Uisce Beatha – A Brief History of Irish Whiskey

Uisce Beatha – A Brief History of Irish Whiskey

Uisce Beatha, literally translates as “water of life” in Gaelic. Our friends and family with Gaelic roots, the Scots and Irish, believed that the fermentation of grains, when aged to perfection, meant life.

There is some debate as to the origin of whiskey in Ireland. Many date its birth around 1405, at least 90 years prior to Scotland, but there may be some evidence going back to 1100s, all with roots in the rise of Christianity. It is said that most likely monks brought a crude distillation process from the Mediterranean that had been used to make perfumes and worked on an idea to make what is now whiskey.

Bushmills, in Northern Ireland, is said to be the longest running distillery in the Emerald Isle although it is more about survival than almost anything. You see there were over 30 distilleries on the tiny island in 1890 and by the time of the American prohibition, it was down to 3.

Post prohibition and the Irish rebellion (thank you Michael Collins), forced many out of business. Even Jameson, who survived, merged with J. Powers and Cork Distillers to form the Irish Distillers Group based in Middleton, even to this day (I was there!). Outside of Bushmills, this was the ONLY place in all of Ireland making Irish whiskey! Brands like Redbreast, Kilbeggan, Tullamore Dew and of course Jameson, all came out of the Middleton distillery.

How Irish Whiskey is made in Brief

There are 2 ways in which Irish whiskey was traditionally made. All come from a blend of malted and unmalted barley (unlike American bourbon which has to be at least 51% corn and virtually any other grain after) and can be distilled in either a pot still (see pic) or a coffey, more commonly called a column, still (see pic).

Today, the only pot still whiskies are Green Spot, Yellow Spot and Redbreast. All of the other brands are made using the column still.

So what makes Irish whiskey “Irish?

Requirements to call Irish whiskey “Irish” include aging for a minimum of 3 years in wooden casks not exceeding 185 US gallons, it also must have a minimum ABV of 40%, it can be made in single pot, single malt, single grain, and blended. And the key – it can only mature on the island of Ireland.

Irish Whiskey Today

Much like its bourbon cousin, Irish Whiskey has also gone through a renaissance. Although not quite as many distillers as the heyday in the 1800s, there are many more artisanal whiskey producers making delicious Irish whiskey. Heck, even the UFC champ Conor McGregor has his own, Proper 12 (delicious actually).

A quick shout out to my favorite, Tullamore DEW. First “DEW” is not as poetic as I was hoping, like whiskey as the “dew” of an Irish morning or something, rather it is named after it’s founder, Daniel E. Williams (D.E.W.) and was initially made in the town of Tullamore, went to Middleton for over 50 years, and made it back to Tullamore in 2014 where it is made along the man-made canal that was used to “ship” whiskey to Dublin, and ultimately the rest of the world.

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