Whisky Distilleries of Ireland

By the 1980s Irish whiskey was at the lowest point in its history, only three distilleries remained and not a single one of the three remaining Irish whiskey stills was Irish-owned. Happily there has been a real renaissance of the whiskey industry in Ireland since. One of the first Irish to take whiskey production back into their own hands was Dr. John Teeling, who founded the Cooley distillery in 1987. He later put Kilbeggan back into operation. Since then, Irish whiskey has been on the up again. More and more distilleries are experiencing a renaissance, are being reopened or rebuilt. Many of these are so young that they don’t currently have their own whiskies yet, and instead are bottling ‘sourced whisky’ produced by one of the larger distilleries and sold under their own label. Unfortunately this is not always done transparently however.

Irish whiskey distilleries

Name Country Status Type
Alltech Craft Ireland Active Malt
Blackwater Ireland Active Malt
Connacht Ireland Active Grain
Cooley Ireland Active Malt
Dingle Ireland Active Malt
Glendalough Ireland Active Malt, Grain
John's Lane Ireland Lost Malt
Kilbeggan Ireland Active Malt
Old Midleton Ireland Closed Grain
New Midleton Ireland Active Malt
Teeling Ireland Active Malt
Tullamore (Old) Ireland Closed Malt
Royal Oak Ireland Active Malt
West Cork Ireland Active Malt
Belfast Ireland Active Malt
Clonakilty Ireland Active Malt
Echlinville Ireland Active Grain
Great Northern Ireland Active Malt
The Shed Ireland Active Malt
Tullamore (New) Ireland Active Malt
Waterford Ireland Active Malt
Old Comber Ireland Malt

Types of Irish whiskey

Irish whiskey is generally divided into four types:

  • Single malt (produced at one distillery)
  • Single grain (produced at one distillery)
  • Blended malt (produced at more than one distillery)
  • Blended (a mixture of malts and grain)
  • Irish Single Pot Still (whiskey from malted and unmalted barley)

While there is no legal requirement that Irish whiskies have to be triple distilled the majority of distilleries still use triple distillationcontrasted with Scotland which mainly distills only twice. Although peat is native and was traditionally used in Ireland it’s the exception rather than the rule in modern Irish whiskies.

As a rule if a whiskey is spelled with an ‘e’ it’s been produced in Ireland or America, the rest of the world generally follows the Scottish whisky form, though there are exceptions.

The beginning of Irish whisky distillation

The question of who first invented whiskey is still a central point of contention between the Irish and Scots, the first record we know of whisky distillation of which we can be certain dates back to Scotland in 1494, but the origins of Irish whiskey may well lie even further in the past. What is certain is that whisky distillation by farmers was so common that the Irish government first pointed out the serious health consequences of alcohol consumption as early as 1556.

Taxation and Irish whisky

After a later warning in 1620 was unsuccessful, an extremely high alcohol tax was introduced in 1661. The result of this taxation policy was not less distillation, but a boom in illicit distillation. After the alcohol tax was introduced, there were basically two types of spirit in Ireland; the parliamentary approved (taxed) whiskey and Poitín (illegally distilled) whiskey. The Irish distilled and smuggled as much as they could. Around 150 years later, between 1822 and 1825, the first laws were passed to pave the way for legal whiskey production on a large scale. Whoever wanted to distill whiskey now needs a license.

The ‘Oldest whiskey licensed distillery’

However even before then there were already licenses for some stills as indicated by the 1608 on the Bushmills label and the ongoing debate between Bushmills and Kilbeggan over which is the oldest distillery. 1608 refers to license to “make, draw and distill within the territory called the Rowte in County Antrim” awarded to Sir Thomas Phillips – landowner and Governor of Co Antrim by the James I (he was actually James VI of Scotland when he became James I from the union of the Scottish and English crowns).

The reality of this license to distill was that offered Phillips a monopoly to produce whiskey, and make it illegal for anyone else in his lands to do so unless they sub-let the licence from him at whatever price he chose to set. Failure to comply meant fines and imprisonment. Regardless as the area where Bushmills is based was licensed in 1608 this has been used to great effect by their marketing team. Ignoring the fact that Bushmills Distillery was not opened until 1784. While this might initially seem to be a point in favour of Kilbeggan, whose stills started working in 1757 Kilbeggan distillery ceased to exist between 1953 and 1982. Regardless the debate for title of “Oldest whiskey licensed distillery”, often shortened to “Oldest whiskey distillery” will liklely go on endlessly.

Irish Single Pot Still Whiskey

Long before the 1822 to 1825 taxes failed to bring in the anticipated tax windfall the government actually introduced a malt tax in 1682, figuring that as you need malted barley to produce whiskey (and beer), this would be an easy method of raising revenue. Instead Irish distillers began the tradition of combining malted and unmalted barley (along with other grains) in pot still whiskey that continues today. This style of brewing is made possible due to the comparatively high diastic power of malted barley.

