Upturn in the Rocky History of Irish Whiskey

A selection of some Premium Irish Whiskies - The Irish Place
A selection of some Premium Irish Whiskies

The whiskey sector in Ireland is experiencing a huge resurgence right now, exports increased by an estimated 8% in 2016 to €505 million (US$537m) and are on track to double by 2020.

The industry is rising from the ashes after the spectacular demise that has previously marred the history of Irish whiskey.

The History of Irish Whiskey Production

Until the early part of the 1900s, Ireland’s whiskey was at the top of the global spirits trade. The country’s producers then faced devastation, however, as a mixture of technology, prohibition and politics led to its historic demise.

It was the technology that Bernard Walsh, the current chairman of the Whiskey Association, blames most for the downfall.

Speaking largely about the future of the industry whilst reflecting on the history of Irish whiskey, Mr Walsh said that whiskey-makers of history ‘blew it’, despite ‘having it all’ during the 1800s and at the start of the 1900s.

Mr Walsh said that whiskey-makers in Ireland missed the opportunity grasped by their Scottish counterparts in failing to make the most of the column still that was invented.

Ironically, it was an Irishman, Aeneas Coffey, who patented the still, which simplified the process of making palatable spirits.

Added to this was the business-dampening effects of the Civil War and the War of Independence, not to mention America’s introduction of prohibition – a massive blow to the Irish industry given that whiskey from Ireland was the most popular imported spirit in the States at the time.

The Demise of the Whiskey Industry

The industry spiralled into decline, leaving behind the glory days when 12 million cases were produced, and there were no fewer than 88 licensed distilleries producing the tipple.

The demise of the whiskey industry was nothing short of spectacular. The 88 distilleries at the turn of the century became a distant memory, and in the middle of the 1980s there remained only two.

Resurgence in Irish Whiskey Production

Yet the whiskey sector was not willing to admit defeat, and in 1987 the first of a new wave of independent producers, the Cooley Distillery, started production.

The slow but steady resurgence was boosted further in 1988, when Irish Distillers were bought out by France’s Pernod Richard.

The Whiskey Association has now announced plans to almost quadruple exports to reach 24 million (from 6.5 million) cases a year by 2030.

If that target stays on course, the industry could be back to producing the previous record of 12 million cases as early as 2020. There are already 26 distilleries that have just been built or are being planned.

The journey will be far from simple, according to Mr Walsh. Whiskey as an export has long been forgotten in favour of products such as a dairy and beef, and new distillers still face profound obstacles, ranging from difficulties sourcing expertise to finding funding.

Even if the targets are met, Ireland’s whiskey is still likely to lag behind Scotland, where cases already total 90 million a year, but the potential is hard to ignore

Certainly, there has been a major change from the nadir of the demise in the 1980s, when Irish whiskey only accounted for around one per cent of the world’s whiskey export market.

Today, exports alone are worth more than 300 million euros a year – an increase of 220 per cent on 2003 figures. The tide has changed when it comes to the history of Irish whiskey, it seems.

This is nowhere near the five billion euros’ worth of the Scottish spirit currently leaving British shores every year, but it is still a major achievement for a sector that stood on the verge of extinction just three decades ago.

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