The simple answer is quite a lot. Terry Wogan, Riverdance, Guinness, Potato Crisps, McDonalds….the point is that if it wasn’t for the Irish the world would be a much quieter and duller place.
They have always had a panache for invention, the hypodermic needle, colour photography and the ejector seat have shown this. But they also have a knack of holding great parties, nibbles such as the cheese cracker and bacon rashers pay testament to this.
The foundations of Whisk(e)y dates as far back as Babylonian distillation in the form of perfumes in 2BC and, whilst this was not alcohol, the similarity in methods are there to be seen. Various distillation methods flourished throughout the known world, Persians, Greeks, and Arabs continued the process through various, slights differing styles, to create mainly medicines and tonics.
Alcohol distillation can trace its origins to the 13th Century BC in Italy, where wine was used to distill alcohol. Taddeo Alderotti, a Florence chemist, is widely credited with the design of Fractional distillation, allowing for a smoother, more drinkable liquor to be created.
So where do the Irish come in, and can they lay claim to this holy grail of discoveries? A common belief is a resounding Yes. It is, in fact, believed that distillation hit Ireland from traveling monks in 1000 BC, and the technique was modified to create a drinkable spirit. Although there is written no record of this spirit until the 17th Century, and even that is writing about the death of a poor sozzled sole in 1405. The Annals of Clonmacnoise, which attributes the death of a chieftain in 1405 to “taking a surfeit of aqua vitae” at Christmas. In Scotland, the first evidence of whisky production comes from the Exchequer Rolls for 1494 where malt is sent “To Friar John Cor, by order of the king, to make aqua vitae”, enough spirit for around 500 bottles. The King in Question was James IV, who had developed a taste for the Scottish variant.
Scottish Distillation techniques hailed from Islay and Campbeltown so, geographically at least, the connection of a natural progression East is an obvious one.
Perhaps it’s a question of who enjoyed it more, and who thought they could profit from it. With us Scot’s being a savvy bunch and never missing out an opportunity to make some money, it’s a distinct possibility, whereas the Irish simply enjoyed the sociality of it and forgot (or were too drunk) to write it down!
With a legal distillation permit granted in 1608, The Bushmills Distillery in Northern Ireland is the oldest known distillery to legally distill Whiskey. Up until the 1880’s Irish Whiskey was regarded as the finest in the world, being created in the large, industrial distilleries of Dublin’s Big Four, Jameson (Bow Street), Powers, George Roe and Jameson (Marrowbone Lane). They produced a mass volume of consistent whisky which the Scots simply could not match.
It was said at the time that the only thing the Irish hated more than the English was the English Taxes. But, by using a mash of Malted Barley and Unmalted Barley (to avoid a Malt Barley Tax created by their English rulers) they managed to create a style of whisky that appealed across the trading world.
Then the train hit the skids due to an unfortunate catalogue of events, completely unrelated, and started by an Irishman himself! Aenas Coffey refined and created a still called the Patent (or Coffey) still in 1831, which was widely disregarded by the Irish Distilleries, citing the liquid produced was “not whiskey”. Not to be outdone, Aenas travelled to Scotland and the distilleries here embraced the still, creating a mass produced whisky and blending it with their rougher, less palatable Malt whisky to create a consistent and far more smooth, enjoyable whisky.
In the Early 1900’s, the Irish Free State caused a trade war that Ireland simply would not win, given it was against Great Britain and her Empire, which still ruled around one quarter of the trading world. The Irish Distillers’ main market was closed down and then the US Prohibition declaration in 1920 put the final nail in the coffin, closing all but the largest companies who could afford to hold fast and wait for a return to more prosperous times.
A recent trend in Irish Whiskey, however, has seen the upturn gather speed. New distilleries are coming up just as fast in Ireland as in Scotland, and they are producing a fantastic array of whiskey. The good times are back and we are very much enjoying the Craic!