Irish Single Pot Still whiskey is only available in Ireland. The name is somewhat misleading as this variety is primarily defined by the grain used rather than the still however. Legally Irish pot still whiskey is made from a mixture of at least 30% malted and at least 30% unmalted barley. Up to 5% other types of grain can be added. The prepared mash is then distilled in copper pot stills. Redbreast and Green Spot are both made using this process.

It’s worth noting that this recipe/ratio seems to be largely a fabrication of Irish Distillers operation at Midleton, in recent years this has become contested as a legal definition.

Tripple distillation

Although there is no legal requirement that Irish distilleries make use of tripple distillation the concentration of all of Irish whiskey distillation within only two distilleries during the 1960s has made the facts on the ground something of a rule. The rest of the world for the most part follows the Scottish method of double distillation.

There are a few exceptions to this practice, for example, the Scottish Lowland distillery Auchentoshan also distills its mild whiskie three times as did and will the resurrecting Rosebank distillery, Springbank distillery in Campbeltown uses the process for its Hazelburn malts, there are some truly strange ratios afoot at Mortlach. In Ireland, Cooleys (known for Connemara and Kilbeggan) only distills its single malts twice.

The use of three stills is in keeping with the mild, soft and lighter style of most Irish whiskies, the increased contact with copper means that more heavy compounds are filtered out of the alcohol. The whiskey becomes purer and lighter in taste (although Scotch fans argue, not entirely without good reason, that some of the interesting rougher edges also disappear). The alcohol content increases and so Irish New Make often has an alcohol content of around 80% after distillation compared to only around 70% for double-distillation. The result is a lighter character of the whiskey that Irish whiskey today has a reputation for.

The decline of the Irish whisky distilleries

Irish whiskey was once the world’s most popular whiskey producer, especially in the 19th century. At the time, Dublin was known as the whiskey capital of the world. At it’s peak international spirits were merchants selling about three Irish cases to every case of Scotch. From an estimated 2,000 legal and illegal stills Ireland had fallen to a little over 30 distilleries by Alfred Barnard’s visits in the 1880s. In the 1960s only a handful of distilleries worked together to form the Irish Distillers Group. There were only 2 actively producing distilleries in the 1970s. While incredible numbers of Scottish distilleries have closed over the centuries the setbacks for Irish whiskey almost proved a deathblow. It’s impossible to identify a single root cause of this decline, instead Irish whiskey suffered a succession of challenges:

What caused the downfall of Irish whiskey:

  • A growing domestic temperance movement
  • An articifical famine
  • The birth of a new blended whiskey
  • The first world war
  • American Prohibition
  • A trade embargo within the Commonwealth
  • The second world war

While the Temperence movement was far from crippling to the industry in a religious country such as Ireland the combined weight of the protestant and catholic clergy behind the movement made significant inroads before tailing off in the years of the famine. The artificial famine* devastated Ireland and disease and starvation cut the population by 20%-25%, large scale emigration did the rest bringing the population down to little over half the pre-famine period. *During the Great Famine Ireland grew enough food to feed the population but the failure of the government to introduce export bans, as had happened during the previous famine, saw food being shipped to more profitable markets.

A growing domestic temperance movement

On the one hand it was due to the temperance movement which urged devout Catholics to renounce the evils of alcohol, was very strong in Ireland. William Martin founded the Cork Total Abstinence Society (CTAS) in 1835 which was given catholic support in the form of Father Matthews . Under the charismatic leadership of Father Matthews, the movement which had an an initial 9,000 followers at the beginning of 1839 claimed some 5 million (of a population of approximately 8 million taking ‘the pledge’. Actual numbers are uncertain but estimates that around 250,000 people in Ireland had taken ‘the pledge’ by 1843. A similar Protestant movement kicked off 1898 as the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association, which picked up in response to the waning CTAS. While the impact of these temperence movements should not be overstated domestic consumption was crucial during this period where transport was costly.

The articifical Irish famine of 1845-1852

The Irish famine of 1845-1852 led to mass starvation, disease and emigration which decimated the countries population by as much as 20%-25%, large scale emigration did the rest bringing the population down to little over half the pre-famine period. During the famine Ireland grew more than enough food to feed its standing population but the deliberate failure of the government to introduce export bans, as had happened during the previous famine, saw food being shipped to more profitable markets. For this reason the famine was artificial.

The birth of blended whiskey

Another factor that contributed to the decline is the invention (or refinement) of a new distillation process by the Irishman Aeneas Coffey in 1830, which made the production of grain whiskey possible. The grain whiskey could now be produced faster and, above all, more cost-effectively thanks to the process of continuous distillation.

