What is the History of Irish Whiskey?

Take a Quick Look at the History of Irish Whiskey

Copper pot still at Old Midleton Distillery in Ireland
Copper pot stills such as this one at Old Midleton Distillery are a common sight at Irish whiskey distilleries. Oliver Strewe/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images

Irish whiskey is one of the greatest styles of whiskey in the world, and also one of the most ancient. Unfortunately, the 20th Century saw the decline and fall of the Irish whiskey industry.

In recent years Irish whiskey has begun to make a comeback. Today, Irish whiskey is the fourth most popular style of whiskey in the world, right behind Scotch, bourbon, and Canadian whiskies.


The Rise of Irish Whiskey

Distilling technology came to Ireland earlier than in many parts of Europe and it was likely brought to the island by missionary monks.

The first distillates were called uisce beatha, Gaelic for "water of life." This was eventually anglicized into the word whiskey that we use today.

Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) was known to be a fan of Irish whiskey. She had stocks of it delivered to her court and was instrumental in making it a fashionable beverage of England.

By the 18th Century, Czar Peter the Great of Russia (1672-1725) declared, "Of all the wines of the world, Irish spirit is the best." Then, in 1755, Samuel Johnson had put the word whiskey in The Dictionary of English Language, commenting, "...the Irish sort is particularly distinguished for its pleasant and mild flavour."

In the 19th Century, Irish whiskey took its place as the most popular whiskey in the world, and, in the 1880s, after phylloxera had devastated the Cognac grape crops in France, Irish whiskey became the world's most popular spirit.


The Rapid Decline of Irish Whiskey

A number of factors at the dawn of the 20th Century almost completely destroyed the Irish whiskey industry.

The advent of the Coffey still allowed competitors to produce whiskey in a more cost effective manner. The Irish were slow to adopt the Coffey still (a type of continuous still) and clung to pot stills, a less efficient but more flavorful style of still.

Additionally, Ireland's War of Independence from 1919-1921 interrupted the distiller's access to overseas markets.

Once freedom from England was achieved, the English closed all access, which had been the largest market in the world for Irish whiskey at the time.

Next, the second largest market for Irish whiskey, the United States, closed its markets from 1920-1933 due to Prohibition. Even worse for the Irish whiskey industry, much of the bootleg whiskey was passed off as Irish whiskey. This destroyed its reputation and turned off an entire generation of Americans from the style.

Finally, World War II destroyed what was left of the Irish whiskey industry. Only seven distilleries remained after the war when approximately 160 were operating in 1880. Today, there are only three distilleries left in all of Ireland (Midleton, Bushmills, and Cooley).


The Savior of Irish Whiskey?

Could one simple drink save an entire industry from obscurity? San Francisco's legendary Buena Vista Cafe may have done just that with their famous Irish Coffee.

Owner Jack Koeppler was served an Irish Coffee at the Shannon Airport in 1952 and came home obsessed with recreating this drink at his San Francisco restaurant. With the help of travel writer Stanton Delaplane and the mayor of San Francisco, he finally recreated this drink successfully.

At its peak, the Buena Vista served up to 2000 Irish Coffees a day to tourists and locals alike. Some would argue that Jack Koeppler single-handedly saved the Irish whiskey market in the United States by introducing people to the soft, sweet whiskey in his Irish coffees.

Travelers would try an Irish Coffee at the Buena Vista and return home to ask their local bartender or shopkeeper for Irish whiskey so that they could create the legendary Irish cocktail from the San Francisco legend.

Did the Buena Vista save Irish whiskey in America? While it cannot be proven conclusively, the Buena Vista has introduced the pleasures of good Irish whiskey to thousands upon thousands of people over the years.


Originally Published: February 28, 2010
Edited by Colleen Graham: September 18, 2015