Saturday, December 8, 2012
The rise and fall of Irish whiskey: How one quality drink is making a resurgence
The Irish can make whiskey, the Scottish can sell it, and the Americans can drink it.
In the 19th Century, Irish whiskey commanded the highest position in the whiskey market; it was considered by many to be the best and it fetched the highest prices. By the middle of the 20th Century, it was all but non-existent outside of its home country. Scotch, Canadian, and bourbon all beat it in sales. Even today, Jameson, the best selling Irish whiskey, ranks 82nd among brands in total worldwide whiskey sales. This unprecedented drop in market share was not the result of poor quality or a sudden change in the tastes of drinkers. In the early part of the 20th Century, Irish whiskey, like bourbon, was simply caught up in a series of unfortunate circumstances beyond any distiller’s control. However, bourbon came back while Irish has only just begun to rebound. From regional prejudices and the emergence of blended whiskies as the most popular form of the drink through war, independence, and a colossal struggle to compete in a changing world, Irish whiskey has come a long way to reach your local bar – and your local bar is better for it.
Ireland in the late 19th Century was British in ownership and struggling to show the world its own unique Irish identity. The political cause that a majority of the people hoped would accomplish a freer, more independent Ireland was home rule – the idea that Ireland could rule itself while remaining loyal to the British Crown. The champion of that cause was Charles Stewart Parnell, and the Irish people pinned many of their hopes on him. The Irish whiskey industry, at this time, was largely dominated by four distillers in Dublin, including Jameson. There were five distilleries in Cork and one, Bushmills, located in what would become Northern Ireland. The Dublin distillers were long established, very traditional, and did not always have a tremendous amount of respect for distillers outside of Dublin, causing some regional tension within the industry. With the home rule movement, regional tensions began to get serious, as it was a largely Catholic movement with Protestants in the North generally opposing it and preferring to remain under British control; Irish whiskey drinkers began to pay attention to where their favorite drink was made. When a sex scandal ruined Parnell’s career and was followed shortly thereafter by his early death, the cause of home rule all but died with him. The majority of the people of Ireland were forced to look elsewhere and find other means to achieve their aims.
Initially, the Irish Revolution began as a cultural one. Writers, led chiefly by W.B. Yeats, began promoting a uniquely Irish literature and a distinctive Irish theater, while musicians began focusing on Irish music. In both cases, there was little concern for acceptance outside of Ireland; to be culturally separate from the rest of Britain was a large part of the point. Even schools began teaching the Irish language in direct competition with English. This was a cultural renaissance that swept through the entire nation at the turn of the 20th Century. For the most part, the Dublin distillers were happy to go along with this Celtic revival, if they were not actively encouraging and participating in it. After all, what could be more Irish than whiskey? It was partially that attitude that caused Irish distillers to initially oppose the practice of blending (or, as many saw it, the practice of making whiskey more palatable for English tastes) and begin the handover of market share to savvy Scotsmen. According to Malachy Magee, blending is the sole cause of the decline of Irish whiskey in the marketplace. But while blending was an important cause, it was neither the sole nor even the most important cause. The blame for Irish whiskey’s decline must be placed on the shoulders of war.
By 1910, things were seriously heating up in Ireland. Independence minded patriots, labor unions, and even a few Marxists, had picked up the momentum of the Irish cultural revolution. Sinn Fein was rapidly emerging as a serious political force and the Irish Republican Brotherhood had re-emerged, soon to demonstrate its renewed purpose by replacing the word “brotherhood” with “army,” giving birth to the IRA. None of this caused the Protestants to back down, quite the opposite in fact. Irish Protestants, or Orangemen, created the Ulster Volunteer Force. In 1913, the UVF received an illegal shipment of German made, English bought weapons and the prospect of a peaceful resolution to Ireland’s problems got bleaker and bleaker. However, just as things seemed to be getting desperate in Ireland, Great Britain, inexplicably, found that a Serbian assassin and an Austrian archduke created far bigger problems than the Irish. With the bulk of the King’s forces otherwise engaged, the IRA chose its moment to begin the fight for independence on Easter Monday 1916. Irish Republican fighters occupied the Dublin General Post Office and started a war. The Irish were quickly defeated and the bulk of the survivors were quickly hanged. What followed was a guerilla war that lasted until 1921, when the two sides, mostly, agreed to Irish independence, provided the six counties of Ulster and Northern Ireland remained British.
