A Brief History of Irish Whiskey
In the sixth century A.D., Irish missionaries journeyed to the Middle East to convert lost souls to their faith. There, the monks observed the wily Arabs heating flowers and water in metal stills, called alembics, to produce perfume. Apparently the monks had a better idea – when they got back home to Ireland, they invented a new version of the alembic, called a pot still, and utilized it to distill surplus grain into whiskey. If you believe historical accounts of the period, the early monastic versions of Irish whiskey were produced for medicinal purposes only.
Whiskey enjoyed an explosion of popularity in Ireland in the 1600s. So great was the rise in its popularity that the British monarchy gave it new-found attention as a possible revenue source. Sure enough, on Christmas Day 1661, Irishmen received a nasty present under the tree – a tax of four pence per gallon on Irish whiskey.
This was only the beginning of Ireland’s hate-hate relationship with the government’s Excise department. In 1779, the Distilling Act levied a tax on every owner of a still, forcing many Irish distillers to shut their doors – or go underground. Illegal distilleries sprouted up like shamrocks. Excise agents were attacked by angry mobs as they sought to impound illegal stills and other contraband. The bootleg whiskey became rotgut, manufactured and subsequently blended without any consideration of consistent flavor or quality control.
A century ago, Scottish distillers found a new use for Irish whiskey,
which was at the time valued much more highly in public opinion than its
Scots cousin. The Scottish distilleries shipped their whisky to Dublin
and mixed it with microscopic quantities of Irish. Having relabeled the
bottles “Irish Whiskey,” they then exported it back to Scotland
and unloaded it at premium prices!