Ireland’s Distilling Landscape of 1916

Ireland has a rich history that is intertwined with the distilling industry. Distilleries were huge sources of employment for everything from coopers to doctors. Distilling families in Ireland restored Christchurch Cathedral and even commissioned the Daniel O’Connell monument. As we are currently celebrating the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising, I sat down with Fionnán O’Connor, author of the most definitive history of pot still whiskey A Glass Apart, to discuss what the Irish distilling landscape would have looked like a hundred years ago.

The Distilleries in Ireland

The distilling scene in Ireland was a drastically different place in 1916 than it is today. The country was littered with distilleries of varying sizes. There were three large distilling cities, Dublin, Cork and Belfast. Outside of the big cities there were numerous other distilleries in all four corners of the country. By the turn of the twentieth century there were at least 27 legal large distilleries in Ireland and umpteen small illegal operations.

Many people will tell you that one of the reasons that the Irish whiskey industry declined was due to the complete refusal to accept the column still, but this isn’t entirely true. In-fact, by the turn of the twentieth century there was more column whiskey being produced in Ireland than pot still. Although column stills were very much a northern affair. Belfast was predominantly a column still city and around the country in other distilleries you would be able to find a mix of pot stills and column stills sharing the same roof. So column still whiskey most certainly wasn’t completely rejected by the Irish.
Although in Dublin, which was dominated by ‘The Big Four’ distilleries pot still would have most certainly been the drink of choice. ‘The Big Four’ distilleries in Dublin consisted of: John Jameson’s Bow Street, John Power’s John’s Lane, William Jameson’s Marrowbone Lane and George Roe’s Thomas Street (both W. Jameson and G. Roe were a part of the Dublin Distilleries Company but were still competing against each other).

What might have earned Ireland this reputation of not accepting the column still could have been due to these Big Four. They believed that they had a tremendously impressive drink and were willing to fight for its own definition. These distilling families believed that their product was the best in the world and that anything produced from a column still was not worthy to be called whiskey. In fact, they believed this so much that these families invested large amounts of money and political influence into trying to change laws to restrict the use of the term ‘whisky/whiskey’ for spirits that had been distilled in a copper pot still. This was a very public feud with the column still producers which culminated in a Royal Commission in 1909. This commission was known as the “What is Whisky” case; it was here that the pot still distillers eventually lost their case and column still distillers was allowed to call their distillate ‘whisky/whiskey’.

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A painting of George Roe’s distillery from perspective of Watling Street. Painted 1933 by Harry Kernoff.


Regulation of the Spirit

There were many different styles of whiskey being produced in Ireland around the time of the Easter Rising. Today the whiskey industry is becoming very regulated in regards to what can be called whiskey legally. But in 1916 one of the few pieces of regulation that would govern the distillates that could become ‘whiskey/whisky’ had arrived in the form of the Inferior Spirits Act of 1915. This is a very famous piece of regulation that anybody familiar with the whiskey/whisky industry in Ireland or Scotland today would more likely call tradition. The Inferior Spirits Act was a law that stated that all distillate must be aged a minimum of three years to be legally called whiskey/whisky. This was essentially put in place to eradicate the extremely young ‘gut rot’ whiskey that was being sold to unsuspecting consumers in Ireland and abroad.

Apart from this act in 1915 there was very little regulation governing what could become legally known as whiskey. Thus styles varied hugely across the country. For example, Coleraine was an all malt distillery. Cork Distilleries Company flirted with column stills but the county itself was predominantly all pot still. Dublin was a pot still city and Belfast was predominantly a column still city. Interestingly, triple distillation would not have been synonymous with Irish whiskey like it is today. Triple distillation was common place in Dublin but this was not a country wide practice. The likes of the Monasterevin and Comber distilleries produced extremely thick and chewy double distilled pot still whiskey, and, if you want to get technical about it column still distillation was and still is far more than three times distilled.

