I recently participated in a tasting of Irish whisky in of all places San Antonio,Texas. This experience lead me to explore the long and tragic history of Irish whiskey making in the hopes of better understanding the product I tasted and plan future purchases.
Irish whiskey-making on a commercial level is thought to have originated in the early 1600s. However, the industry would not reach its peak until John Jameson started distilling large quantities of the stuff in the early to mid 1800s, producing high quality whiskey for mass consumption. Unfortunately, the industry peaked around the middle of the 1800s and never fully recovered due to a series of socio-economic factors that created conditions unsuitable for Irish producers. In the early 20th century, it was still the preferred whiskey in the Unites States until prohibition ended all Irish whiskey imports into the country.
Only in the 1980s did production start to recover and today a small number of distillers produces all of Ireland’s whiskey. There are nine distilleries in operation in Ireland. These include the well-known brands from Middleton (e.g. Jameson, Green Spot), Bushmills, and Cooley (e.g. Connermara, Locke’s). In addition to these older distilleries, there are a number in construction or who haven’t yet had time to age their product, such as Alltech and Dingle. These new players are hoping to benefit for the resurgence in interest in whiskey of all types.
Whiskey from Ireland comes in several forms. Grain whiskey is made from unmalted barley in a continuous still. This is usually mixed with malted barley to creat a blend. A blend is a mixture of grain and malt whiskies. For Irish whiskey, this means blending the grain product with a pot still product. A pot still product can be made by distilling malted barely in a single pot (single malt) or by using malted and unmalted barley in a single pot. The latter is also known as pure pot still whiskey. This style is unique to Ireland.
Having explored the background and types of Irish whiskey, I will dedicate some space in the near future to reviewing the whiskey I tasted during my time in San Antonio.