Welcome back to the wonderful world of whisk(e)y! In this blog series, we have been exploring the many different types and styles of whisk(e)y available around the world.
The third instalment of our World of Whisk(e)y series takes us to the Emerald Isle for a look at Irish whisky. In this blog post, we’ll explore the history and production of Irish single malt and blended whiskey.
We’ll also take a look at some key figures in Irish whisky production, as well as some of the most popular whiskies from Ireland. Finally, we’ll take a brief look at the performance of Irish whiskey on the investment market.
A brief history of Irish whiskey
The history of Irish whiskey is a long and complicated one, with many different theories about the drink’s origins. It is generally accepted that whiskey was first introduced to Ireland by Christian missionaries in the late fifth century AD.
However, there are also records of a drink called “uisce beatha” or “water of life” being produced in Ireland as early as the seventh century. This “water of life” was probably more akin to what we now know as vodka or aqua vitae, rather than the whisky we know today.
It wasn’t until the 12th century that whiskey began to be produced in Ireland on a large scale. The earliest known reference to Irish whiskey comes from a document written in 1405, which mentions “a great number of barrels of aqua vitae” being exported from Ireland to England.
From the 15th century onwards, there are many references to Irish whiskey being exported to various parts of Europe, including Spain, Portugal and even the Pope himself!
In 1608, an Irishman named Hugh Redmond was granted a license by King James I to distil whiskey in the town of Drogheda. This is widely considered to be the first commercial distillery in Ireland.
By the end of the 17th century, there were over 100 distilleries operating in Ireland. The vast majority of these were located in Ulster, with a smaller number in Leinster and just a handful in Munster.
The 18th century was a period of great change for Irish whiskey. In 1779, Arthur Guinness started brewing at the St. James’s Gate Brewery in Dublin. This had a major impact on the Irish whiskey industry as many of the small distilleries closed down due to competition from Guinness.
In 1823, a man named Aeneas Coffey invented the coffey still, which revolutionized the whiskey-making process and led to the development of blended whiskey. Blended whiskey is made by combining different types of whiskeys, including single malt and grain whiskeys.
The 19th century was a golden age for Irish whiskey, with production increasing tenfold between 1800 and 1900. However, the industry was dealt a blow in the early 20th century by a number of factors, including World War I, the Irish War of Independence, and Prohibition in the United States. These events led to a decline in production and many distilleries were forced to close their doors.
In 1966, John Jameson & Son merged with Cork Distillers and Bushmills to form Irish Distillers Ltd. This marked the beginning of a new era for Irish whiskey as IDL invested heavily in advertising and promotion, helping to increase sales both at home and abroad. In 1988, IDL was acquired by French drinks giant Pernod Ricard, who continue to own it today.
Since then, Irish whiskey has seen something of a renaissance, with many new brands and distilleries appearing on the market. In 2018, Irish whiskey was the fastest-growing spirit in the world, with sales increasing by over 16%.
The different types of Irish whisky
There are two types of Irish whiskey: single malt and blended. Single malt whiskey is made entirely from malted barley, while blended whiskey is made from a combination of malted and unmalted barley.
The vast majority of Irish whiskey produced today is blended, as it is cheaper and easier to produce than single malt.
However, there has been a recent trend toward single malt Irish whiskeys, as consumers become more discerning and willing to pay for higher quality products.
Key Irish whisky brands
There are a number of key Irish whisky brands, including Jameson, Bushmills, Redbreast, and Powers.
Jameson is by far the most popular Irish whiskey in the world, with sales of over €600 million per year.
The brand was founded by John Jameson in Dublin in 1780, and today it is owned by French drinks giant Pernod Ricard.
Jameson is a blend of Irish pot still whiskey and grain whiskey, and it is aged for a minimum of three years in oak barrels.
Bushmills is the oldest operating whiskey distillery in Ireland, having been founded in 1608.
The brand is owned by Diageo, and it produces both single malt and blended whiskeys.
Bushmills is best known for its flagship Bushmills Original, a blend of grain whiskey and single malt whiskey aged for a minimum of five years.
Redbreast is a single pot still whiskey produced by Irish Distillers, and it is matured in a combination of sherry casks, bourbon barrels, and port pipes.
It is named for the redbreast robin, which is found in Ireland.
Redbreast 12 Year Old is the most popular expression of the Redbreast range. It is a triple distilled single pot still whiskey that is aged for a minimum of 12 years.
Powers is a single-pot still whiskey produced by the Irish Distillers. It is matured in a combination of sherry casks, bourbon barrels, and port pipes.
The Powers John’s Lane Release is the most popular expression of the Powers range. It is a triple distilled single pot still whiskey that is aged for a minimum of 12 years.
Performance on the whiskey investment market
Irish whisky has outperformed the global whisky market in recent years. In 2010, Scotch whisky outperformed Irish whisky by 470%. By 2019, that gap has narrowed to 76%, with both asset classes seeing significant growth.
The key drivers of this growth are:
- The increasing popularity of Irish whiskey around the world
- The growing number of premium and super-premium Irish whiskey brands
- The expansion of the Irish whiskey category into new markets
Irish whiskey is now the fastest-growing spirit in the world, with sales increasing by over 50% in the last five years. In 2018, Irish whiskey was worth $780 million and is expected to grow to $950 million by 2023.
The water of life
Irish whisky has undergone a renaissance in recent years, with sales growing rapidly both in Ireland and around the world. While there are many reasons to visit Ireland, the country’s whisky is one of its biggest draws!