What is important to understand about the war for Irish independence as it affected whiskey is that independence meant an end to all existing political and financial ties with Great Britain. For the Irish, the prospect of loss was unthinkable, but the reality of victory proved difficult too as so much of Ireland’s economy depended on England. Overnight, Irish exports, including whiskey, lost all access to British and Empire markets. With Prohibition in full force in the United States, Irish whiskey simply had no place to go. While Scottish distillers increased shipments to Canada, where the excess product could be smuggled into the USA, Irish distillers were hard pressed to sell their whiskey in America. Furthermore, in the 1930s, Ireland and Britain got into a trade war over a dispute about payments that the Irish Free State was expected to make to Northern Ireland. Making a fine product is a wonderful thing, but selling that product is far better still and that is the thing that Irish distillers lost the ability to do in 1921. As a result, Irish whiskey disappeared from bars and liquor stores around the world.
For decades, the situation for Irish whiskey failed to improve. When Prohibition ended, Scotch distillers intentionally kept supply low in Britain and focused on importing to the United States, which further increased its popularity there. Irish distillers were less successful in the world’s largest market. As the saying goes, “The Irish can make whiskey, the Scottish can sell it, and the Americans can drink it.” The American market for whiskey has always been enormous, but Irish distillers have never managed to gain an appropriate share of it. Even the Second World War, which forced American distillers to switch to the production of industrial alcohol didn’t give the whiskey of officially neutral Ireland the boost that it should have. According to Magee, the Irish Export Board conducted a study of the American beverage market in 1953 and found that over half of American whiskey drinkers didn’t even know that there was such a thing as Irish whiskey. It was not that so many Americans hadn’t heard of any particular brands, but of Irish whiskey generally that is so shocking and demonstrates the consistent failure of Irish distillers to effectively market their products.
It has taken decades of effort to acquaint American drinkers with Irish whiskey and the results of that effort have become clear in recent years. Having reluctantly accepted blended whiskey, Irish distillers fully embraced it. Blended Irish whiskey dominated the Irish sector of the market for most of the 20th Century, causing a decline in the availability of single malt whiskey, including the uniquely Irish “pure pot still whiskey.” However, Irish single malt and pure pot still whiskeys have been rapidly increasing in popularity recently. All Irish single malt whiskey is made in pot stills, but most of it is made from malted barley. Pure pot still whiskey is Irish whiskey that is made from both malted and unmalted barley. The unmalted grain creates a generally spicier flavor profile than exists in whiskeys made only from malted barley. There are few examples of pure pot still whiskey remaining today, though the emergence and popularity of Redbreast give hope that the style is making a comeback.
Perhaps no other beverage has experienced such a precipitous decline in popularity without a corresponding decline in quality as Irish whiskey has. Fortunately, it has mounted a pretty successful return to the marketplace. There is still a long way to go, as Irish continues to be dwarfed by the popularity of Scotch in bars, liquor stores, and the hearts and minds of drinkers across the globe. Though, at the very least, Irish whiskey is readily available today, and half of American whiskey drinkers are no longer unaware of its existence. Irish whiskey is a case study in the vulnerability of a product, even of a cultural staple, to the political and economic forces around it – a case study that should be well considered by Ireland’s ancient cousins across the channel as Scotland makes its own bid for independence from Great Britain. It is also proof that great whiskey doesn’t die, it just disappears for a while. Irish whiskey should be experienced and enjoyed by whiskey lovers everywhere. It would be a tragedy if fashion and marketing – as opposed to a genuine and educated preference – compelled anyone to pass on Irish whiskey, preferring other types every time. Irish whiskey has spent nearly a hundred years clawing its’ way back into the barroom; it deserves to be tried.
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