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Irish whiskey: A brief history

Irish whiskey
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Lix on the TV show The Hour once posited that, “Whiskey is god’s way of telling us he loves us and wants us to be happy.” But practically speaking, God didn’t invent whiskey, the Irish did.

Whiskey was first created by Irish monks who decided to distill beer. Distill beer! Why WOULDN’T you do that? Even the word “whiskey” is an English bastardization of the Gaelic, uisge beatha, literally “water of life.” The oldest licensed distillery in the world is Northern Ireland’s Bushmill’s, with a charter dating back to 1608 that was signed by King James I. So what better drink to toast our Irish heritage, real or imaginary, than whiskey?

Although today Ireland is behind the US, Scotland, Canada, and even Japan when it comes to exporting whiskey, once upon a time hundreds of whiskeys were distilled in Ireland and consumed everywhere from Dublin to Malaysia, thanks to trading routes established by the British Empire. From the 18th century through to the early 20th century, if you thought of whiskey, chances were you thought of Irish whiskey.

So what happened? Two things: economics and war. After the First World War, Ireland declared its independence from Britain. What followed was the Irish War of Independence, a violent guerrilla war that decimated the Irish population and destroyed Ireland’s infrastructure. Once won, Irish independence meant that Irish distilleries could no longer rely on the British trade routes that had been used to ship Irish whiskey for the past few centuries.

Then the US, the largest consumer of Irish whiskey in the world, passed Prohibition, and Irish distillers had little interest in engaging in illegal trade with bootleggers (unlike Canadian and Scots distillers, whose whiskies are still wildly popular in the US). Shortly thereafter, the Irish Civil War tore apart the country politically, socially, and economically. Only two distilleries managed to survive all this turmoil into the 21st century: Bushmill’s and Jameson & Sons.

Irish whiskey

Irish whiskey is making a comeback, however, and chances are you’ll be able to find a few whiskeys beyond Jameson’s and Bushmill’s at your local liquor store. Power’s and Paddy’s are two of the three most popular whiskeys on the emerald isle itself. Both, along with Tullamore Dew, are actually produced in the Jameson distillery and should be readily available at an Irish pub if not at the liquor store. Bushmill’s will likely be your cheapest option, and is a good choice if you plan on mixing your whiskey; but if you take your whiskey straight, it’s probably worth springing for higher end batches like Bushmill’s Black.

What makes Irish whiskey unique? It tastes similar to Scotch whisky (probably because Scots distillers stole their recipes directly from Ireland!), but doesn’t have the smoky peat flavors that Scotch is known for. Irish whiskies are usually distilled three times and contain a mix of malted and unmalted barley, a throwback to the days when the British government taxed malted barley in order to get a cut of the lucrative Irish whiskey industry. The result of this mix is that Irish whiskey has a lighter, toastier flavor than Scotch whisky. Some Irish whiskies have a reddish color from being aged in sherry casks, a practice that dates back to the defeat of the Spanish Armada off the coasts of Ireland and Scotland in 1588. And because Irish distillers like to use old bourbon casks when they’re aging, hints of smooth bourbon tend to temper the bite of the whiskey.

In Ireland, whiskey is usually served either straight-up or on the rocks with a pint of Guinness on the side. If you still really want to mix it into a cocktail, though, your best choice is the leprechaun. This cocktail is basically a gin and tonic, but with Irish whiskey in place of the gin. If you could imagine what a leprechaun would taste like, it would taste exactly like this cocktail. It sounds very strange, but it’s actually really tasty. Other good mixers for Irish whiskey include ginger ale and lemonade.

Another popular saying is that God created whiskey to keep the Irish from ruling the world. But the joke’s on God—the Irish ruled the world through whiskey once, and might do so again. Therefore it’s only appropriate to toast with some Irish whiskey on St. Paddy’s Day. Sláinte na bhfear agus go maire na mná go deo.

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Tasha Brandstatter is a freelance arts and culture writer with a master's degree in art history, three scotties, and more books than she knows what to do with. You can find her work in History Colorado, Book Riot, Western Passages, ArtiSpectrum, and Cocktail Paparazzi, among other publications.

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