The era of blends had began, because the grain whiskey was blended with the malts, making them both milder and considerably cheaper to produce. Despite being introduced by an Irishman this era turned the wheel not to the Irish, but to the Scots. Scottish blends are still leading in world production today and overall more blended whiskies are produced than pure pot stills or single malts are drunk.

Why couldn’t the Irish benefit from their own invention?

The tradition-conscious Irish initially refused to make whiskey with this continuous process insisting on pot stills. After a loud but ultimately failed attempt to have grain spirits deprived of the definition of whiskey the writing was on the wall. The popular Irish whiskey style was gentle and mild and arguably of higher quality, which led to its intial success, but vastly more expensive than the new blends. The belnds spread at lightning speed, as they were in line with mass tastes and more importantly with people’s purses. When the first Irish blended whiskies came on the market, the scotch blend was so well established that the Irish, even if they were certainly good, struggled to recapture lost market.

American Prohibition

Prohibition began in the United States in 1920 and would last for 14 long years. This harmed the American manufacturers who now existed, but above all also the Irish, whose whiskey was selling well in America. While the Scots still busily smuggled their whiskey into America, the Irish for the most part did not involve themselves in bootlegging and their markets collapsed. Despite this another blow to the reputation of Irish whiskey emerged during prohibition.

Prohibition may have only lasted 14 years, but Irish whiskey’s reputation in America was ruined for around a century. The interesting thing prohibition is that Americans didn’t even notice the lack of Irish whiskey. They continued buying and drinking purportedly Irish whiskey, made by gangsters and crooks who sold their cheap spirit as Irish whiskey. Not only did sales collapse, but the Irish originals lost their reputation into the bargain. Even after prohibition was lifted, Irish whiskey was unable to regain a foothold on the market.

The trade embargo within the Commonwealth

The Anglo-Irish Trade War (also called the Economic War) was a retaliatory trade war between the Irish Free State that ran from 1932 to 1938, a consequence of the protectionist policies introduced by the nascent state trying to establish native industry. The trade embargo against the Irish Free State within the Commonwealth prevented the Irish from exporting to Australia, New Zealand, which were so important for the Irish. Many distilleries had to close without sufficient domestic demand to keep them afloat.

Irish whiskey after World War II

After the Second World War, the remaining whiskey distilleries in Ireland made things difficult for each other, the remaining distilleries were competing for the insufficient domestic demand left to them following the collapse of the coutnries exports markets. In 1966 further crippled with grain duties imposed by the impoverished Irish government and unable to establish a market foothold internationally the three surviving Irish distillers in the south, John Jameson & Sons, Powers & Sons, and the Cork Distillery merged to become Irish Distillers Ltd (IDL). In 1972 Bushmills also joined the group. Irish Distillers built the Midleton distillery complex in which to produce all but Bushmills whiskey. With the exception of Bushmills, the traditional distilleries were all closed and now only function as a museums.

The Takeover

In the big takeover dispute over the IDL between the English Grand Metropolitan (now Diageo) and Allied-Lyons, rescue of a sort came in the form of the French Pernod Ricard, the French ultimately won. At the end of the ’80s there was still Irish whiskey, but no longer an Irish-owned distillery. Regardless the arrival of Pernod Ricard offered a ray of light the French had a large network of potential customers and were increasingly bringing Irish whiskey back into circulation. This made it possible to distribute the Irish whiskey through worldwide sales channels.

A new Distillery

Until 1987 Irish whiskey production existed as a monopoly of two distilleries, then John Teeling acquired Ceimici Teoranta (Chemicals Limited), a government 10 owned column distillation plant in the Cooley Peninsula. Teeling added two pot stills from the mothballed Comber Distillery, acquired the rights to a number of historic Irish whiskey brands, and renamed the facility Cooley Distillery. Production began in 1989. Kilbeggan Distillery a historic distillery first established in 1757, was resurected, modernized and restarted by Teeling in 2007. Ireland has become a whiskey nation again with many different distilleries.

A revival

William Grant and Sons purchased the Tullamore D.E.W. brand in 2010 and began work on a distillery. Jim Beam, later to become Beam-Suntory, purchased Cooley in 2012. While only 4 certified distilleries were in operation in 2013 by 2016 their were 17 working distilleries in Ireland and a total of 31 distilleries being registered within a mere 7 years, a significant reversal. The majority of the new distilleries are fairly young however so the bulk of the liquid being bottled comes from a far smaller number of distilleries, primarily the Cooley, Bushmill and Middleton distilleries. This is especiaally true for older whiskies however a number of exciting new whiskies are also beginning to reach the market.

Of all these distilleries perhaps none is as as exciting as the Waterford distillery by Mark Reynier who was responsible for the revival of Islay’s Bruichladdich. Their micro provenance principles and experiments into the importance of terroir are already winning hearts and minds.