Irish whiskey is thought to be the original whiskey, but its development was nearly contemporaneous with that of similar spirits in Germany and Holland. By the 1500s production had expanded from the monasteries to the public at large. By the 1700s the industry had greatly expanded, with some distillers avoiding taxation, while others "went legitimate" and tried to achieve economies of scale. These illicit Irish whiskies are sometimes still produced, and are called poitin (pronounced “po-teen”), whose production was a matter of economic and political freedom.
The first type of Irish whiskey would have been like Scotch, with pot-stilled barley, oats [heavy, oily whisky], & rye [spicy whisky] malted and dried with peat in the mashbill. The second type of effort used enormous [pot] stills, yielding a lighter, more neutral spirit. Whiskey was distilled three times, and here the mashbill was filled with only about 30% malted barley. The rest was un-malted barley, wheat, corn, and oats. There was almost no peat – coal fires were used to malt the barley.
All went well until 1916, when the Irish declared their independence and left England in the Easter Rebellion, and subsequently establishing the Irish Free State in the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1922. Since England is not a forgiving country, distribution of Irish whiskey went to hell in a hand basket. This calamity was compounded by the Prohibition era in the U.S.
In the 1930s and 1940s, continuous distillation was introduced in an effort to cut costs. The business still continued to slide, however, and the remaining distilleries consolidated: Jameson, Power's and Cork merged in 1966 to form Irish Distillers Ltd (IDL), which all operate from one distillery in Midleton in County Cork. This distillery produces Jameson and Power’s as well as many other types of spirit.
Bushmills joined IDL in 1973, but this group later became part of Pernod-Ricard, who eventually sold Bushmill's to Diageo. In 1989 an independent (Cooley) started up, bringing the number of Irish whisky distilleries to three. The spirit has experienced something of a renaissance since the 1990s, however, is now gaining popularity again.
There are several differences that distinguish an Irish whiskey: there is little peat, the blends are done before maturation, and all are matured in the American oak; oats and rye are no longer used. Whiskies that say "pure pot still" are not all malt but are done completely in a pot still.
The distillery at Midleton produces some whiskies that are pot stilled three times, and others that are column-stilled three times. Bushmills uses malted barley, but all of the whiskies are column stilled, and Cooley blends pot stilled malted barley and column stilled wheat and corn.
The minimum aging for Irish whiskey is three years, and this is normally accomplished in ex-Bourbon casks, although some Sherry casks are used as well.
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