When Irish monks introduced distilled spirits to Ireland, they began a process that would not only give the world one of its most famous examples of whiskey, but even the name itself. ‘Uisce Beatha’ - meaning ‘water of life’ - was originally a name for any form of distilled spirits, even those used for perfumes or medicine, but it eventually became synonymous with the drink we know today.
Originally a home-based industry, often hidden to avoid paying a hefty tax rate, Irish whiskey production was traditionally highly localised and small scale. However, the 19th century saw a huge increase in the level of whiskey produced. The pace of industrialisation was so rapid that the number of stills operating in Ireland doubled in the years between 1827 and 1840! However, where the 19th century had been kind, the early part of the 20th century proved to be a cruel time for Irish distilling.
The economic disruption caused by WW1, the Easter rising and the Irish civil war severely damaged the industry. Irish whiskey suffered another blow following the 18th amendment of the US constitution, which banned the sale of alcohol in the USA (the prohibition). This ended the largest export market for Irish whiskey overnight, further damaging the already fragile industry.
Despite these setbacks, Irish whiskey survived and has been enjoying a steady resurgence since the 1980s, and by the 1990s a number of international agreements had been signed which recognised the unique nature of Irish whiskey, including the EU-US agreement of 1994 which restricted the use of the name to whiskey distilled on the island of Ireland. By 2013, more than 6.2 million 9 litre cases had been exported across the globe – a clear indication of the high esteem in which Irish whiskey is held all across the world.
The production process begins with whole cereals, 100% barley in malt whiskey and no less than 30% in grain whiskey, which are milled and then mixed with local water. The resulting mash is heated to extract the sugars from the grain and the remaining ‘wort’ is ready for fermentation. Yeast is added, which converts sugars in the wort to alcohol. This fermented liquid, termed the ‘wash’, is now ready for distillation.
Two separate processes are used in the distillation of Irish whiskey: the older pot still method and the column still method. The pot still method creates a more fully flavoured profile for the whiskey, whereas the column still gives a lighter spirit.
During distillation, the wash goes through a process of being heated, separated out and condensed. The process differs between column stills and pot stills and on whether the whiskey is double or triple distilled but, regardless of the method, considerable artistry is needed to select the correct alcohol compounds. This is know as making the ‘cut’ and is a key process in the making of a quality whiskey.
Finally, the whiskey is matured in warehouses on the island of Ireland for a period of at least three years. The prohibition on maturing the product outside of Ireland is so strict that whiskey cannot be exported in its barrel, but instead has to be bottle or placed in an inert container before leaving the island.