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Irish Whiskey

The Irish claim (with some justification), that they actually invented whiskey and say it was a particular gift to them from St. Patrick or missionary monks during the seventh century. The Irish then kindly exported their knowledge to the rest of the world.


Certainly, the Scots most likely learned about distilling from the Irish (though they are loath to admit it). Although historical details remain obscure, it does seem reasonable to believe that Irish monks were distilling aqua vitae ("water of life"), primarily for making medical compounds, but these first distillates were probably grape or fruit brandy rather than grain spirit. Barley-based 'whiskey' (the word whiskey itself derives from 'uisce beatha', the Gaelic interpretation of 'aqua vitae') first appears in the historical records in the mid-1500's when the Tudor kings began to consolidate English control in Ireland. From this it may be conjectured that the Irish were the first to use cereals as a base for making spirit.

Indeed, by the middle 1500's, so much whiskey was being consumed by the Irish that the government passed a law against drunkenness, and the makers of whiskey were deemed undesirable. (Even Queen Elizabeth I was said to be fond of it and had casks shipped to London on a regular basis). As in Scotland and other whiskey producing countries, it was realized that the only way to curb whiskey production and consumption was to tax it. In 1661, the then government, introduced a tax of 4 pence on each and every gallon distilled. This imposition had the same effect as it did in Scotland, with the immediate commencement of the production of 'poteen' (the Irish version of moonshine).

The tax failed to slow down the growth of the industry and so by 1785 it was increased to one shilling and tuppence. The last straw for some distillers was in 1815 when the tax was levied at a crippling six shillings. It was this which drove many to produce their goods illicitly and by the end of the 18th century it is thought that there were over 2,000 stills in operation around the country. Some decided to distill legally and attempted to raise the capital to set up larger distilleries. Of these, by far the most successful were the four big Dublin distillers: John Power, John Jameson, George Roe and William Jameson. Under British rule, Ireland had become export oriented and along with grains and assorted foodstuffs, Irish distillers continued to produce large quantities of pot­ distilled whiskey for export into the expanding British Empire. Irish whiskey out-sold Scotch whisky in most markets because it was lighter in body. It is said that in the late 19th century over 400 brands of Irish whiskey were being exported and sold in the United States. This happy state of affairs for Irish distillers lasted into the early 20th century when the market began to change. The Irish distillers, pot still users to a man, were slow to respond to the rise of blended Scotch whisky with its column-distilled, smooth grain whisky component. When National Prohibition in the United States closed off Irish whiskey's largest export market, many of the smaller distilleries closed. The remaining distilleries then failed to adequately anticipate the coming of Repeal (unlike the Scotch distillers) and were caught short without adequate stocks when it finally came. The Great Depression, trade embargoes between the newly independent Irish Republic and the United Kingdom, and World War II caused further havoc among the distillers.


By law, as set out in the Irish Whiskey Act, 1980, to be called Irish Whiskey, the whiskey has to be distilled from native grains in Ireland, stored in wooden casks for at least three years and must be distilled at an alcoholic strength of less than 94.8%, such that the distillate has an aroma and flavour derived from the materials used. To lay aside any arguments, we have reproduced the act itself.

(1) For the purposes of any statute or instrument made under statute spirits described as Irish whiskey shall not be regarded as correspond­ ing to that description unless the requirements regarding spirits contained in subsection (3) of this section are complied with as regards the spirits.

(2) For any of the purposes mentioned in subsection ( 1) of this section spirits described as blended Irish whiskey shall not he regarded as corresponding to that description unless:
(a) the spirits comprise a blend of two or more distillates, and
(b) the requirements regarding spirits contained in subsection (3) of this section are complied with as regards each of the distillates.
(3) The following are the requirements referred to in subsections (1) & (2)
of this section regarding spirits;
(a) the spirits shall have been distilled in the State or in Northern
Ireland from a mash of cereals which has been.
(i) saccharified by the diastase of malt contained therein, with or without other natural diastases,
(ii) fermented by the action of yeast, and
(iii) distilled at an alcoholic strength of less than 94.8% by volume
in sucha way that the distillate has an aroma and flavour derived from the materials used,
(b) the spirits shall have been matured in wooden casks-
(i)in warehouse in the State fora period of not less than three years, or
(ii) in warehouse in Northern Ireland for such a period, or
(iii) in warehouse in the State and in Northern Ireland for periods the aggregate of which is not less than three years.

(4) For the purposes of subsection ( 3) of this section the alcoholic strength at which spirits are distilled shall be ascertained in the same manner as that in which such ascertainment is for the time being arrived at for the purposes of customs and excise.

Irish whiskey is one of the world's great styles of whiskey. Here is a quick guide.

AGE: By Irish law, all whiskies must be aged a minimum of three years in barrels.

DISTILLATION: Traditionally, Irish whiskey is triple distilled in copper pot stills versus the usual practice of double distillation for Scotch whisky. Additionally, Irish whiskey is generally not exposed to peat smoke as are many Scotch whiskies.

STYLES OF IRISH WHISKEY: Single Malt Irish whiskey is made from 100% malted barley by a single distillery in a pot still. Grain whiskey is particularly light in style. Made from corn or wheat, grain whiskey is produced in column stills. Blended whiskey constitutes 90% all Irish whiskey production. Jameson and Kilbeggan are famous blended Irish whiskies. Pure Pot Still whiskey is a blend of both malted and unmalted barley distilled in a pot still. Pure Pot Still is a style of whiskey unique to Ireland. Potcheen or Irish moonshine distillates don't meet the age requirement to be labeled as Irish whiskey.

DISTILLARIES: Ireland currently only has three working distilleries; Midleton, Cooley and Bushmills.  Midleton and Cooley are located in the Irish Republic while Bushmills is in Northern Ireland. All Irish whiskies originate from one of these distilleries. Much like the scotch whiskey industry, all three distilleries have house brands that they produce as well as 3rd party brands that are produced by contract. Both Midleton and Cooley distilleries produce both pot still and grain whiskey, while the Bushmills distillery produces only pot still whiskey (they do, however, source grain whiskey from the Midleton distillery). Traditionally, Irish whiskies are distilled three times for extra smoothness (Scotch whiskies by comparison are traditionally double distilled

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WHY DOES IRISH WHISKEY TASTE SO DIFFERENT: If scotch and Irish whiskies are tasted side by side, the impression the Irish usually gives is of being lighter and smoother. The Irish have played up this 'lightness' in view of the current  worldwide trend towards lighter spirits.  While the production of Irish whiskies is broadly similar to that of Scotch, there are important differences that bring about its typical silky mouth feel and lightness: Irish whiskey is made from malted and unmalted barley, and small quantities of wheat, oats and rye. When the barley is dried, it is not done over peat fires, it is dried in sealed ovens, keeping only the pure malt flavour so the whiskey will not have the distinctive smoky aroma of many Scotch whiskies. More importantly, the wash for Irish whiskey is nearly always triple distilled, (and sometimes quintuple distilled) which though it produces a raw whiskey that is higher in alcohol (around 50 over proof before dilution compared to 20 for Scotch), the spirit has less of the congeners or flavouring elements, so the whiskey seems lighter to the palate.

Could one simple drink save an entire industry from obscurity in the United States? San Francisco's legendary Buena Vista cafe may have done just that with their famous Irish coffees. 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. With the Buena Vista serving up to 2000 Irish Coffees a day to tourists from around the country and locals, 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 then return home to wherever they were from and ask their local bartender or shopkeeper for Irish whiskey so that they could create the legendary Irish Coffee from the San Francisco legend.

Jameson Michael Collins Paddy Redbreast
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