The Downfall of Irish Whiskey

The Irish whiskey industry has experienced a tumultuous history over the last two centuries, from the most prestigious whiskey in the world with an estimated 2,000 legal and illegal stills in operation to only 2 actively producing distilleries in the 1970s but the resurgence has begun. At this time there are now 10 distilleries either operating, being built or being planned. To understand the downfall of this Whisky producing powerhouse it’s necessary to go back to the 19th century and learn about the miss-steps, political transformations and technological innovations which brought Irish whisky to its knees and centered production into only two distilleries.

Irish whisky distillation

Pure Pot Still Whiskey

Irish naming conventions are a little confusing even today, a pure pot still whiskey doesn’t refer to the distillation pot the whiskey is distilled in but rather the mash combination  which contains both malted and unmalted barley. The resultant whiskey is thicker with a spiced liquorice like flavour instantly recognisable to fans of Redbreast single pot still whiskey, this is sometimes referred to as the potstill character.

The Rise of Scotch

In the 19th Century Irish whisky was the dominant player on the world whisky/whiskey stage, Fionnan O’Connor notes that at this time International London merchants were selling three Irish cases to every case of Scotch. Unfortunately three changes shake the industry to its foundations weakening Irish whiskey production and opening the door for the coming Scottish dominance:

  1. The Irish Temperence Movement saw some 5 million (of a population of approximately 8 million taking “the pledge”
  2. The Irish famine of 1845-1852 led to mass starvation, disease and emigration which decimated the countries domestic market
  3. The creation of the continuous still paired with the repeal of the protectionist British corn laws in 1946 allowed Scottish whisky manufacturers to import cheap grains, which unlike barley did not require malting
While the Temperence movement was far from crippling to the industry in a religious country such as Ireland the combined weight of the protestant and catholic clergy behind the movement made significant inroads before tailing off in the years of the famine. The artificial famine* devastated Ireland and disease and starvation cut the population by 20%-25%,  large scale emigration did the rest bringing the population down to little over half the pre-famine period. *During the Great Famine Ireland grew enough food to feed the population but the failure of the government to introduce export bans, as had happened during the previous famine, saw food being shipped to more profitable markets.

The Continuous Still & Cheap Grain

The introduction of Aeneas Coffey still in 1930 took much of the spirit world by storm but its impact in whisky production was muted because of the protectionist British corn laws which made importing cheap American grain prohibitively expensive. In part due to the impact of the Irish potato famine these laws were repealed in 1846. The sudden ability of Scottish whisky producers to create cheap blends using high the high ABV output of the continuous stills with cheaper ingredients saw the market flooded with the lighter grain whisky. The Irish distillers clinging true to their traditional “Pure Pot Still” whisky failed to police the quality of their offering past the factory gate allowing unscrupulous merchants to dilute their spirits with the lighter grain whisky. The four largest whiskey producers John Jameson, William Jameson, George Roe and John Power all campaigned for a strict legal definition of whiskey which excluded all but their own and the pure malts of their Scottish competitors. Appeals to the British government had no impact however as, despite the introduction of the the 1875 Food and Drug act to address concerns over product adulteration, no agreement of how whisky/whiskey should be defined could be reached. It took until 1890 for the Select Committee on British and Foreign Spirits to decide whisky should be “a spirit consisting of alcohol and water”. This lead to the publication in 1878 of the Truths About Whisky by the four whiskey producers which appealed to the public to against “the fraudulent traders by whom silent spirit, variously disguised and flavoured, is sold under the name of Whisky”. Unfortunately the market was about to develop a virtually inexhaustible demand for whisky, which could only be met by the continuous still.

Phylloxera and Whisky Demand

While smart marketing cannot be ruled out no single factor did more to establish Scotch whisky than the arrival in Europe of an American immigrant, the Phylloxera aphid. While American vines were were resistant to the insect European vineyards were devastated, the solution to import more American vines for grafting tragically brought “Downey” Mildew as well. By the 1870’s the result was the destruction of between 60% to 85% of Europe’s vineyards, huge shortages of wine and, of course its own distillate, brandy. The 1870’s and 1890’s saw the surge of Scottish grain whisky, who showing the foresight their Irish counterparts lacked embraced on-premise marketing in particular in London. In 1878 to take advantage of the boom the Distillers Company Ltd (DCL) was formed by six of the most dominant Scottish grain distilleries; Cameron-bridge, Kirkliston, Glenochil, Cambus, Port Dundas and Carsebridge. The resultant powerhouse divided the market between themselves and their output paired with the high return of investment (ROI) which saw continuous distilleries being built across Scotland led to a surplus of the already cheap grain whisky which saw the Leith-based blending and whisky brokering house Pattison’s Ltd declared bankrupt. Despite this backdrop the Irish whisky industry was still impressively stable, amounting to some 25% of all UK output at the turn of the century (Cronin & O’Connor, 2003). The collapse of Pattisons sent ripples through the industry and closed many of the recently opened, and even some of the established continuous distilleries, the sudden surplus of supply meant a downward pressure on prices.