Independent Bottlers

Nowadays the term independent bottlers can evoke scoffs from whiskey lovers who, almost in a hipster fashion, won’t drink anything unless it’s bottled by those who made it. Well in 1916 Ireland independent bottlers were the only source of your whiskey. Distilleries operated much more like factories. The distillers made the whiskey and essentially rolled it out the door to the awaiting publicans, bonders, grocers and wine merchants. This also meant that those who had better relationships with the distilleries would be able to purchase the better cut of the whiskey and ultimately have a superior product.

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A bottle of DWD pot still whiskey. Bonded in 1916 for independent bottlers McGlade’s after 50 years of maturing.

The people who would have received the  best cuts of the whiskey were the wine merchants. This is because the distilleries relied on these merchants for the sherry stained barrels that they used to age their spirit in.
These old wine shops like Gilbey’s (the creators of Redbreast), Mitchell’s and Son’s (creators of the Green/Yellow Spot range) and Kinahan Son & Smyth (creators of hugely popular Kinahan’s LL whisky) were largely responsible for the prestige associated with Irish whiskey around the world. These wine shops bottled under their own name and placed these bottles on the top shelf next to the Brandy and the Cognac.

Unfortunately, all of these independent bottlers were also a big reason for the decline in Irish whiskey at the time. With so many people bottling their own Irish whiskey there were two major problems. First of all nobody knew what Irish whiskey was supposed to taste like. It would take many years for the Irish industry to realise that consistent brands were a key to survival. Secondly, with so much uncertainty about where the spirit was coming from it was very easy for bootleggers to sell all sorts of rot gut whiskey as ‘Genuine Dublin pot still whiskey’ which created a big dent in the consumer confidence.

The Whiskey of 1916

If you did manage to get some genuine Dublin whiskey it was most certainly pot still, as Dublin was the pot still capital of Ireland. The Big Four would have made a very heavy viscous style of pot still whiskey. These whiskeys would have had a dense and waxy mouthfeel, with a lot of spice. Certainly the drink of choice in Dublin at the time. The Powers and Jameson expressions we know today would be an unrecognisable distant relative to what their namesakes were producing around 1916. These pot still expressions would have been a lot thicker than the pot stills we have today.

Fionnán explained to me how the old Bow Street pot stills were oily and waxy, with an almost candle wax mouthfeel to them. A completely different oily feeling than the likes of modern day Redbreast pot still. They would have also been full of spices, like citrus but more dry than the fruit. It would have been more like the lemon peel or pith than the fruit itself. This complemented the gingery snap and crackle you can still get hints of today.

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Power’s John’s Lane Distillery after Alfred Barnard’s visit in 1887.

Powers was a different beast entirely. It was a much denser spirit with apricot tones and an almost resinous edge to it. This complemented the leathery and musty edge present in the drink.

Fionnán informed me that outside of Dublin you could find some very interesting pot still whiskey also. Cassidy’s Distillery in Monesterevan and the Old Comber distilleries in County Down produced an even fatter, chewy double distilled pot still whiskey. Pot still whiskey is inherently a very oily and dense drink and when you remove the third distillation you leave in a lot more oils and fats. This would have resulted in a much heavier and more viscous drink. This double distilled pot still whiskey is certainly a part of Ireland’s distilling history that has been almost completely forgotten.

Mash bills 

A mash bill is the types of grains that are used in the brewing process prior to the distilling. This is very important to distillers both in 1916 and today, as the type of grains used affect the entire flavour profile of the whiskey produced. Pot still whiskeys today almost exclusively use malted and unmalted barley in their mash bills. This is a far cry from what the distillers of this period would have been using.

While they would have been very secretive about the ingredients they used, Fionnán showed me a piece written about Andrew Jameson (descendent of John Jameson) in which he explains to the Royal Commission of 1909 that all of his oats are Irish but the rye might be Scottish due to poor conditions for growing rye in Ireland. This interestingly tells us two things; that they used oats and rye in their mashbill and that rye was important enough to go to Scotland to get! After showing me this testament of Andrew Jameson, Fionnán then showed me an 1873 excise report that listed a Dublin distillery’s mash bill as being 14% malt, 40% raw barley, 16% oats and 30% rye.  These extra grains would have added a large amount of spices and extra flavours that would have complemented the spices already present in the unmalted barley. These whiskeys would be incredibly different beasts than the expressions today and hopefully with the current whiskey revival we may see some of these old-Dublin-style mash bills return.

