Irish Whiskey has a long and interesting history. While the exact origins of Irish Whiskey are not known, ancient manuscripts reveal Irish monks practiced the art of distillation during the 6th Century. In the early days, the monasteries where the monks resided were at the centre of life and industry in Ireland. Between the 6th and 9th centuries, the monasteries prospered. However, from the 9th to 11th centuries, the Vikings invaded Ireland and destroyed the monasteries forcing the monks to flee to Scotland where they created new settlements, bringing with them the art of distillation, thus beginning the production of Scotch Whisky.
The next phase in the history of Irish Whiskey came during the 12th Century when the Normans invaded Ireland. It is said that the Norman soldiers appreciated the taste of the Irish Whiskey but they found the pronunciation of the word “Uisce Beatha” tricky and so renamed it, first to “fuisce” and then to “whiskey”.
The popularity of Irish Whiskey grew so much so that by the 17th Century it was the drink of choice for Queen Elizabeth I of England. At the same time commercial acumen began to emerge and the government began to grant licences to a number of distilleries for the purpose of distilling whiskey. The first licence was granted in 1608 to Sir Thomas Phillips at the Old Bushmills Distillery which was located in north-eastern area of Ireland. This distillery is still in existence today and is the oldest working distillery in the world.
By the late 18th Century, distilleries began to flourish and as a result some of the finest Irish Whiskeys were exported throughout the British Empire. Similarly, from 1740 to 1910, Irish emigrants to the United States brought the taste of Irish Whiskey to America. By the beginning of the 20th century, Irish Whiskey accounted for 90 percent of the global export market. However, after establishing itself as the dominant whiskey category in the world, two cruel blows were about to be dealt to the Irish Whiskey industry.
During 1916, as the First World War raged throughout Europe, the Irish rebelled against their British rulers. The treaty with Britain which followed the rebellion led to a civil war in Ireland from 1919 to 1921. The ending of civil war in Ireland was then followed by a prolonged economic war with Britain which severely limited the volume of whiskey Ireland could export.
At the same time, the United States introduced the Prohibition laws which outlawed the production, importation or trade in alcoholic beverages. With difficulties in Ireland’s two most important export markets, Ireland’s distillery owners were not prepared to replenish stocks and many closed their doors. When Prohibition ended, Ireland did not have a sufficient supply of mature Irish Whiskey to cater for American demand when the US market reopened in 1943. Thus the dominant market position which Irish Whiskey enjoyed prior to Prohibition was lost to the Scottish distillers and by the early 1960’s the export of Irish whiskey was virtually non-existent.
By 1966 only four Irish distilleries remained and in order to survive they merged to form one company. Since the 1970’s the return to glory of the Irish Whiskey category has been staggering and now in the 21st Century Irish Whiskey is the fastest growing whiskey category in the world. It is a testament to its long history and superior quality that the Irish Whiskey industry managed to survive during the dark days at the beginning of the 20th Century.