A Legal Definition of Whisky

The impact of even cheaper spirit on Ireland was severe and the law was not on the struggling side of the struggling industry. In 1909 the royal commission appointed to investigate whether it was desirable to curtail, or place limits on the methods and ingredients which could be used to protect whisky/whiskey production concluded:
  1. That no restrictions should be placed upon the processes of, or apparatus used in, the distillation of any spirit to which the term whisky may be applied as a trade description.
  2. That the term ” whisky having been recognized in the past as- applicable to a potable spirit manufactured from (1) malt, or (2) malt and unmalted barley or other cereals, the application of the term whisky should not be denied to the product manufactured from such materials.
Full details of the commissions report can can be found here. This decision allowed the continuous grain whisky the same legal footing as Irish whiskey on the market both domestically and abroad.

Irish Whiskey Export Led Market

While changes in the 19th century had opened the door for grain whisky, the 20th century almost sounded the deathknell for Irish whisky production as two of the countries most important export markets were about to close. Britain and its commonwealth due to the Anglo-Irish trade war, America as the countries own temperence movement heralded prohibition.

Prohibition & The American Whiskey Market

On  Jan. 17, 1920 America officially became a dry country cutting off Ireland’s most important export market. The “noble experiment” of prohibition would effectively run until 1934, although the 1933 Cullen–Harrison Act formally ended prohibition federal law still prevented the sale of distilled spirits. When prohibition finally ended, or at least largely ended, the Irish whiskey suffered was unable to recover for three simple reasons, two related to production capacity and the third to a damaged reputation.
  1. The decision in 1926 of the Irish government to impose a minimum 5 year bonding age prevented the sale of Irish whiskey under this age in the American market, no comparable limitation existed elsewher
  2. Irish producers still largely, although not exclusively, used the pot still making production batch based limiting production quality compared to the continuous still. While Scottish grain distilleries were quickly able to scale up production the same could not be said for the handful of Irish distilleries still operating
  3. The low quality black market whiskey available in the American market typically carried Irish names, legitimate Irish whiskey would take time to recover its reputation

Whisky After the Rising

Two short years prior to the end of prohibition Irish distillers lost access to their second most important export market. In the wake of the 1916 Easter rising and subsequent Irish War of Independence the newly founded Irish free state refused to continue its reimbursement of “land annuities” to Britain resulting in the retaliatory Anglo-Irish Trade War. Running from 1932 – 1938 and crippling to Irish industry in general the 20% import duty on all goods sold in Britain effectively priced the already less competitive Irish Potstill whisky out of the market. The additional 20% import duty imposed by Britain saw the whisky trade between the two countries virtually dry up overnight allowing Scotch to expand and firmly entrench themselves in both Britain and throughout the commonwealth. Bushmills in an attempt to distinguish itself introduced a lighter, triple filtration offering and managed to survive while other northern distilleries were closed.

Irish Distillers Ltd.

Having barely survived prohibition and the Anglo-Irish Trade War the Irish whiskey industry suffered further still under the trade reduction of the second world war. Being neutral was out of bounds for combatants from either side and strengthened the pull of Scotch across the Atlantic at the expense of the already struggling Irish distillers. Finally in 1966, crippled with grain duties imposed by the impoverished Irish government and struggling to find a market foothold the three surviving Irish distillers in the south, John Jameson & Sons, Powers & Sons, and the Cork Distillery merged to become Irish Distillers Ltd.

The last two Distilleries in Ireland

In 1972 the group purchased Bushmills which operated the only two remaining Northern distilleries, Coleraine and Bushmills bringing all production under one brand. The group build the new Middleton distillery centering all but Malt production, which would continue at Bushmills, in the new distillery in 1975 making Coleraine distillery which produced only grain became redundant and closed its doors for good in 1978 leaving only two. The tragedy of the loss of so many Irish distilleries over the past two centuries cannot be understated, the diversity of production and quality, the move to predominantly grain based whiskey production and necessity for so many brands to merge under one group is without parallel. To give a comparison imagine that ever distillery in Speyside were to be combined into only two, one single distillery producing malt whiskey, another exclusively creating blends. Fortunately the tide has slowly starting to turn since the Cooley Distillery opened in 1987 and once again Irish whiskey is taking the world by storm but that is a story for a follow-up on the rise of Irish whiskey.