The Resurgence of Irish Whiskey and Craft Distilling

You’ve probably heard of the big Irish whiskey brands: Bushmills, Jameson, Tullamore Dew. These whiskey distilleries have been producing whiskey in Ireland since the 19th century at the latest, with the Old Bushmills distillery claiming production as far back as 1608. While there were over 30 distilleries across the island of Ireland at the height of production in 1890, a series of changes to the industry in the late 19th and 20th centuries took a toll on Irish whiskey consumption and production. By the 1990s, there were only three Irish whiskey distilleries producing the spirit.

Lucky for whiskey fans and experts everywhere, Irish whiskey is having a resurgence. There are currently 16 distilleries on the island producing the spirit to specifications. There are 14 more distilleries in planning stages, and the older, larger distilleries are expanding their own production capabilities to meet an increasing demand. Craft whiskey is back as well, with small, focused distilleries dotting the countryside and taking local flavors into account in their processes.

Irish whiskey is held to several legal standards, inspected and enforced by the Department of Agriculture. Mainly, in order to be called Irish whiskey, it has to be distilled in Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland, and made from a mash of malted cereals. The whiskey must be fermented by yeast, and be matured for at least three years in wooden barrels, usually made of oak. The final product has to be at least 80 proof. Finally, the maturation process must take place entirely on the Irish island.

At one point in time, Irish whiskey was the most popular distilled spirit in the world, and the five biggest distilleries in Dublin peaked at an output of 10 million gallons of whiskey a year, with their production still not coming close to meeting demand. Being the king of spirits made it hard for the producers to imagine their demise, but their pride and stubbornness would contribute to an unfortunate reduction in global demand.

In 1832, Aeneas Coffey patented his Coffey still, which allowed for continuous distillation of spirit, improving output and efficiency for distilleries that adopted use of his still. While this was a great advancement for whiskey production in general, proud Irish distillers opted to keep their old methods in place, and Coffey took his still to England and Scotland, where distillers of gin and Scotch whisky were more receptive. English and Scottish producers started to overtake Irish distillers in terms of production output, and were far more willing to adapt to the changing tastes of whiskey consumers around the world.

On top of this, Ireland experienced hardships over the course of the 19th and early 20th century, such as the Great Famine, the Irish War of Independence, a trade war with Britain, and prohibition in the United States. All of these contributed to a serious decline in the export of Irish whiskey to its most popular markets. Government-imposed restrictions as well as over-expansion and mismanagement at existing Irish distilleries made the matter even worse, and by the 1970s, only the New Midleton Distillery (a conglomeration of three older distilleries) and Old Bushmills Distillery were in operation.

In the late 1980s, things started looking up for the industry, with the new Cooley Distillery opening in 1987 in County Louth, Ireland and Pernod Ricard purchasing Irish Distillers in 1988. Irish Distillers owned and operated the Jameson and Powers brands of Irish whiskey, and the takeover by Pernod Ricard meant more marketing overseas, particularly in Japan and the U.S. This jump-started a steady resurgence of Irish whiskey, thanks to renewed interest from whiskey fans abroad and increased production in Ireland and Northern Ireland. Based on current projections, the demand for whiskey is expanded to increase production past its previous record levels by 2020.

While the expanded popularity of Irish whiskey in the past three decades has piqued the interest of big players on the spirit scene such as Pernod Ricard (which owns New Midleton Distillery), Diageo, and Jose Cuervo (which owns Old Bushmills Distillery as of 2014), many craft distilleries have found an opportunity to produce independently. The Connacht Whiskey Company in County Mayo, for instance, is working to release a single pot still whiskey by late 2019, and is already producing locally-sourced gin and traditional poitin, an Irish spirit that is often distilled and sold under the table by families in the Irish countryside. The Teeling Distillery boasts that they are the first new distillery built in Dublin in 125 years, while the Echlinville Distillery garnered the first distilling license granted in Northern Ireland in just as long.

Due to the three-year maturation requirement on spirits to be considered whiskey, many distilleries that started production in the past few years are still waiting to release their first batches of true Irish whiskey. We’re looking forward to tasting several new flavors over the next few years.

Many of the distilleries offer tours of their production facilities, and we’re happy to help include a tasting tour as part of your next golf outing in Ireland. Contact us for a free quote, and be part of the Irish whiskey resurgence.