By 1880 over 400 different brands of Irish whiskey were on sale around the world. In the nineteenth century whiskey grew to be the second most popular alcoholic drink in the world, after rum. The biggest markets for Irish whiskey in this century were America and the Caribbean. The proudly triple-distilled Irish whiskey was synonymous with quality and Scotch distillers struggled to compete. However all that was about to change.

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The growth of Scotch, and the decline of Irish whiskey

While the Irish hung on proudly to their tradition of triple-distilling whiskey, the Scots proved themselves more open to embracing change. In 1831 an Irishman called Aenas Coffey invented a patented still which produced a milder, smoother whiskey - a whiskey which only had to be distilled once. Rejected by his fellow Irishmen who preferred to stick with tradition when it came to whiskey-making, the Scottish distilleries adopted the practice of single-distilled whiskey, or whisky as they would have spelled it.

When prohibition came to the United Stares in 1920 it decimated the market for Irish whiskey. When prohibition ended in 1933, it was the Scottish distilleries with their less time-consuming methods of production who could meet the renewed demand in sufficient quantities. A combination of prohibition in the US and a trade war with Britain beginning in 1921 sent Irish whiskey production into swift decline and only a handful of distilleries survived. The popularity of Scotch in the US was further boosted by GIs returning from their postings in Britain during the second world war.


Recovery, and the future for Irish whiskey

In 1966 John Jameson & Son, John Power & Son and The Cork Distilleries Company combine to form the Irish Distillers Group, and the old Bushmills distillery joined in 1972. The group was bougt over by Pernod Ricard in 1988 and Irish whiskey began to be distriubted more widely by Ricards affiliates.Only one Irish distillery today is independent and Irish-owned - Cooley. Gradually, through careful advertising, product placement, and through striving to create quality whiskeys, Irish whiskey in once more gaining in popularity around the world.

In 2003 Irish whiskey reached sales of 38 million bottles worldwide and in 2004 Jamesons was the world's fastest growing whiskey brand. Irish whiskey is even losing its image as a conservative drink with the growth of fun brands such as 'Feckin' Irish Whiskey' !

It is great to see the recovery of Whiskey distillation in the land of its birth. It was Ireland that gave whiskey to the world, and for anyone who wants their whiskey to be as traditional as it gets, Irish whiskey has got to be first choice!

A brief history of Irish Whiskey

Irish Whiskey: fun facts

  • Whiskey was invented in Ireland by medieval monks who saw it as a medicine
  • The first written record of the 'water of life' (uisce beatha) comes from an Anglo-Norman colonist in Ireland in the twelfth century
  • Whiskey was the favourite drink of Queen Elizabeth the first of England.
  • Whiskey first appeared in a dictionary when Samuel Johnson included it in his dictionary of 1755 as Usqueba'ugh - an attempt to anglicise uisce beatha. He described it as an Irish compound distilled spirit and commented " the Irish sort is particularly distinguished for its pleasant and mild flavour".
  • Whiskey has been used in Ireland not only for social drinking, but also as an all-pupose medicine, an ingredient in a variety of recipes and even as an early attempt at aftershave!
  • The Scottish always use the spelling 'whisky', and while the Irish also used to use this spelling in centuries past,  they now almost always use the spelling  'whiskey'.

Drowning the shamrock and other Irish whiskey traditions: an insight into the role of whiskey in traditional Irish culture, from celebrations to comemorations.

A guide to the whiskey distilleries of Ireland: the history and heritage of the three distilleries still operational in Ireland today.


Lee Cloak on March 16, 2015:

Great hub, very interesting stuff, well done, thanks!

Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on March 16, 2013:

Glad you enjoyed - thanks!

shin_rocka04 from Maryland on March 16, 2013:

Really awesome history lesson! Voted up!

Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on September 12, 2012:

The licence to manufacture whiskey in the area, granted by King James to Sir Thomas Philipps dates from 1608 and that is how old Bushmills whiskey claims to be. The distillery as we know it today was founded at a later date - but then Bushmills couldn't claim to be the oldest legally-produced whiskey in the world!

Jim Clarke on September 12, 2012:

You still have the wrong year. Bushmills distillery dates from 1784, as all their old bottlings prior to the late 1960s attest.

Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on May 25, 2012:

Corrected - thanks!

Bushmills on May 25, 2012:

You have wrote wrong year! The real year is 1608, not 1609 ;)

L M Reid from Ireland on March 24, 2011:

yes Irish Whiskey is the best. These facts were interesting. I love Irish history and some of the facts here were surprising thanks for a great read.

Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on March 24, 2011:

Ireland is a great place - make sure you put it on your travel to-do list... Plenty of good hubs around on visiting Ireland as well so you've no excuses! ;)

Mike's Corner from Maryland on March 23, 2011:

Great hub, Marie, packed with great info . . . I had no idea Bushmills dated to 1609 . . . all of my grandparents were born on the Emerald Isle, but I've yet to visit the home of my ancestors . . . one of these days, and I'll be sure to drink plenty of whiskey while I'm there :)

Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on March 06, 2011:

I agree - Irish whiskey is the original and best!

Ghaelach on March 05, 2011:

Hi Marie.

A lot of things i didn't know in your hub, very interesting. For me you can't compare some scotch's with the Irish nectar. It's Whiskey Vs Whisky. It's like comparing a Fieste with a Roll's Royce. LOL


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