Irish Whiskey – Rise, Fall, Revival

Pot History Potted

The rollercoaster story of Irish whiskey in the last few centuries. Duties imposed by the Crown. Evasion, the 1779 Act and harsher duties. Illicit stills, poteen-making and the “Excise Man”. Distillery closures and near collapse in Scotland. A more sensible Act in 1823, and a revival. Then the Great Famine and the Irish Diaspora. The rise and dominance of Irish whiskey across the Empire and the New World. The French wine blight caused by phyloxera helped, of course. Aeneas Coffey, game-keeper come still-maker. The Corn Laws and their repeal. The industrial revolution, steamships, maize, silent spirit, blending, Hamburg sherry, skulduggery. The “disruptive technology” that the Irish took their eyes off but the Scottish grasped. Irish whiskey sold in barrels, finished and bottled by publicans, including some artisans – Thomas Ryan and son Jack in the Beggars Bush Haddington Road Dublin.

By the second half of the 19th century, Dublin was the whiskey powerhouse of the world, its 6 distilleries producing 10 million gallons of top class pot still whiskey every year, and demand was insatiable. The “big four” – Powers, John Jameson, William Jameson, George Roe – were the biggest players on the world stage. So many factors had contributed. The 1823 Act made duties payable more sensible, and based on sales of finished product rather than still capacity. The cull of distilleries during the first half of the century had left leaner meaner whiskey men. Yes, of course, Phylloxera and the French wine blight created opportunity, fortuitous as it was.


As Irish emigration increased, and Irish men and women fed the industrial revolution and the military and administrative machinery of the British Empire, they evangelised and converted those they met to the virtues of Irish whiskey. The world developed a taste, wanted more and more, and new technology allowed the Irish distillers to expand and oblige, without having to cut corners on purity or quality.

A Series of Events Most Unfortunate for Irish Whiskey

Then, almost out of the blue, Aeneas Coffey’s still began to make its presence felt, cheap grain spirit, or silent spirit flooded the market, the Scottish began to use it to blend with “proper” whisky, and to bottle it at source (while their Irish counterparts held fast to selling by the barrel, with the attendant problem of the subsequent opportunity to meddle) and got better at it, and in the twilight of the 19th century, Irish whiskey began to yield its supremacy. Other factors compounded things. The Irish Free State, economic war with Britain, prohibition in the USA. Then the freefall of Irish whiskey. JFK’s father tried to tip Ireland off that prohibition would end but wasn’t heard. The Scots heard and were ready. Then World War II and arms-for-whisky at Churchill’s urgings. Americans take to their scotch and it takes over. Decline to near death of the top-quality Irish pot still and single malt, Ryan’s Malt a collateral casualty. 

Revival & Resurgence

The germination, the malting of the revival in 1966 with IDL, then Cooley declaring its independence. Irish now the fastest growing of them all. The Jack Ryan Whiskey Company brings its single malts to the world. Jack would be proud, Thomas too. Barley to liquid gold, alchemy achieved.