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Friday 29 September 2023 Dublin: 11°C
# rise and fall
A century ago Irish whiskey dominated the world - so what happened?
Exports aren’t expected to hit the peaks of over 100 years ago again until 2020.

UNTIL THE EARLY 1900s, Irish whiskey led the world’s spirits trade before a perfect storm of politics, prohibition and technology decimated the country’s producers.

Now, after over a century of decline, the industry will soon hit a new peak in exports as it rides a resurgence in demand from a new crop of distillers.

In an interview with yesterday to mark the Irish Whiskey Association’s new “vision” for the sector, group chairman Bernard Walsh through the 1800s and early 1900s the industry “had it all”.

“But it’s fair to say that we blew it back then. For me, the biggest single factor was technology.”

Production peaked at an estimated 12 million cases from 88 licensed distilleries before the turn of the last century, before the industry went into near-terminal decline.

That was partially down to the introduction of prohibition in the US, where Irish whiskey was the top imported spirit, combined with the trade-killing effects of the War of Independence and Civil War.

But Walsh said it was Irish whiskey producers’ reluctance to capitalise on the invention of the column still that handed Scottish whisky makers an overwhelming advantage.

672px-Coffey_Still HighKing A Coffey Still at Kilbeggan Distillery in Co Westmeath HighKing

An Irishman, Aeneas Coffey, patented the device, which made it much easier to produce palatable spirits, however it was Scottish distillers producing whisky blends who embraced it wholeheartedly.

It put daylight between ourselves and the Scots,” Walsh said.

A slow resurgence

Only two distillers remained by the mid 1980s, however since then whiskey has gone through a slow but steady resurgence.

The first new, independent producer in Cooley Distillery opened in 1987 and French distiller Pernod Ricard put its weight behind Jameson after buying out Irish Distillers in 1988.

Last year there were eight working distilleries in the country with several more opened or in construction since.

Yesterday the association announced it was targeting a near-quadrupling of exports from 6.5 million to 24 million cases per year by 2030. The previous high-water mark of 12 million cases would be overhauled by 2020.

3204022061_0bdd75e63a_b Pleasence Pleasence

‘A massive commitment’

Walsh said the whiskey industry had been neglected for other key exports like beef and dairy, and there remained major obstacles for new distillers – from funding their operations to finding the necessary expertise.

“Getting involved in the Irish whiskey business is a massive commitment, there is no quick buck to be made – this is a long-term business,” he said.

There is a huge wait time, you make it today you still have to wait three years before you can call it whiskey and in most cases, most of our whiskeys are six, seven, eight, nine years old before we get to drink them anyone. We need the government to be innovative in its incentives to help the small, new entrants.”

In this extended interview, Walsh talks about the rise and fall of the Irish whiskey industry – and what still stands in the way of its potential for rapid growth:

Video / YouTube

READ: ‘They are looking for soft targets’: New whiskey maker hit with €500,000 Irish Water bill >

READ: Two years after being sold to Coke, has this company kept its innocence? >

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