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Whisky Hist'ry: The Origin of Irish Whiskey | Old and Rare Whisky

Whisky Hist'ry: The Origin of Irish Whiskey

The origin story of Irish whiskey is arguably somewhat of an unknown as it has been discussed and debated time and time again. One of the stories is that Saint Patrick himself was the one the bestow the fine liquor upon Ireland, however another (and quite frankly more realistic) story is that it was the Christian monks who brought the knowledge of distillation back with them from travelling the Mediterranean at the beginning of the 11th century. It is also around this time when Henry II invaded Ireland, and it has been said that he spoke of ‘aqua vitae’ which was Latin for water of life which when translated into Gaelic was ‘uisce beatha’ which would in turn become whiskey. When it comes to the first written evidence of the word ‘whisky’ itself however, this didn’t exist until the 1400s when it appeared in the Irish Annals of Clonmacnoise.  

If we fast forward a couple of centuries to 1608, this is when we see the first Irish distillery of Bushmills be given a license by King James as prior to this point the production of whiskey was more of a hobby activity that remained untaxed. This also meant that Bushmills held the title of the oldest distillery in the world, something that has been challenged due to the fact that they didn’t receive their license to trade until 1784 while the Kilbeggan distillery received theirs in 1757. With the introduction of licenses this can be seen as a pretty concrete milestone in what would become the commercial whiskey industry.  

Irish whiskey quickly became the highest selling spirit not just in Ireland but across the world, and with demand growing higher and higher, lower quality whiskey started to saturate the market. So much so that 1759 a law was passed that limited Irish whiskey to only include malt, grain, potato, or sugar in its production. By 1779 there were 1152 licensed distilleries and who knows how many unlicensed, making Ireland the capital of the whiskey world. Dublin specifically found itself deeply immersed in whiskey culture with many of the biggest players over the years setting up shop there: this includes Powers, Teeling, Jameson*, and Tullamore Dew. Powers distillery which can be dated back to 1791 made an unprecedented decision and became the first to start bottling their whiskey (at least in Ireland) and would also be the one to create the ‘airline bottle’ also known as the miniature which would soon be dubbed the baby Power.  

Since the birth of Irish whiskey, it really has been through the wringer. From taxation, to the American prohibition, to Ireland gaining its independence and losing a huge chunk of their market, and, well quite literally through the wars. It is incredible to think of how resilient this industry truly is, and has definitely earned its spot as one of the world's top spirits. 

*Link to Jameson blog post. 

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