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April 24th 1916

When the actual fighting broke out on Easter Monday, two Dublin Distillery Company distilleries in Dublin were occupied. George Roe and William Jameson’s distilleries were occupied as the fighting starts (there is a common misconception that Bow Street was occupied during the fighting). Since publication I have received a correspondence from the Archivist in Midleton Distillery informing me that Bow Street was, in fact, occupied during the 1916 Rising.

So when the actual fighting broke out on Easter Monday, George Roe’s, William Jameson’s and John Jameson’s distilleries were occupied. The DDC buildings (G. Roe and W. Jameson distilleries)  were strategically positioned to stop British reinforcements coming into the city from Kilmainham. The rebels used the large distillery chimneys as makeshift sniper nests. Neither of these distilleries saw much fighting at all and Roe’s distillery ended up being only one of two sites to remain in rebel hands until the end of the fighting.

Bow Street was also chosen because of its strategic position. It was on one of the main routes down to the quays and its high walls either side of Bow Street meant enemies could only approached head on and would be spotted early. Barricades were set up at May Lane beside the distillery and local residents were told remain inside their homes. Like in the other distilleries, snipers were stationed on the roof, in this case on top of the Distillery Malt House on Beresford Street, which gave the rebels a clear view of any approaching force.

When the rebel soldiers initially broke into the distillery on Easter Monday, there were no employees on duty and thankfully violence was adverted. The distillery was empty as a result of distilling operations having slowed due to restrictions being put in place on the amount of barley that could be used for distilling during World War I.

Unlike the other occupied distilleries, the shooting was intense around Bow Street. Miraculously no damage was done, not least to the stocks of whiskey, which if they had ignited would have caused untold damage to the surrounding homes. No looting of whiskey took place either. In fact, the Volunteers did not touch the whiskey in storage, mainly from a sense of purpose and integrity and there was no drunkenness. A few small bottles, nicknamed ‘hand grenades’ were however sent up the barricades, to give some comfort. The only thing that the Volunteers did seem to indulge themselves in were Andrew Jameson’s champagne and his cigars! In a very Irish way he even later wrote to them complimenting them on their good taste!

As a result of the occupation of Bow Street distillery and the heavy fighting that ensued, all distilling operations were suspended for Easter week, but workers received a full weeks wage nonetheless.

After Surrender

In the wake of the Rising the Irish whiskey industry began to show signs of fatigue. Even before the trade wars with the United Kingdom and the prohibition in the United States the industry was beginning to wane. The trick that the Scottish blenders figured out of consistency through own labelling was figured out too late by the Irish. There were so many varieties of Irish whiskey and so many bastardisations in the market that nobody knew what Irish whiskey was even supposed to taste like. Consistent brands like Johnnie Walker offered that McDonald’s promise of being the same all over the world that the Irish couldn’t. Sadly, they figured out that they needed to accept the blend and distillery bottlings all a bit too late.

 

Sláinte

*Amendments*

I would like to extend my thanks to Carol Quinn, Archivist of Midleton Distillery, for sending me the records of the occupation of Bow Street distillery in 1916.

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24 thoughts on “Ireland’s Distilling Landscape of 1916

    1. Haha thanks very much Silverback! Yeah funnily enough there are! Teeling and Hyde whiskey both have a ‘Rising’ and ‘1916’ bottling respectively. Much more in name than style though. The Teeling is single malt and the Hyde is single grain. Neither of which would have been terms at the time. But the Irish Whiskey Society are producing an amazing bottle for their members! Very dense and viscous pot still whiskey that closely resembles the pot still that was produced in Dublin at the time! Real treat and an amazing whiskey!

