So who invented whiskey? Ireland or Scotland?
Of course strictly speaking it was the Arabs, but there was a time in the 19th and early 20th century when Irish whiskey was the gold standard and sold for a premium over all other whiskeys.
Fast forward a few dozen years from its heyday and through a combination of bad luck and bad decisions Irish whiskey almost disappeared.
We could blame Father Matthew, the invention of the continuous Coffey still (ironically by an Irishman), prohibition, taxation, and we could even blame Eamon DeValera.
Peter Mulryan’s new book The Whiskeys of Ireland is an entertaining romp through the history of Irish whiskey, explaining exactly how we got where we are today.
Sadly, this is not always a happy tale, and while it has the making of a happy ending, only time will tell.
“This book is just a photograph, a moment in time,” says Mulryan.
As well as the history of whiskey Mulryan attempts to pick through the “bullshit” as he would put it and focuses solely on distilleries that are actually in production.
“I had to draw a line somewhere, things are changing so fast, there are so many new whiskies, and so many of them are not real but just marketing and blarney,” he says.
In 1779 there were 1,228 legal distilleries in Ireland and while this figure dropped to a couple of hundred following tighter excise laws.
Of course the others didn’t disappear, they simply moved underground.
In the early 19th century it is thought there were 800 illegal stills on the Inishowen peninsula alone making poitín.
The late 19th century were the golden years according to Mulryan but the events of the first 50 years of the 20th century brought the industry to a virtual standstill.
By the 1980s there were two distilleries — Midleton and Bushmills.
Now in 2016 there are about a dozen working distilleries in Ireland with a possible 30 or so to come if all those dreams (and crowdfunding plans) become reality.
“It is great to see so much activity but you must remember that around 80% of the growth in Irish whiskey is Jameson. Yes, there are dozens of brands out there but they are almost all being made with bought-in whiskey from John Teeling,” he says.
John Teeling set up the Cooley distillery in the late 1980s and as well as the old brands he recreated such as Locks and Tyrconnell he made much of his money by making own-brand whiskey and supplying small start-ups such as Slane Castle (now owned by Brown Forman of Jack Daniel fame).
In the 2000s a number of developments occurred and it became difficult to keep up.
Diageo bought Bushmills from IDL, West Cork Distillers was founded in Union Hall in 2003, William Grant bought Tullamore Dew, Midleton spent €200m on expansion and Oliver Hughes set up the Dingle Distillery (these last three occurred in 2010).
Sadly, Oliver Hughes died suddenly just a couple of weeks ago just a few months after his first whiskey was created.
“He was a visionary, an inspiration, and the setting up of Dingle in 2010 recession Ireland was remarkable. Where he led, others followed,” says Mulryan.
ohn Teeling in Cooley meanwhile, knew his brands were not strong enough to go international so he sold to Jim Beam in late 2011 (which was in turn sold to Japanese drinks group Suntory a few years later).
Suddenly, small whiskey brands which had relied on the Cooley Distillery for their whiskey had to either set up their own distillery or close down.
Teeling of course couldn’t resist the whiskey bug for long and bought up much of the surplus whiskey Diageo wanted to offload after they swapped Bushmills for a Don Julio Tequila (Bushmills is now owned by Jose Cuervo, keep up at the back!).
John Teeling built the Great Northern Distillery in the old Harp Brewery in Louth which is designed to supply bulk whiskey to the new batch of small brands on the make.
Meanwhile, Teeling’s sons set up Dublin’s first new distillery in a century in the Liberties in Dublin.
A recent visit to Dublin duty free was an eyeopener for me as there were at least a dozen brands on display that I had never heard of despite my interest in the subject.
Not one of them was from a distillery, but were, I suspect, created with stock purchased from Teelings.
“I see no problem with releasing a whiskey to build a brand until your own whiskey becomes available but some are just pretending they are distilleries,” Mulryan says.
“The labels on some of these whiskeys are intentionally opaque and the bigger the lie the easier it is to pull off, especially as a few samples to a few lazy social media ‘influencers’ can get you a lot of attention,” he says.
“Gin is the other distilling renaissance that is happening now along with whiskey and there are gins out there being made with essences rather than being distilled and yet they are claiming they are using 100% Irish botanicals. This will also come back and bite us on the arse and nobody seems to care,” he says.
Speaking of gin, one noticeable absence from the book is Mulryan’s own Blackwater Distillery which he started 18 months ago in Cappoquin, Co Waterford.
Blackwater Gin No. 5 has won numerous awards as has new Juniper Cask-aged gin.
“By my own rules I couldn’t mention us, we won’t begin making whiskey until next year, we are currently working on a business expansion scheme and the pot stills are ordered (from Italy) — and partly paid for!” he says.
“It is great that the multinationals are here but every industry needs a mix of small and big producers, we are operating on an uneven playing pitch compared to the UK.
For example it is illegal to sell direct unless you spend €60,000 on a pub licence and set up a separate company.
“The law on distilling dates back to 1880 when Victoria was on the throne and before women could vote, but of course politicians hate making decisions and despite all their bandwagon jumping, their lack of action does not augur well for the future and it is the boutique quality producers that will disappear first,” he says.