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Thread: How the Irish Whiskey Industry was destroyed by Independence

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    Default How the Irish Whiskey Industry was destroyed by Independence

    In the Nineteenth century, Irish whiskey was HUGE business.
    As a massively superior product to Scotch (I'd say in many cases it still is), the demand from the Empire for specifically Irish whiskey was such that naughty Scots in cahoots with Belfast based blenders would mix some tasty Irish pot still whiskey into some inert Scotch grain whiskey and rebrand it as Irish.
    Distilleries like Dunvilles in Belfast, George Roe in Dublin and Tullamore, as well as current distillers like Jameson and Bushmills, and many others lost in history, exported millions upon millions of litres of a world class product all over the globe.
    So what went wrong?
    Partition and independence for starters. After partition, the Northern distillers were vulnerable to takeovers from larger Scottish rivals. Of course, they bought these up to close them down, securing jobs in Scotland by removing superior rival products from the market.
    Partition also largely closed off the lucrative British market. Scotch distillers marketed Irish whiskey as 'foreign'. Irish whiskey attracted higher taxes. And the war hurt production and exports obviously, while Scotch copperfastened its hold on British drinkers.
    In the Republic, successive governments seemed to go out of their way to destroy a valuable and successful indigenous industry. They hiked the requirements for whiskey to five years aged in wood, to distinguish it from Scotch. This in turn hiked the cost of production and the purchase cost. That led to a downturn in Irish sales.
    In the late Sixties and early Seventies, when the majority of distillers had gone to the wall, the remaining ones were forced to merge, forming Irish Distillers Ltd (now owned and mismanaged by Pernod-Ricard).
    The industry itself must cop some blame. They allowed the Scotch industry to market their indigenous tradition of single malt whiskey globally as some sort of 'premium' product, and that perception pertains to this day, even though pure potstill whiskey, the Irish traditional dram, was historically considered superior.
    But according to government papers from the early Seventies in the National Archive which I've read, even in the early Seventies, Irish distillers were writing to the government pleading with them NOT to cut tax on Scotch so that it was CHEAPER than Irish whiskey, which was a ridiculous tax deal struck for some unknown reason with the British by the Lemass government.
    The government's response? They wrote to Irish embassies abroad to 'advise' them to use Irish whiskey at receptions! Amazingly, half the embassies wrote back to say that they didn't have any Irish whiskey, or couldn't get it!
    Since then, we have seen successive governments lump tax onto whiskey to the point where buying Irish whiskey in the country where it is made is now probably one of the stupidest financial decisions you could make. It is cheaper in almost every other country in Europe.
    There have been some green shoots in recent times. Diamond mining maverick John Teeling opened Cooley distillery and their almost bewilderingly wide range of whiskeys are proving popular worldwide.
    And there is the possibility of a fourth distillery (Jameson, Powers, Paddys and Redbreast all emanate from Midleton these days) in the offing in Dingle.
    There is even now a fledgling Irish Whiskey Society - Welcome to the Irish Whiskey Society - which has just been founded for fans of Irish whiskey, which meets in Dublin once a month to taste and debate Irish whiskeys.
    I'd really encourage anyone with any interest in Irish whiskey whatsoever to join.
    Yet the government still will not provide any incentive whatsoever to the indigenous industry, either by cutting tax on local spirits, or raising them on foreign ones.
    Ireland is where whiskey was invented, and in my opinion and that of most of the Nineteenth Century, where it was perfected.
    All credit to the Scots for turning a gutrot production into a 6 billion a year industry. But to do that, they had to destroy the Irish whiskey industry first. And for them to be successful in that, they needed the unique circumstances that Independence and Partition created.
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    Politics.ie Member evercloserunion's Avatar
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    Very interesting. Irish whiskey is a very nice drink, the nicest whiskeys I've had were Irish. You'd think we would be prouder of it.
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    Its criminal that it is hard to find Irish whiskey abroad - all the shelves are full of Scotch!