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  1. Go Raibh Míle Maith Agatse leis an t-alt seo!! I am an American of Irish decent and an Irish Speaker and I will be looking for your Book A GLASS APART in my local book stores here in Brooklyn, (support the little guy as much as possible before buying on line)

    I am very interested in learning more about the decline of the Irish Whiskey industry after independence and why the government did not do more to open up independent channels of distribution. It seems that; as in Scotland, Whiskey was a big part of the economy and it baffles me that the government did very little to create an independent distribution system after separation from the British network.

    I am interested in reading more.

    Slán go fóill

    Mike

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    1. Hi Michael,
      Thank you for your kind comments. I would just like to clarify that the book was written by Fionnan not myself but it is a must read if you have an interest in the national spirit of Ireland! You can purchase it on Amazon if you fail to find it in your local store!

      After the war of independence there were several issues that led to the demise of the Irish Whiskey Industry. A lot of distilleries in Ireland struggled during the barley rationing during the first world war and the accompanying restriction on the transport ships that would have exported their products for them. In the middle of The War of Independence, prohibition started in the United States, which lasted until 1933. This was one of the biggest markets for Irish whiskey which was cut off overnight. Furthermore, in 1932 the Free State government instigated a trade war with the UK which cut off the greatest trading partner for the Irish economy at the time. This lasted until 1938. So essentially the Irish industry which was already attempting to re-establish itself in the consistent own bottling arena with the likes of Johnnie Walker had a constant hand tied behind their back from between 1920 until 1938. It appears that only about 7 big (legal) distilleries managed to survive both of these markets being closed off. All the while this was happening the Free State government was regarding the distilling class with a large amount of suspicion and discontent due to the fact that these families were of a Victorian era type ‘Gentlemanly’ class. They were a reminder to the Free State government of Victorian land owning class. This didn’t help the distillers’ causes. There was still resentment from the Irish distillers (at least the big four) towards the column still whiskey. Sean Lemass is quoted in the Dail saying that they have been telling the world their product is the best and it is but world tastes have changed for the smooth, light blend. Then there is talk about nationalising the distilleries because the best interest of the state is to create blends and the interests of the distillers are not aligned to that. Obviously that does not happen but the Second World War comes around. Once again boats cannot bring whiskey to the US and the US troops stationed in the UK get a taste for Scotch and an entire new generation of US citizens get the taste for whiskey and unfortunately for the Irish it wasn’t their whiskey. Irish whiskey sadly goes into a big decline until there are only 4 distilleries left: Jameson, Powers, CDC and Bushmills. Jameson, Powers and CDC amalgamate to form Irish Distillers Group in 1966. The group later renamed Irish Distillers Limited and in 1972 Bushmills, the only other remaining distillery in Ireland joined the group. This was a tonne of information but if you have any further questions or comments please feel free to shout

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  2. “Nowadays the term independent bottlers can evoke scoffs from whiskey lovers who, almost in a hipster fashion, won’t drink anything unless it’s bottled by those who made it.”

    What whisky drinkers are you talking to? IBs are where today’s whisky lovers get the most interesting and typically best-value bottles. In fact, I’d say the more “hipstery” a whisky lover is, the more likely he is to buy independent bottlings.

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    1. Perhaps in Scotland yes Cadenhead’s and Gordon & McPhail are amazing but I think you’ll find in Ireland most IB whiskey don’t get that amazing stock. And they hasn’t even been matured it themselves or finished the whiskey at all to make it their own (there are exceptions of course). The amount of straight from the rack re-bottled Cooley has the market covered in multitudes of the exact same spirit in different bottles. But that’s just my opinion. And the great thing is we all have an opinion. But if you do take a look at what’s coming out of Ireland at the moment you might spot a tonne of the exact same ‘bourbon barrel’ malts

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      1. Interesting topic! I think the IB’s outside of Ireland have done some great (or least interesting) work with Irish whiskey. Right now I’ve got Irish from these IB’s on my shelf: The Exclusive Malts, Blackadder, AD Rattray, Murray McDavid. (No Cadenhead, unfortunately.) One issue with so many of the sourced Irish whiskeys right now is that they seem to be primarily placeholders until a new distillery can release their own. I have liked some of them, though: Echlinville’s second release, for example. And the US seems to be getting bombarded with Irish that is just being given a different label.

