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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
April 24th 1916
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.
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.
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.