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    I don't have the facts to hand but recall reading/hearing some time back that the big shift in world domination of the whiskey trade came from the switch in distillation technology from pot stills to column stills by the Scotch distillers at the turn of the 20th century. It was a more scaleable technology and allowed them to produce whiskey much cheaper. The Irish distillers stuck with their craft and their pot still. There may have been ********************ups in government policy since then but I think this is a classic case of a disruptive technology causing a shift in the market.

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    I have a solid policy of asking for Irish whiskey wherever I am. Usually Jamesons is available, and often Bushmills.
    And I'll leave a bar or refuse to drink if all they have is Scotch.
    It's the only way to spread the word, since most of the Irish industry is run by a French firm which doesn't care about the product and the Northern industry is owned by a firm (as is Guinness also) which is much more interested in its overpriced Scotch blend products.
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    Quote Originally Posted by bm42 View Post
    I don't have the facts to hand but recall reading/hearing some time back that the big shift in world domination of the whiskey trade came from the switch in distillation technology from pot stills to column stills by the Scotch distillers at the turn of the 20th century. It was a more scaleable technology and allowed them to produce whiskey much cheaper. The Irish distillers stuck with their craft and their pot still. There may have been ********************ups in government policy since then but I think this is a classic case of a disruptive technology causing a shift in the market.
    You're half-right and I referred to that earlier. The Coffey still, invented by Irish customs man Aeneas Coffey, allowed for column stills which produced inert 'silent spirit' with little taste or attributes, but at a continual basis, allowing for greater production. It was this rather than scaleability which made the difference.
    The Scots, unable to compete with the Irish in terms of quality, adopted the quantity method instead and embraced the Coffey still. The Irish, as you rightly point out, did not.
    Hence the scenario where Scots and Belfast blenders were mixing Irish potstill whiskey into bland Scotch to give it a taste.
    But long after the Coffey still (invented in 1831), as late as the early 20th century, Irish whiskey was still vastly outselling Scotch. The decline of the Irish industry began in the post-independence period.
    So I stand by my position that independence and partition destroyed the Irish whiskey industry.
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    I read somewhere too that Prohibition and the lifting of it in the States did a lot of damage to the Irish Whiskey industry. Before that time Irish whiskey outsold Scotch, but something to do with taxes or duty increases let Scotch come to the fore in America. Not sure of the details exactly but that's what I read. There's another nice whiskey called Coolea, from Co. Louth. It's crazy though that you can buy a litre bottle of Jameson abroad for abput 15, while it would cost close to 40 here. Anyway, slainte!

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    Interesting post. Perhaps the current downtown in the economy, adjoined with major job losses- might boost the Irish whiskey industry's prospects. As somebody ready to admit not been able to handle pure, undiluted whiskey- it is still a matter of pride that we regain our old mastery, which we did after all as you say perfect.

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    A key problem was a change in Irish drinking habits in the late 19th century. Until the late 19th century the Irish were known as a whiskey-drinking race. Beer was very much in the minority. But the promotion of Irish beers from the 1870s on, at a time of major marketing, meant that by independence whiskey was already a minority drink, with the Irish drink being beer.

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    Quote Originally Posted by martino View Post
    I read somewhere too that Prohibition and the lifting of it in the States did a lot of damage to the Irish Whiskey industry. Before that time Irish whiskey outsold Scotch, but something to do with taxes or duty increases let Scotch come to the fore in America. Not sure of the details exactly but that's what I read. There's another nice whiskey called Coolea, from Co. Louth. It's crazy though that you can buy a litre bottle of Jameson abroad for abput 15, while it would cost close to 40 here. Anyway, slainte!
    Very true. The prohibition in America made many Irish distilleries unviable, since they relied on it as a market at a time when they couldn't get into the British market they had once dominated.
    By the time it was lifted, they'd gone to the wall.
    I think you're referring to Cooley distillery, owned by John Teeling, which I mentioned in the OP. They distill an amazing variety of whiskeys, from the excellent Tyrconnell (based on an old Derry whiskey), to Locke's (they also own the old Locke's distillery at Kilbeggan) and Connemara, a smokey peated whiskey that has repeatedly outscored smokey Islay scotches in international competition.
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