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      2. OK, but the quality or diversity of current Irish IBs is a very different idea from the supposed scoffing attitude that whiskey lovers have toward IBs. I don’t scoff at them. Pat Ridgely doesn’t scoff at them.

        Who scoffs at them? Who refuses to drink anything unless it’s bottled by those who made it?

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      3. Perhaps I wasnt clear. Its because of this in Ireland we’re seeing this. As I’ve said I’ve no personal qualms with IBs especially all the great Scottish ones Pat mentioned above nor is it somehow abashing IBs. What Im talking about is the quality and lack of diversity thats turning people off. Not the fact that theyre IBs. So yes scoffing does happen, for when someone is told that a cooley malt that was unfinished and is just bought off the warehouse shelf while being 15e more expensive theyre hardly going to jump for joy. With so much diversity of brands but lack of diversity of source it can lead to a lot of very similar products flooding the market which doesnt appeal to some consumers. As youve mentioned above this does to you and thats fine. My comment was only that some people don’t wish to pay more for the exact same malt

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  3. Great read and lots of illuminating comments. A someone who is an independent bottler of Scotch I concur with your thoughts that many scoff at IB’s and yet much of what we do is to offer something different and if single cask releases then often whiskies that are as good or better than the distilleries own.

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    1. Hi Stuart, thanks for your comments, glad you’ve enjoyed. This comment has really taken on legs of its own. It was not a comment abashing IBs. The example set by the likes of yourselves in Scotland or the Celtic Whiskey Shop in Ireland or the Irish Whiskey Society is that you can breathe great new innovation and intriguing bottlings extremely different to the styles produced by the distilleries themselves. This was strictly in relation to the Irish industry and the flooding of the market in the exact same malt in different bottles, which has made some people scoff. I would like to point out that this was not written as a personal piece but as a mere observation of some consumers’ behaviours

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  4. Actually, Matt, I’m with you on the flooding issue, at least in America. I’m seeing so many sourced knock-offs with Irish-sounding names here that don’t even hint at their true source (often Cooley, but not always). The ones I’ve tried are typically just ok, and they may be money-makers, but I fear the damage they will cause to the overall brand of Irish whiskey in general.

    Thanks for tolerating the side-topic! I really enjoyed your original post on the 1916 landscape, and look forward to your ongoing work and discussions.

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    1. Oh absolutely there are so many “US only” brands that are rebottled from Ireland. And usually once you can identify the wheat from the chaff you’ll be fine but what grinds my gears with those are the ones that claim immense historical provenance by choosing a name that was established in the 1800’s but this company actually started in 2013 😛

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  5. The sourced Irish stuff seems to be much more similar to what are usually called NDPs (non-distillery producers) in America, most of which are bottling the same stuff from the big plant in Indiana, much like how most sourced branded bottles from Ireland seem to be bottling the same stuff from Cooley. These, to me at least, have a pretty different character from the true IBs. I think most serious whisky drinkers rightfully look down on this milquetoast branded stuff but embrace quality “true IB” stuff.

    Bonus point: I’ve heard that some of the best Irish is to be found in late-1980s peated Bushmills. That is hardly relevant, except that this has opened into a wider discussion of Irish IBs, which you don’t see too often so it’s nice to toss out a highlight!

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    1. Ah I see! Ive never heard of NDPs but that is much closer to what I was talking about! Perhaps that would have avoided much confusion thank you for that! There’s some great lightly peated, crystal malt Bushmills doing the rounds at the moment in some of the NDPs and its pretty awesome alright but Im just waiting for someone to knock our socks off with new pot still recipes including peat or other grains

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  6. Great article. I especially liked the reference to double distilled pot still, which three. renowned distillers, one working at Middleton, Dingle and Teeling respectively, told me was an impossibility! Thankfully a new distillery in Northern Ireland has started aging some of this stuff again. Cooley did do some experiments with rye, before their purchase so hopefully we will see more experiments with mash bills containing larger amounts of in malted barley, rye, oats and others in the near future. A two and a quarter or two and a half times distilled regime as done at some Scottish distilleries might also prove interesting.

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